The Other Russia

It took years, but step by step, the other Russia emerged -- the one that inspires, the one that belies the stereotypes, the one that was on full display during Saturday's protests. The one that is now impossible for the Kremlin to ignore or belittle.

It began with a trickle, as change often does.

Isolated acts of dissent began popping up that eventually seemed to point to a larger trend. Street protests began attracting more than the dozen or so usual suspects. Support for reform appeared in unlikely places, including within the regime. Whistleblowers exposed wrongdoing in high places. Tech savvy youths mastered the art of getting their message out online. Artists and musicians began to speak out forcefully.

It took years, but little by little, people stopped being afraid and stopped being passive. Step by step, the other Russia emerged -- the one that inspires, the one that belies the stereotypes, the one that was on full display for all the world to see during Saturday's massive and peaceful protests. The one that is now impossible for the Kremlin to ignore or belittle.

Cracks in Putin's authoritarian power vertical started appearing as far back as late 2008 when protests in Vladivostok over increased tariffs on imported cars attracted an unusually broad cross-section of society. The Kremlin was spooked and instructed local authorities to shut the growing demonstrations down but local police officials refused. In the end, Russia's rulers were forced to fly in riot police from the Moscow region to do the job.

More acts of defiance followed. A month later in January 2009, Judge Aleksei Bondarev unexpectedly released opposition protestor Roman Dobrokhotov, who had been arrested for holding a silent protest -- standing with his mouth taped shut and holding a blank sheet of paper -- in front of the Russian government headquarters in Moscow.  Dobrokhotov was charged -- despite the taped mouth -- with public cursing. In dismissing the charges, Bondarev cited the European Convention on Human Rights.

An activist in the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement in February 2009 exposed how the authorities were using young spies to join opposition groups and then inform on them.

Whistleblowing soon became a bit of a fad. Most famously, Aleksei Dymovsky, the original YouTube cop, posted a viral video in November 2009 alleging massive corruption in the Novorossiisk police force where he worked, including the falsification of evidence against innocent crime suspects.

Dymovsky lost his job and faced prosecution and harassment, but a trend was born. More truth-telling cops, prosecutors, and judge's aides followed suit - despite the consequences.

Soon the artistic community got into the act. When a car driven by Lukoil vice president Anatoly Barkov was involved in an accident killing two women in Moscow in March 2010, the popular rapper Noize MC posted a song and video about the incident on YouTube that quickly went viral. The rapper then followed up with another viral video and song about police brutality months later.

At a concert in Moscow's Olympic Stadium (the same place where Putin was recently booed by martial arts boxing fans) veteran rocker Yury Shevchuk lit into the authorities for corruption and impunity in a four-minute rant between songs. A video of that also went viral.

The actor Aleksei Devotchenko -- star of popular TV crime shows like "Streets Of Broken Lamps" and 'Bandit St. Petersburg" -- followed up on Shevchuk's comments posting a diary on the Internet criticizing his colleagues for cozying up to the Kremlin and making "pseudo-patriotic" propaganda films.

By the summer of 2010, dissent appeared to be reaching critical mass (I even titled a blog at the time "The August Revolution," only half in jest.)

The Blue Bucket brigades protested the widespread use of police sirens by the rich and powerful to avoid Moscow's traffic laws. A new opposition star was born when Yevgenia Chirikova, a former Moscow businesswomen and mother of two -- a classic Russian everywoman -- took up the cause of defending the Khimki forest that was slated for destruction to make room for a new Moscow-St. Petersburg highway.

When the authorities struggled to respond to raging forest fires that same summer, a startling display of Internet-powered civic activism sprung up -- exemplified by a doctor, using the online handle Dr. Liza, who organized assistance for her fellow citizens when it appeared the government was unable or unwilling to do so. (Dr. Liza captured the emerging dynamic perfectly when she dished the ruling United Russia party which had sought to co-opt her philanthropic activities for their own political purposes.)

I could go on and on, but by now you get the picture. What happened over the past week in Russia was years in the making. It took the disappointment of the Putin-Medvedev job switcheroo and the anger over the disputed December 4 election to light the spark, but the kindling was long there.

Putin famously created Russia's power vertical, the rigid top-down power structure that brought a semblance of order at the expense of the democratic process. But he also, unwittingly perhaps, created a "power horizontal" -- a highly educated, prosperous, and wired middle class that is now clamoring for its rights. This Other Russia has shown its face to the world -- and it isn't going away any time soon.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: opposition , Russian protests , middle class

Copyright (c) RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Filed under geopolitics, , russia, Global


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