If there was any doubt that significant numbers of Russians are ready to tear up the Putin-era social contract, which exchanges political freedom for relative prosperity, it was dramatically dispelled Saturday.
Ignoring ranks of riot police with unmuzzled dogs, gusting snow, and accusations by Vladimir Putin that protesters are dupes of the United States
tens of thousands of Muscovites poured into Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin, to vent their anger at alleged fraud and vote-rigging on behalf of the ruling United Russia (UR) party in last weekend's parliamentary elections
Many wore white ribbons, the symbol of the burgeoning anti-fraud movement that erupted onto Moscow streets last Monday after the official vote tally showed UR winning almost 50 percent of the votes, which puts it on track to dominate the State Duma for the next five years.
Though counts ranged from a police estimate of about 20,000 to up to 100,000, there is no doubt that it was the largest protest rally seen in the Russian capital since the collapse of the USSR twenty years ago.
In a rare show of solidarity, virtually the entire spectrum of Russia's usually fractious opposition parties was present, including the Communist Party (which officially won 19.2 percent of the votes), the social democratic Yabloko (3 percent) and the liberal Party of People's Freedom, which had been banned from taking part in the elections altogether.
But the vast majority of participants appeared to be youthful, regular Russians with no political affiliation, who were turning out to protest for the first time in their lives.
Putin generation's turn
Ironically, they overwhelmingly represented the Putin generation: educated, urban middle class professionals who have come of age in the past decade, enjoying steadily rising living standards, relative consumer plenty, social stability and personal freedom. Until now, few have raised their heads to complain about the stultifying political system of "managed democracy," which features a straitjacketed media, limited electoral choice and tough constraints on civil society.
Putin, has frequently claimed that he supports "evolutionary" political reforms but has curbed democracy in practice, in favor of building a traditional strong, bureaucratic Russian state that regards the public as unqualified to be involved with policy-making.
"Why am I here? I hate being deceived," said Irina Pletnyova, an office worker, who seemed a bit overwhelmed by the size and spirit of the crowd. "When I told my young, smart, well-educated co-workers last week that I might come to this rally, they all acted scared and gave reasons why they couldn't come. I thought, that's it, I'm going."
Yevgeny Subbotin, a manager, said he doesn't support any opposition force, "I'm just disgusted with United Russia. . . So many people have come here today, I hope our czars will get the message and understand that things have to change. If we keep silent about electoral falsifications now, the coming presidential elections (slated for March 4) will just be worse," he says.
A somewhat older protester, Yury Telegin, a teacher, said he took part in the famous August 1991 demonstration that protected the elected Russian parliament from a hard-line coup attempt.
"Putin's popularity is vanishing into thin air," he said. "Arbitrary authority works only when the public is submissive. That's ending now. Discontent has been building for some time, and you could feel it. But just a week ago, people didn't express that politically, they seemed indifferent to politics. Now look at them all!"