After a swarm of controversy related to widespread voter fraud from the December 4th parliamentary elections in Russia, a countermovement of Russian civil society calling for fair elections has taken form. Despite some police and political backlash, this civil society movement has persisted and grown, taking to the streets in protests in what many have called the largest display of Russian civil society since the fall of the Soviet Union. However, amidst this controversy, the opinions and views of the Russians in the streets have been lost to most Western observers. As a means to fill this void, The Hidden Transcript has arranged for a short blog series entitled “Correspondence from Moscow”, where a Russian reporter will share their experience of taking part in the recent protests and tap into the sentiment on the ground.
-Reid Standish, Editor in chief
(For reasons of personal safety the author of this has asked to have their identity concealed)
On December 4th, Russia held its parliamentary elections. This may sound like an ordinary process for most of you reading this, but for Russians, these elections become something outstanding. However, to understand the reason why, one first needs to overlook the current political situation in the world’s biggest country and take a look at the past.
After the Soviet era, as Russia became independent, the hopes to have a political voice that actually mattered had reached its highest. The 1990’s brought many ups and downs to Russia, but each election remained legitimately contested. As the new millennium dawned, President Boris Yeltsin was set to step down and the whole country asked the question “Who is Mr. Putin?” Since then, Russia has got to know Vladimir quite well. His rule has brought us back to the Soviets, with the turning point coming at the United Russia congress on September, 24th, where with his sweet innocent smile, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he was passing the crown back to Putin—as if it were a done deal.
At this particular moment hundreds of thousands of Russian people realized something was way too wrong with the current government. It had finally become crystal clear for many Russians just who the ruling men actually were. Those who had kept some sympathy for Vladimir Putin now took a critical look at his reign. Putin’s resume consists of a long list of fraud, murders, governmental mistakes, and barbarian decisions connected to Putin’s name, but to put it short, every sector of the Russian economy, society, welfare system, culture is in ruins, and this mostly stems from government corruption. Everything in Russia has the appearance of being intact at first glance, but the real problems are rooted beneath the surface and no one in the government wants to take responsibility to change it.
Those who are talented, smart, and ambitious in enormous scale have left the country in recent years, but the few that stayed have finally made a decision to become visible. A lot of them followed the blogger-hero Alexey Navalnyi, who started a campaign against United Russia and dubbed it with a more appropriate name—“the party of crooks and thieves”. There was a vast amount of pressure among young people aged 18 to 35 to vote in the parliamentary elections—at least for the sake of self-dignity. However, due to deeply rooted corruption and voter fraud, the results of the election were fabricated. The real figures in Moscow should be no more than 30% for United Russia, but the “magician”, Vladimir Churov (as President Medvedev has referred to him), the head of the election committee, announced it at 49%.
However, the voting violations from the December 4th election remain too numerous to list. As YouTube and other new media outlets became filled with evidence documenting voter fraud, many ordinary Russians, myself included, felt the anger set in as the first results were announced. The following morning, Facebook was filled with activity about organizing against the false elections. Later that day I arrived at the boulevard that was declared as the meeting place and I was shocked. I have never seen such a crowd gathered on political issue. It would be hard to describe this experience as any other than beautiful. There was approximately 10 000 people—young, smart, polite—out on the streets, letting their voice be heard. That was the moment of unity and faith that together could make Russia a place to live for everyone. There was nothing threatening in the crowd or its leaders. However, almost 300 protesters were arrested, among those were Alexey Navalnyi and Ilya Yashin, two prominent Kremlin critics and activists. They were accused of disobedience to the police and were sentenced to jail for 15 days.
The next day there was supposed to be another rally, but it was sabotaged by the youth department of United Russia, along with the police. Almost 600 people were arrested, with journalists and politicians among them. Many were beaten up for no reason and the main TV networks ignored the events. These actions caused a wave of rage amongst the protesters, but at the same time, created confidence that the government was unsure of the situation and was scared.
The next day, I was sent an invitation on Facebook calling for countrywide protests against the fraudulent elections. I had no hesitation as I clicked the “join” button. In the days leading up the planned rally, I was filled with anticipation and anxiety. All I could do was read articles about the elections, political meetings, and arrests. In two days, more than 25 000 people registered for the meeting in Moscow. Meanwhile, in contrast with the outstanding activity on the net, Russian TV kept silent. Everyone was worried about possible provocations and bloodshed on the streets. In the minds of many, this would be the test for the authorities and for the new generation of Russian citizens. In the lead up to the December 10th rally, there was news about army units being brought to Moscow. The Interior Ministry confirmed that 50,000 extra police and 11,500 Interior Ministry troops would be brought in to the Russian capital.
After the initial protests against the December 4th voter fraud came the much anticipated rally on December 10th. Nasty weather didn’t prevent the determination to go, though the nervousness could be felt. It was 1:45 pm when I approached Bolotnaya square and I could feel my heart racing. This was quite a symbolic location to be protesting authoritarian politics, keeping in mind that right across the street was the site of Stalin’s infamous mass slaughter of the Soviet intelligentsia. Somewhat juxtaposed, people were smiling, though alert, due to large police presence along the Moskva River. Many protesters were holding self-made posters with funny slogans, women were carrying white flowers, and as people were gathering Queen’s “I want to break free” could be heard in the air. The speaker’s list proved the fact that the protest wasn’t organized by one particular party, but tried to unite everyone who is fed up. There were many charismatic and eloquent speeches made and the atmosphere was infectious. At one point, when it was understood that the rally had been a success in terms of turnout, there was a rumor that President Medvedev had decided to show up and speak. However, it never materialized and later Mr. President posted on his twitter that he didn’t agree with the slogans and aims of the rally.
It was a surprise to many that everything went smooth and was peaceful, with police smiling to people and receiving flowers from the protesters. Many of those who were at the rally proclaimed on social media that they were proud of the people of Russia who proved we were ready to act civilized and legally–probably, the first precedent in Russian history. This by itself is already a victory. Now everyone is expecting the government to keep their promise to review the elections results, and to punish the cheaters. What actually happens next is anyone’s guess, but those who took to the streets proved that a united Russia is possible, and with that comes the power to be a free and dignified people.
photos courtesy of Anton B (http://antonb-ru.livejournal.com/1469456.html#cutid1)