Protesters, including blogger Alexei Navalny (center), form a human chain in Moscow. Photo by Margaret Warner/PBS NewsHour.
MOSCOW | Snow fell steadily all day, large fat flakes and light airy ones, but that didn’t deter the thousands of Russians who lined Moscow’s 10-mile inner “Garden Ring” road Sunday to protest Prime Minister Vladmir Putin’s bid to return to the presidency.
Many wore white ribbons, a symbol of the opposition that erupted here in December after fraud-riddled parliamentary elections. Others carried white carnations or wore white parkas — and a few brought their white dogs. People driving by honked their horns and waved white handkerchiefs out the windows.
Blogger Alexei Navalny, whose anti-corruption screeds raised his countrymen from their torpor last year, was there. So was Xenia Sobchak, daughter of one-time St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who first brought Putin into political life as his adviser and deputy mayor. Once known as the “Paris Hilton of Russia,” Xenia Sobchak — now sporting a studied down-market look with dangling red star earrings — has joined the opposition, too.
Photo of Xenia Sobchak by Margaret Warner.
Yet as we traveled from site to site — from Taganskaya Square to the Barricades subway stop to Revolution Square near the Kremlin — the signs of Putin-prosperity were inescapable. Bock after block sported clothing stores, coffee shops, restaurants, car dealerships, and not just the high end Cartier and Christian Louboutin favored by Russia’s obscenely well-connected wealthy, but a sparkling mass-market consumer emporia favored by middle-class shoppers throughout the developed world. This is the Russia that Putin — or, more precisely, the country’s oil, gas and mineral revenues — created in the 14 years since Russia’s was forced to default on its debt.
But on this Sunday, person after person told us, they want more. They want to be treated like full-fledged citizens, not as vassals. “We believe 12 years of Putin is quite enough,” said 46-year-old Muscovite Mike Tikhonyuk, standing beside the road with his wife and teenage son. “Or for any country. We want to be a normal country, where leaders can be changed. Everything in this country has become corrupted.”
Photo of Sasha Gerasimov and Katarina Voevoda by Margaret Warner.
The crowds seemed resigned to the likelihood that Putin will win the March 4 election, perhaps even the first round with more than 50 percent of the vote against a lackluster crowd of rivals. Yet they still feel their protests are important.
“This is a flash mob, trying to change things. Yes, Putin will probably win,” said 28-year-old Sasha Gerasimov, standing nearby with his girlfriend Katarina Voevoda. “So we’re not sure we’ll change things. But at least people have a belief they can make change, and that’s positive. For Russia, that’s progress.”
Photo of Tanya Guil by Margaret Warner.
Website editor Tanya Guil, 27, sported a white parka and waved a white scarf at the passing cars. “I think on March 4, Putin will probably win. We don’t have any good candidates,” she conceded. “It’s the result of Putin’s rule. We don’t like his rude manner of ruling.” If Putin is elected once more to the presidency, I asked her, how does she want him to rule next time? Guil spoke vaguely about election promises the prime minister has made, then added: “You are asking me very serious questions, to which I don’t have an answer. Right now, this is a moment of emotion. We want to say something.”
And what is that, I asked? “I hope Putin will understand he cannot just keep screwing us down into the ground for another 12 years,” she said. “We want fresh faces with fresh ideas, and we want them soon.”
It’s a message Putin ignores at his peril.