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Opinion

Russian protests – echoes of US civil rights movement

To see the December protests in Russia as primarily a political wave is to miss a more fundamental leaven at work in Russian society: a moral awakening akin to the American civil rights movement. An early test is Saturday, when a massive protest in Moscow is planned.

By Leon Aron / February 3, 2012

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets with election monitors in Moscow Feb. 1. Mr. Putin said that he could face a runoff in the March presidential vote, his first acknowledgement that he may fail to muster enough support for an outright victory.

Sergei Karpukhin/AP

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Moscow

Indignation over voter fraud. Calls for free and fair elections. Angry demonstrators testing their mettle against an arrogant regime.

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Like last year's Arab Spring, this winter's mass protests in Russia exhibit several hallmarks of people-powered democratic revolts. But to see the rallies over rigged legislative elections in December as primarily a political wave is to miss a more fundamental leaven at work in Russian society: a moral awakening akin to the American civil rights movement.

I know because last summer I spent weeks talking with a variety of leaders in Russian society – well before the winter of electoral discontent. Some are fighting corruption. Others are working to save historical buildings from demolition, or stop pollution.

What they all shared with me was a profound sense that lasting liberalization of their homeland would come about only through the realization of a mature, self-aware civil society able and willing to control the executive branch.

Crucially, they understood that this change must not be carried out from above by a "good czar" or hero (the traditional vehicle for transformation in Russia), but rather from the desire of the people to embody a morally anchored democratic citizenship.

The seeds of this evolution, these leaders agreed, will sprout only if the Russian people forsake their fear and indifference and embrace courage and will.

An early test will come Feb. 4, the date of a planned massive protest in Moscow. One month later is the presidential election itself. A victory by Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party was once seen as inevitable. Mr. Putin still may well win and resume the presidency, but Russians are beginning to see that they have a choice. Acquiescence to authoritarian rule is not in their DNA.

The dissent I witnessed last summer emerged not so much from political as moral rationale. Indeed, the six activists I interviewed shared a strong commitment to keeping their work nonpolitical – but they still found themselves forced to grapple with the regime.

Take Evgenia Chirikova. She leads ECMO, a group that works to protect Moscow's Khimki Forest of birch trees from reckless highway construction. "I have no intentions of going into politics," she told another interviewer last year. "It is the regime functionaries that make me into an opposition leader." Ms. Chirikova is now one of the political protest movement's most visible leaders.

Confronted with the inherent defects of the Putin regime, all the other activists experienced a similar evolution. It is as if, having resolved to clean up your small apartment, you are almost immediately confounded by problems – faulty designs, leaking ceilings, lack of heat and hot water, crumbling walls – that are beyond your control and require a capital repair of the entire building.

Consider the evolution of what should have been the least "political" organization in my sample: the Federation of Automobile Owners of Russia.

FAR has been exposing the official corruption that grows out of the "transportation tax" that's levied on every car in Russia. But along with the group's demands for "public control over everything that is connected to the formation of monopolistic prices, state regulation, and duties," FAR links its mission to the deeper effort to make government accountable to the people. "It is not just the price of gasoline that will depend on how we act," reads a post on FAR's website, "but to what extent the authorities will take into consideration our interests in the future."

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