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The free city of Moscow: reflections on Russia's protest movement
Alexei Levinson - opendemocracy.net - 4.5.12 - JRL 2012-64

Alexei Levinson is a sociologist and senior researcher at the Levada Center, Moscow

File Photo of Moscow Protest
file photo
It is easy to write off the events of the last few months as a predictable prelude to bureaucratic revanchism. But the unanticipated protest movement also brought about a significant change, writes Alexei Levinson. This was the sense that Russians can now become members of an internalised free society. They are unlikely to give up this feeling any time soon.

Moscow has witnessed an unprecedented number of protest rallies in recent months. The trend began on 4/5 December, when several thousand protesters responded to reports of vote rigging in the Duma parliamentary elections, and were met with a brutal response from the police. Five days later came a sanctioned rally on Bolotnaya Square, attended by tens of thousands of Moscow. This rally passed peacefully and without any trouble or arrests. Then, two weeks later, on 24 December, nearly twice as many people participated in a march in Sakharov Boulevard. This was followed by two events on the Garden Ring Road [Sadovoye koltso] that skirts the centre of Moscow. The first saw protesters driving slowly around the Ring, cheered on by people walking on the pavements; the second saw a pedestrian 'ring' cheered on by the cars passing by. There were other protest rallies, including some held on extremely cold February days. Others still were organised by the authorities themselves. Although these were no less well attended, it was clear participation was largely coordinated from above.

A break from history?

If we are to think about the rallies as revolution, they were certainly a failure. As an uprising, too, they were a disappointment. The December rallies adopted a series of radical resolutions including one that demanded the results of the Duma election be annulled. Clearly, these demands haven't been met. The rallies that followed the March presidential election put forward demands that Putin not to take up the post of President. Unsurprisingly, these demands haven't been met either. The government-controlled media have claimed a total victory for Putin and over the opposition.

History should perhaps have taught us not to expect anything different. The entire history of Eastern Europe provides only tragic examples: of democratic outbursts followed by protracted and gloomy periods of triumphant state bureaucracy, of bureaucracies that then stay in power for a long time, dark and inflexible, oppressing its own people and trying to intimidate others. Things usually ends badly, as in the Crimean War or the war in Afghanistan, leaving the country completely exhausted.

But even if recent events do evoke analogies of this kind, there was something unique about them, beginning with some details that are untypical of rebellions and revolutions. Anyone wishing to present the events of the past few months as a plot secretly instigated by Western intelligence services ought to take note of the unusual openness on the part of the organisers and activists. Meetings of the rally organisers were broadcast online. Information on the funding of the rally movement was published in real time. This is n