Defying Putin: 7 Russians to watch

Vladimir Putin's "managed democracy" offers few opportunities for new leaders to emerge, build their own independent political base, and legitimately vie for power.

That closed and controlled system is now teetering after tens of thousands of Russians marched in the streets of Russian cities in December to reject Mr. Putin's penchant for bureaucratic manipulation, media control, and vote-rigging.

Fresh leaders are emerging without the Kremlin's approval and finding their voices. The following are seven to watch in coming months. 

1.Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire

Russian billionaire and Presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov attends a rally to protest against alleged vote rigging in Russia's parliamentary elections on Sakharov avenue in Moscow, Russia, Saturday. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)

A billionaire playboy and Russia's third wealthiest man, Mr. Prokhorov is best known in the US as owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, and in Russia as the country's most eligible bachelor and a tireless promoter of nanotechnology and electric cars. Until recently he appeared to be a consummate conformist, who obeyed the Putin-era's prime directive that the rich must stay out of politics. But last summer he took over a small right-wing party, apparently with Putin's blessing, and subsequently broke dramatically with his Kremlin handlers over what candidates the party could field and which political positions it could take. After the Dec. 10 mass rally in Moscow against alleged electoral fraud, Prokhorov publicly praised the demonstrators and announced that he will run against Putin in presidential polls slated for March 4. Since nominations are now closed, Prokhorov is likely to be the only one of the new opposition leaders to appear on the ballot in those elections, a factor that might not help him if the mood in the streets continues to grow more radical.

Alexei Kudrin, former Kremlin insider

Former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin speaks from a stage during a protest against recent parliamentary election results in Moscow December 24. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

A close associate of Putin and Russia's finance minister for most of the past decade, Mr. Kudrin is credited with the tough fiscal policies that enabled Russia to pay off its accumulated debts from the 1990s, run up big budget surpluses, and later ride out the global financial crisis of 2008. He threatened to quit last September after Putin announced he would seek a third presidential term and was dramatically fired by President Dmitry Medvedev. Kudrin has warned against a drift to "populism," including soaring military budgets and increases in pensions and industrial subsidies over the past year. On Dec. 24 he addressed the huge Moscow pro-democracy rally, where he warned the crowd against "revolution" and offered to act as a mediator between the protesters and the Kremlin. Kudrin has suggested he might form a liberal party to appeal to the aspirations of Russia's new middle class, who are heavily represented among the protesters so far.

Boris Nemtsov, founder of PARNAS

Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister, a leader of opposition Boris Nemtsov speaks during a protest against alleged vote rigging in Russia's parliamentary elections on Sakharov avenue in Moscow, Russia, Saturday. (Misha Japaridze/AP)

Former-governor of the sprawling Volga industrial region of Nizhni Novgorod and deputy prime minister under former President Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Nemtsov was once seriously discussed as Mr. Yeltsin's potential successor. Cast into the political wilderness by Putin, Nemtsov has become one of the best known faces of pro-democracy street protest, suffering repeated arrests for participating in "unsanctioned" rallies over the years. Last year he joined with several other leading pro-Western liberals, including former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former independent Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, to form the Party of Peoples Freedom (PARNAS). Though it appeared to meet requirements for registration under Russia's tough electoral laws, PARNAS was banned and denied the right to field candidates in parliamentary and presidential elections. Nemtsov, who addressed both big Moscow protest rallies, is a dynamic public speaker with strong personal appeal to Russia's youthful and liberal-minded middle class. Russian secret services may consider him dangerous: They paid him what appears to be a back-handed compliment earlier this month by recording his private telephone conversations. Disparaging comments he made about fellow opposition leaders were published in a pro-Kremlin online tabloid.

Alexei Navalny, anti-corruption blogger

Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption lawyer Alexei Navalny speaks to the media at Moscow's Arbitration Court, Russia, Thursday. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Regarded by many as the most impressive new leader to emerge from the grassroots and a man to watch, lawyer and anti-corruption blogger Mr. Navalny came to public attention over the past year by using his LiveJournal blog (recently made available in English) to document a case of alleged massive graft in the state pipeline company Transneft and to slam other abuses of power by authorities. He is best known as author of the viral phrase "party of rogues and thieves" to describe Putin's ruling United Russia party. Arrested in an unsanctioned rally to protest electoral fraud on Dec. 5, Navalny emerged from prison 15 days later with his street cred greatly enhanced and some people already citing him as a possible presidential contender capable of challenging Putin. Nominations for March 4 presidential polls are already closed, but Navalny has made clear that he will work against Putin and could run against him if it became possible. Addressing the massive Dec. 24 rally in Moscow, Navalny flirted with sedition by remarking, "I can see that there are enough people here to seize the Kremlin right now. We are a peaceful force and will not do it now. But if these rogues and thieves try to go on cheating us, if they continue telling lies and stealing from us, we will take what belongs to us with our own hands." Some Russian opposition leaders warn that too little is known about Navalny, and that he has yet to explain his alleged associations with Russia's shadowy ultra-nationalist movement.

Yevgenia Chirikova, environmental activist

Environmental activist and leader of the Khimki forest defenders Yevgenia Chirikova speaks to the media in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 9. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

A former businesswoman and mother of two, Ms. Chirikova rose to national prominence by heading a tenacious environmental protest movement against plans to build a toll-road through an old-growth forest, and protected national park, in her native Khimki, a grim industrial suburb of Moscow. She and members of her group suffered repeated arrests as well as several still-unsolved vicious attacks by unidentified thugs. Journalists who attempted to cover the group fared worse: One was murdered and two suffered crippling injuries after being savagely beaten in unsolved street assaults. Chirikova's persistence paid off when, in the summer of 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a full review of the plan to build the road through Khimki Forest, although the work subsequently resumed after a Kremlin-appointed panel granted approval. Propelled to center stage by the surging protest movement, Chirikova remains a largely untested political quantity. But she gave strong and rousing speeches at both December Moscow rallies, and appears highly regarded among youthful protesters for her determination and ability to face down allegedly corrupt and brutal authorities in the long battle over Khimki Forest.

Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the left

Russia's opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov (l.) leaves the court in Moscow, Russia, Sunday. In Russia, a prison stint can be a must on the resume of anyone who aspires to lead an anti-Kremlin protest movement. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)

A veteran street activist who has been arrested more than 100 times in the past five years, Mr. Udaltsov is the leader of Left Front, a loose coalition of leftists that appears to be held together mainly by the force of his strong (some say charismatic) personality. Russian authorities have repeatedly refused to register his organization as a political party, and have directed a disproportionate amount of police repression against Udaltsov personally. On Duma election day, Dec. 4, he was preemptively arrested and has been kept in custody since then on a variety of pretexts that lawyers and human rights activists describe as illegal. Udaltsov's ongoing ordeal, including serious health complications from a hunger strike, prompted supporters to stage a peaceful rally demanding his release on Moscow's Pushkin Square on Thursday evening. The rally was forbidden by authorities and surrounded by hundreds of heavily armored riot police. Udaltsov's lawyer, Violetta Volkova, says that when dealing with Udaltsov "the system just doesn't work as it's supposed to… I have come to the conclusion that my client is a political prisoner who is suffering primarily for his personal convictions."

Eduard Limonov, the Leninist

Opposition leader Eduard Limonov leaves the Russian Supreme court in Moscow Tuesday. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

A dark horse on the left, famous novelist Mr. Limonov is leader of the banned and heavily persecuted National Bolshevik Party. The party has staged some of the most radical street actions of the Putin era, including the occupation of government buildings. Limonov, who lived for long periods in the United States and France, adopts the personal style and, to a large extent, the leftist political doctrines of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin. He has a dedicated following of several hundred young people, who appear willing to endure repeated arrests and unusually harsh treatment – even by Russian standards – at the hands of police.

In recent years, Limonov has found common ground with liberals with their shared anti-Kremlin sentiment. His followers were a strong presence at the Moscow pro-democracy rallies.

He remains a particular object of concern to Russian police. "Limonov's people are defiant, and indifferent to long prison sentences. They get beaten, and come back to get beaten again," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "The Kremlin obviously fears this example could become infectious, and involve more young people, so it overreacts by jailing them for such long periods."