MASHA HAD NOT BEEN ALONE in her plan to emigrate. A friend set her sights on Humboldt University in Berlin at the same time. Another friend followed Masha’s lead—to be more precise, Masha talked her into applying to Oxford. In May 2011, the first friend left for Germany and the second for England. Masha had one other close friend, but they had a falling-out. When Masha took an accounting of her larger circle of acquaintances, she realized that most of them had left earlier, for graduate or postgradute studies at the famous or not-so-famous universities of the West. Even her ex-husband, Sergei, had done graduate work in America. Now he relented—partly—and told Masha that he would agree to her going abroad to study, and taking Sasha with her, as long as it was temporary. Masha signed up for a sociology summer school in Malta. The school was interesting, the island country was tiny and crowded, and the military planes overhead, on their way to drop bombs on Libya day after day, reminded Masha that there was a big world out there, full of politics, people, and passion—while she had to return to Moscow at the end of the summer. She had no idea what she was going to do there. The only thing she knew was that she would not go back to working as a broker of kickbacks and bribes.
In September, she tried becoming a housewife—a single mother could be one too. Her job was ferrying Sasha to karate, drawing, and violin lessons and the English-language preschool. At karate and drawing the other mothers could spend hours discussing the best container in which to pack lunch for their husbands. At violin, Masha waited alone. The mothers at the English-language preschool were more interesting—several of them were journalists—but the most they would do was chat over a croissant and cappuccino before either disappearing into their laptops or taking off for work, leaving their children for the nannies to collect.
On September 25, the preschool mothers were outraged. The previous afternoon, Putin and Medvedev had made a joint announcement: at the next election, scheduled for March 2012, Medvedev would hand the presidency back to Putin and return to his post as prime minister. “Can you believe this?” the mothers asked one another. “They don’t even try to keep up appearances anymore.” They meant the appearance of an election. Masha was not exactly shocked. She was devastated. All she could think was, Now everyone is going to leave the country. Every last person.
In the evenings, after Sasha was asleep, Masha hung out with her two closest friends, at Humboldt and Oxford—by Skype. They opened bottles of wine in parallel in front of their web cameras. Masha’s friends did their academic work; Masha roamed the Internet.
This was how she learned of the case of Vladimir Makarov. It seemed unbelievable at first. After she read all she could read about it, she knew it was true, but she still found it incomprehensible. In fact, she knew she would never be able to understand it. An innocent man was going to prison for years on charges of molesting his own daughter.
VLADIMIR MAKAROV was a young civil servant. He had moved to Moscow in 2009 to take a job at the transportation ministry. His wife and young daughter joined him once he had fixed up a rental apartment. In the summer of 2010, Makarov’s seven-year-old daughter fell off a home climbing wall, fracturing a vertebra. A lab technician thought she saw traces of sperm in the girl’s urine sample when she was brought to the hospital by ambulance. A nurse reported it. Later tests of the same sample failed to confirm the results, a physical exam produced no evidence of sexual abuse, and neither the little girl nor her mother nor anyone else gave any testimony that could be interpreted as confirming the charge against Makarov. Nonetheless, he was jailed, held in pretrial detention for a year, and sentenced to thirteen years behind bars for raping his own daughter.1
He appealed, and on November 29, 2011, Moscow City Court downgraded the charge from rape to indecent assault and reduced his sentence to five and a half years.2 This was probably the worst moment in the whole awful story: by removing the rape charge, the court was disavowing the only basis for the entire case—the supposed finding of traces of sperm in the girl’s urine. And still this man, who had done nothing wrong and had already spent a year in jail, would be staying in prison for four more. Why?
Because. Ella Paneyakh, an American-educated Russian sociologist who had for years been studying law enforcement, wrote a piece she titled “And Now the Most Frightening Thing of All Has Happened.” It began, “And as is its habit, disaster struck where we least expected it.” Paneyakh used the term “the Red Wheel” to refer to the force that had plowed Makarov down. The Red Wheel was the title of a trilogy by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in which he described the destruction of the Russian state by the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. Paneyakh used the term to refer to Russian law enforcement. Her point was that it, too, was an inexorable disaster.
It has forgotten what it’s like to encounter resistance. It lacks a built-in function for compromise, retreat, even for saying something like “released upon a closer examination of the evidence.” All the mechanisms that could have been employed for this purpose have long since rusted out for disuse. In fact, the machine’s only possible response to resistance is a crackdown.3
Makarov was doomed as soon as he was first suspected, falsely, of having sexually abused his daughter. His attempts to fight the charges—he asked for further tests, mounted a thorough defense, and then appealed his sentence—only made the law-enforcement machine pursue him harder.
This was not a new mechanism. Law enforcement and the courts had functioned this way for a long time—in fact, they had functioned this way in the Soviet era, and the system was never dismantled, only temporarily weakened in the 1990s. But for most of the post-Soviet period, the punitive force had been applied almost exclusively to a few clearly defined groups of people: entrepreneurs engaged in property disputes, select politicians (who were also, more often than not, entrepreneurs engaged in property disputes), and radical political activists. In other words, people risked being crushed by the Red Wheel only after they ventured into the public realm. What had changed now, wrote Paneyakh, was that “the state has once again found the time, means, and energy to insert its tentacles into a person’s private life—a lot deeper than the average person . . . is prepared to let it.” The process had been under way for some time, but most Russians had not noticed—in part because they had grown accustomed to feeling separate from the state.
While they were not paying attention, the state had begun regulating what people ate and drank, often introducing seemingly arbitrary rules for political reasons, like when it had banned wine imports from Georgia or sprats from Latvia. The regulating agency invariably justified its decisions by the need to protect the population from potentially dangerous products.
The parliament had been discussing restricting abortion. It had hardened drug laws to the point where pain relief had become virtually inaccessible, even for people with documented severe pain. Roughly half of more than a million inmates of Russian prisons were serving time for drug offenses, because even a minuscule amount could land one behind bars. As new laws piled up, political discussion, such as it was, centered on the need to protect children: from drugs, from abortions, and, perhaps most important, from pedophiles. Masha could not remember when she had first heard about the pedophile menace—it seemed like background noise that had always been there.
LYOSHA HAD BEEN WATCHING for years as the idea of the pedophile threat took shape. He had written about it in his undergraduate thesis. Prominent Perm factory owner and politician Igor Pastukhov, a United Russia member, was first accused of raping a sixteen-year-old boy in 2003. Soon after, the charges were dropped and the politician’s accuser seemed to vanish. But a second teenager came forward in 2005. Rumor in Perm had it that another powerful local businessman had manufactured the case to discredit Pastukhov. But Lyosha met young men who told him that it had happened to them too: Pastukhov’s people were in the habit of hunting down very young men in and around cruising areas and either luring or, if that failed, forcing them into cars and delivering them to Pastukhov and his friends, who raped them.
When Pastukhov faced trial, Perm newspaper headlines were: “Perm Has Been Overtaken by the Gay Lobby”; “Faggots Think They Are Above the Law”; and “Administration Had Better Straighten Its Orientation.” What little evidence was presented at the trial was circumstantial, and Pastukhov’s accuser was never identified. Pastukhov was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment.4 Lyosha struggled with the Pastukhov story in his thesis. On the one hand, the trial was a travesty. On the other, Lyosha was convinced that Pastukhov was guilty of just these sorts of crimes. Then there was the problem of the media coverage, which equated pedophilia and sexual violence with homosexuality. Later, Lyosha learned how to separate these facts and ideas from one another. The Russian courts listened to the prosecutor and accepted thin evidence, bad evidence, or no evidence at all, but this did not mean that everyone they sentenced was innocent—it just meant that no one, including the guilty, ever got a fair trial. In this case, the fact that charges against Pastukhov involved same-sex contact was what had excited the media: similar violence perpetrated against girls and young women was more likely to be seen as a normal attribute of power. For example, a Pskov bank owner and politician, Igor Provkin, was accused of rape by several different young women over the course of six years. He finally faced charges after he lured a young woman into his car in central Moscow and raped her right there. He confessed and was given a suspended sentence of four years. The case drew scant media attention.5
By 2008, the year after Lyosha defended his thesis, the pedophile menace was becoming a commonplace of public rhetoric. Dugin called for Russian men to kill pedophiles on sight. In St. Petersburg, a retired boxer, Alexander Kuznetsov, faced charges for killing a nineteen-year-old man whom he said he had caught trying to rape his eight-year-old stepson. No evidence of the attempted rape was ever produced, but the boxer—who, despite a long arrest record, was not placed in pretrial detention—became an instant celebrity. “It is hard for him to walk down the street in Petersburg,” reported Izvestia. “People stop him to shake his hand and ask for an autograph.”6 Dugin told journalists that he supported Kuznetsov. “He stood up for his child,” he said. “I believe that all Russians, all normal people should act in that exact way. If you see a crime like this happening, you should intervene. And if there is a way to kill the lowlife, then it is necessary to kill and then sort it out later. That’s the only way we can change public opinion, the only way to get lawmakers to respond.”7 The headline of the article in which Dugin was quoted was, “What Is to Be Done with Pedophiles: The Death Penalty or Castration?” Such were apparently the terms of the proposed debate—and the debate was framed in a way familiar from the Soviet era, when “concerned members of society” demanded restrictive measures against particular groups or individuals (such as members of the worldwide Zionist conspiracy, or the writer Boris Pasternak) and the state apparatus obliged.
Kuznetsov served just over a year behind bars.8 By the time he was released in 2010, the debate was raging. A group of parliament members filed a bill that would increase penalties for sexual crimes against children. The bill was so hastily drafted that different passages specified different new penalties for the same crimes.9 This delayed the bill, prompting the chairwoman of the parliamentary Committee on the Family, Yelena Mizulina, to accuse United Russia of harboring a “pedophile lobby.” Mizulina herself was a member of A Just Russia, the latest party created by the Kremlin to imitate a populist electoral alternative. United Russia countered that the latest political pedophilia scandal had concerned a Just Russia member (this was the case of a parliament member’s assistant in the city of Volgograd who managed to escape from police who were arresting him). Whichever party was speaking—and whichever party it was blaming—a consensus emerged in parliament: they had in their ranks a “pedophile lobby” that was sabotaging the protection of children. A parliament member from the Communist Party lamented that many of her colleagues had been ensnared by a “secret powerful pervert organization.”10
The pedophilia accusation became a potent weapon of political warfare. While parliament members were hurling accusations at one another, political scientist Andreas Umland discovered that Russian and Ukrainian media were reporting that he had been charged with sex offenses against children. The reports were full of details about Umland’s legal troubles, all of them imaginary. Umland traced the original report to a Russian online news agency, which, in turn, could be traced to IP addresses used by Dugin and his Eurasian Movement.11
Dugin’s media had been attacking Umland since he wrote his Oxford dissertation, in which he compared Dugin’s movement to Nazism. “Most liberal sociologists in Germany are homosexuals,” reported one of the articles on Umland. “And as we know, sixty percent of them are infected with HIV. So the question arises: Why are homosexuals with AIDS telling us what’s right and what’s wrong?”12 A follow-up piece claimed that “Umland, who has pedophile proclivities, has been fired from Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford for making homosexual advances to his colleagues.”13
In the Russian parliament the crusading members never managed to clear up the textual contradictions in their bill, so the Kremlin introduced its own. Legislation increasing penalties for sex offenders was passed in the fall of 2011.14 Repeat offenders would now face life imprisonment—the maximum penalty possible in Russia for any crime—but the crusaders were not satisfied and continued to insist on chemical castration. The new law introduced a new concept: that of a person afflicted with pedophilia. A defendant diagnosed with pedophilia was now subject to compulsory psychiatric treatment. Psychiatrists had to be trained to diagnose “pedophilic sexual orientation.”15 Letters went out to every psychiatric clinic in the land.16 Large psychiatric hospitals dispatched doctors for training sessions in Moscow at the Serbsky Center for Social and Court Psychiatry, once infamous as the place where Soviet dissidents were sent for punitive treatment. Participants in Serbsky seminars were taught that perversions were often diagnosed together—for example, pedophilia frequently went with homosexuality.17
Even while the parliament was debating new anti-pedophile measures, the police redoubled their efforts. In July 2011, the minister of the interior reported that law enforcement was pursuing 128 different cases of online distribution of pornographic images of minors, that this was just for the first three months of the year and the number represented a 20 percent increase over the year before.
Activist citizens began looking for pedophiles too. A twenty-one-year-old college dropout in Voronezh devoted herself to the hunt full-time. Anna Levchenko claimed to have identified the names and IP addresses of eighty pedophiles in the space of six months. “The number of sex offenses against children has nearly doubled in the last year,” declared her livejournal.com page. A manifesto full of boldfaced emphasis followed.
Pedophiles are afraid of nothing and no one. . . . They are everywhere. They are united. There are hundreds of thousands of them. . . . They have cast their nets over the entire world. They challenge our entire society and they are laughing at us. They are trying to tell us that no one will ever be able to protect our children from them. I will prove them wrong. If law enforcement can’t deal with it, then society itself must rise up in defense of the children. I identify pedophiles on the Internet and collect evidence against them. I make sure that criminal charges are filed. I work with a group of like-minded people. We write dozens of reports every week. Thousands of people read my blog every day. We need your help, too. You can join our team and help us catch those who are killing our children. . . . Only if we unite our efforts will we be able to defeat this threat. Any support you can lend will help us save hundreds of children’s lives and prevent new crimes.18
Levchenko developed her own entrapment techniques and then trained other young people to use them. She attended the Kremlin youth training camp at Lake Seligher in the summer of 2011 and was granted an audience with Medvedev so that she could tell him about her work. She informed the president that her movement included three hundred volunteers. Medvedev praised Levchenko’s efforts and suggested incorporating her group into the Investigative Committee—the federation’s central anti-crime unit—by creating a special anti-pedophile project there. The president’s children’s rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, perhaps fearful of being left out of the loop, immediately offered Levchenko an assistant position, albeit an unsalaried one.19
It was in this context that the Makarov case was unfolding.
SERYOZHA WAS NOT SURE when he first heard about the case—it was fairly soon after he moved back to Moscow from Kiev in 2010—but at some point he became obsessed with it. There was no other word for it. He had to know everything. He read every article about the case several times over, to make sure he grasped every detail. This was how he started reading Novaya gazeta, a Moscow weekly that specialized in human rights issues and investigative stories. Several of the paper’s reporters had been killed—including Anna Politkovskaya, who had been covering Chechnya for the paper—but though he had heard of Politkovskaya’s murder, the existence of the paper had not registered with Seryozha until now. He joined an online community called the Makarov Case, downloaded every document that other members made available, and wrote detailed commentary. It did not take long to understand that the charges were bogus, but Seryozha still felt that the documents could shed light on something. There was a genetic study, done by a scientist who had taken part in identifying the remains of the czar’s family—that had to count for something, right? The forensic geneticist’s conclusion was that there was nothing in the urine sample that indicated sexual contact. The study was not admitted into evidence. In the end the only expert opinion acknowledged by the court came from a young psychologist who had asked the alleged victim to draw a nonexistent animal—a common task in psychological screening tests—and then concluded that the drawing, of a black cat with a disproportionately large and bushy tail, suggested that the girl had been molested.
Seryozha learned what he could about Makarov’s family. They were good people. They loved each other and their daughter. Makarov spent more time with his daughter than a typical Russian father. Somehow, this made it feel even more tragic. Seryozha had not seen that many families who seemed simply, intuitively happy, and this one was being destroyed. And the little girl, the girl all the prosecutors and police and the psychologist were supposedly trying to protect—she was being destroyed too.
Once he started reading Novaya gazeta, Seryozha became aware that this case was not unusual. The paper was publishing a lot of articles about Sergei Magnitsky, an accountant who had been tortured to death in a Moscow jail in 2009. His former employer, an American-British financier, was running his own investigation, which was making it clear that Magnitsky had inadvertently stepped on the toes of high-powered officials who were embezzling state money. For this, he had been jailed and killed. It was a wrenching story, but it made at least some sense: Magnitsky had stood between men and money. Makarov had not been in anyone’s way. His life and his family were being destroyed just because hospital workers had been instructed to be on the lookout for pedophiles, and because, once set in motion, the Red Wheel could not stop, and just because. Seryozha felt exactly like he had when he saw Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark, in which a helpless woman is falsely accused of a crime and executed. The movie had left Seryozha physically sick for days. The Makarov case was happening in real life. There had to be a way to do something. Right?
ONE OF THE MEMBERS of the online Makarov Case community wrote that three people were needed to put in a request for a protest. Masha called him—it had taken a bit of investigative work to get hold of his number. She wanted to volunteer her name and her time. It was now late November, she had been a single-mother housewife for nearly three months, and she had to find another way to live. She had hired a nanny and was going to start looking for work, but for now, she could be useful at a protest—even if she and everyone else knew that protest was futile.
That man never followed through on the protest idea. Makarov received his final sentence—five and a half years—on November 29. A week later an old acquaintance, someone who had been involved with the protest youth group Oborona back when Masha wanted to get involved but Sergei said no, called to invite Masha to a protest. It was about the elections rather than the Makarov case, but Masha went.
The parliamentary elections had taken place the day before. It was the usual setup with four parties: Putin’s United Russia, the Kremlin’s puppet populists A Just Russia, the Communists, and the Liberal Democratic Party. In parliament the Communists and the so-called Liberal Democrats reliably voted with United Russia while A Just Russia, too small to change any outcome, was occasionally critical of the Kremlin—as it was, for example, in the ongoing campaign to protect children from the imaginary pedophile lobby. Any criticism was better than no criticism, and many of the people whose blogs Masha was reading had voted for A Just Russia. By official count, A Just Russia got just over 13 percent of the vote, or 64 out of the 450 seats in parliament. United Russia would continue to hold more than half the seats, though not quite as many as it had had in the previous parliament.20
The point was not so much the outcome of the election, which had the usual suspects seated in the usual proportions, as this very predictability. The Kremlin did not allow any strangers on the ballot, so the election did not need to be fixed. And still it was fixed. Ballot boxes were stuffed, numbers were doctored, phantom precincts reported, and conscripts were bused in to vote early and often. Not that it even mattered who got into parliament, which existed only to rubber-stamp the Kremlin’s policies. But the bad theater of it all, in which you were invited up onstage for a millisecond and not allowed to open your mouth, was insulting. The parliamentary election was also a preview of the election scheduled for March 2012, which would rubber-stamp the reversion of the presidency to Putin.
Masha dressed nicely for the demonstration. This was the first social occasion after three months of her single-mother housewifedom, so she put on heels. It was raining, and the ground in the park where the protest was held quickly turned to gross black mush under thousands of pairs of feet. Masha’s heels were sinking. She found herself standing with a group of women wearing fur coats. Maybe they had thought it would be colder and they would stand here, chanting—or whatever people did at these things—for hours. Or maybe they had also dressed up. Whatever, it was now raining on their fur coats. No one was chanting. There were speakers, but they could not hear or see them.
“Do you know what we are supposed to be doing?” asked Masha.
“No idea. This is our first time too,” answered the wet fur coats.
Now there was a speaker who was finally loud enough. It was Alexei Navalny. Masha had been reading his blog. He wrote about corruption. Many people did, including Nemtsov, but Navalny had a trick. He dug through publicly available information to expose, repeatedly, exactly two shocking kinds of transactions: the absurd amounts the Russian government spent on the simplest and cheapest things—like, say, toilets; and the real estate and cars that Russian officials owned that they could never afford to buy on their official salary. Masha knew perfectly well how this worked, since until recently she had been a link in the corruption supply chain, but she could not get enough of the blog. Sometimes, though, it made her feel two opposing emotions at the same time: outrage, because this was her tax money that Navalny was talking about, and shame, because the system he was describing had included her. He called this system, the one that determined how Russia functioned, the “Party of Crooks and Thieves.”
Navalny led the crowd in a chant of “One for all and all for one,” or he tried to—only a couple of hundred seemed to pick it up, and it died down quickly. Then he shouted, “Let’s march to Lubyanka!”
Lubyanka was the square, a fifteen-minute walk away, that had once held the giant monument to Dzerzhinsky and that still housed the headquarters of the FSB as well as the Central Election Commission. Masha was unsure which of those buildings was Navalny’s intended destination, but she was certain that she did not want to march. Not in heels. Masha headed toward the Metro, but there were thousands walking in that direction—it would be worse than rush hour. She turned left, onto Myasnitskaya, the street that led to Lubyanka, and realized that she was now a part of Navalny’s march. Rather, she was among the people who had intended to be part of the march. These people were being grabbed by riot police, thrown against walls, or tackled to the ground and then dragged along the wet street. Masha pressed her body into a building wall and crept along it to the next side street, then dived in.
There was a text from Anastasia, the friend who had invited Masha to the protest. She was at a café that happened to be at the end of this particular side street. Now Masha marched. She barged into the café, a low-key hipster joint of the kind she did not even know existed in Moscow.
“Where do I sign up to be an activist!” she announced. It was not a question. “Because what’s going on out there is fucked!”
Anastasia said there was talk of another protest being planned for tomorrow, in Triumfalnaya Square.
“I’m going,” said Masha, as if she were issuing a threat to Anastasia and her friends.
ZHANNA WATCHED THE PROTEST on television. She knew just how extraordinary this was. She was now working in television herself. When she first became a trader, she started watching RBK, a cable financial news channel. All the traders watched it. The people who worked there were financial geniuses. They could riff off the numbers live, for fifteen minutes on end, and it made Zhanna feel like they knew how the world worked. She wanted to be one of them. When she studied for her chartered financial analyst exam, it was with an eye to getting a job at RBK. She did. At first everyone was sure that she was there only because she was her father’s daughter. She actually overheard one of the executives comment to another that stupid celebrity daughters are not known for passing CFA exams. After a few months, she was allowed to go on air live and riff off the numbers. It made her feel like a genius.
RBK was a financial news channel, but it was still part of the television world, and in this world showing protests on the air was unthinkable. But now there they were on Channel 1, the big state channel. Zhanna felt a pang: Why was she not there?
She knew why. That one experience of running away from the police while her father got arrested had been quite enough. Also, she wanted to get married. This had been Zhanna’s goal ever since her divorce, and she pursued it as single-mindedly as she had pursued her job at RBK. She started seeing someone within weeks of the divorce, and it was this man that she intended to marry. She told him about this often, whenever she was not talking about having children together. He was impervious, and she was insistent. But also, he was the kind of man who wanted to be where they were at this moment, at a country club outside Moscow, with the television on, and he was the kind of man who would not take kindly to Zhanna’s desire to drop everything to rush to the city to join the protest. Eyes on the prize, she chased the thought away.
Her father was there, in the cold rain. It was his organization, Solidarity, that had secured a permit for the protest—like it had for dozens of protests over the last five years. Those earlier ones had drawn a couple of hundred people—on the good days. So when they applied for a permit this time, anticipating two weeks ahead of time that the election would give reason to protest, they wrote that they expected three hundred people. They were being optimistic, despite the miserable weather and the December wind-down, which had already begun. By Boris’s estimate, ten thousand people showed up. The police counted three thousand—still ten times as many as the permit said. One of the skinny bespectacled Solidarity activists, Igor Gukovsky, whose name was on the permit, was fined for the discrepancy and then also jailed for fifteen days for good measure. But his arrest drew little attention, even among the people who had come to the protest, because they had never heard of him. The best-known of the protesters, Navalny and Oborona leader Ilya Yashin, were also sent to jail for fifteen days, as were several dozen other people who had been arrested on Myasnitskaya Street. Altogether, the police had made about seven hundred arrests that night. Probably because the courts and holding facilities could not handle that many people at once, a majority were allowed to go home following a night spent in a standing-room-only cell.21
SERYOZHA READ about the planned protest on the Novaya gazeta website but could not go: he was on deadline for an app he was writing. Once he read about what had happened, though, he decided to go to Triumfalnaya the following day. The regime had to be called to order. Seryozha was a realist, and as a realist he recognized that a certain understanding had taken hold in Russia over the last dozen years. It was an understanding Seryozha’s grandfather would not have liked, but it was there. Russians had agreed to live under a sort of dictatorship in exchange for stability. But they assumed that it was a soft dictatorship, which could negotiate if the need arose. Seryozha imagined that this was the way it worked in China, or at least this was how the papers made it look: the Communist Party had all the power, but if, say, peasants in some village rebelled, then the local bosses would be removed. Pressure and restrictions were a given, but the exact amounts could be adjusted. Right now, the pressure seemed excessive to Seryozha, and it looked to him like other people thought so too. The blatant election-fixing was insulting, and the Makarov case was just too painful to watch. So it was time for an adjustment. Seryozha imagined Putin saying, not in so many words, “All right, let’s see what we can do here. What do you say I keep my billions and you keep your lives as you know them?” Then the state would pull back where it had overstepped. “Stability” would be a word for everyone just being left alone—everyone including Makarov and people who might suddenly find themselves in his shoes. This was what Seryozha wanted to communicate when he went to Triumfalnaya Square on December 6, 2011.
THERE WAS NO PERMIT for the protest at Triumfalnaya—permits had to be obtained two weeks in advance, with the observance of all sorts of byzantine procedures. This was just a protest staged by people reacting to what they had seen the evening before. These people seemed to fall into two categories: the diehards who had been roughed up and detained on numerous occasions and who simply felt it was their duty to respond publicly to injustice, and those who had no concept of permits and regulations. Between these two groups was a thin layer of well-informed occasional protesters who weighed their risks every time. They had seen others detained by police, or had been detained themselves, and knew that not having a permit meant that the police felt they had license to be as rough as they wanted to be. Which, after the protest and the attempted march the night before, would probably be very rough.
Neither Seryozha nor Masha knew anything about permits. But Masha had now been to one protest, and she felt she had learned a thing or two. When the police moved in, which seemed to happen instantly, she whipped out her iPhone and started shouting into it in English. The police must have taken her for a foreign correspondent or a tourist—they moved on. Masha ran into a nearby park, which had an American-style diner. One of the first such restaurants in the city, it had catered to expats in the 1990s. Masha ran into the diner and plopped onto the first empty seat she saw, in a booth with three young men who were also just pulling off their coats.
The police were not far behind. They started grabbing people from their seats. Masha repeated the trick that had worked minutes earlier: she turned to the table and started speaking English. The men readily picked up. After the police finished, leaving a dozen shiny red leatherette seats empty in their wake, the group switched back to Russian and did the introductions. Masha’s new friends were all second-day protesters like she was. All three had been educated abroad—Stanford, MIT, and the London School of Economics. This was probably why they had known to seek refuge in the diner.
They did not know what they were supposed to do now. All pulled out their phones. Masha read on Twitter that Elena Kostyuchenko, a young openly lesbian Novaya gazeta journalist, had been detained. The tweet had the address of the detention center where she had been taken. Masha went. There she met a man named Ilya Ponomarev, who told her he was a parliament member from A Just Russia and a protest organizer. Then she met two young women who said they were members of a group she had never heard of. It was called Pussy Riot. Masha liked the name. Masha had been an activist for twenty-four hours, and her social circle had already quadrupled.
BORIS NEMTSOV HAD BEEN WILLING this moment to come for years, but who would have known that it would come now—or what to do with it now that it had happened? People he knew well and some whom he barely knew gathered together now, at the Solidarity office, and said that they would coordinate the protests. But they were not the only ones. A few blocks away, Ilya Ponomarev, the parliament member who had come out of nowhere, held a town-meeting-style gathering to discuss the protests. Groups were popping up on Facebook and VKontakte, with thousands of people expressing their desire to protest some more. The questions were, where, when, and how, exactly?
Virtually none of the new self-identified activists knew that the authorities had long ago placed extensive restrictions on protest. Some of them, like Masha, had heard about the Marches of the Dissenters, but many more, like Seryozha, had not been paying attention at all. The permit system was just one example of the restrictions—the most pertinent one at this point. In Moscow, a permit could be obtained only within a specific time window, which in practice meant filing an application in the morning of the day twelve calendar days before the planned action. If you asked early, the application would be denied, and if you asked late, you would be told that someone already had dibs on your spot. This meant that activists had to arrive at city hall before daybreak, to ensure that they were physically the first people to walk through the door of the permits-issuing office several hours later, when the city opened for business. Then there would be negotiations with police. If the application was successful and a permit was issued, the police would erect cordons around a space large enough for the anticipated number of people and set up metal detectors at the entrance to this cordoned-off space. The organizers and the police negotiated the specifics of inspection: Would people be able to bring in plastic water bottles? What about placards on wooden planks? What about metal ones? If the applicants turned out to have underestimated the number of participants, they would face not only a fine but also problems in their relationship with the police, so important for the success of future applications.
The newbies did not know any of this and might not be prepared to understand this. They might also be unwilling to wait for a new application to go through—their desire to protest, which had come out of nowhere, might dissipate just as quickly. Nemtsov, Navalny, several other men, and a couple of women who now felt they had to harness this newfound energy gathered to discuss the predicament. There was unexpected good news: someone had already secured a permit for a protest on December 10—less than a week away. The bad news was, the permit was for three hundred people who were expected to gather in a small square across from the Bolshoi Theatre. In theory and symbolically, this was a good location: the Bolshoi was a short walk from Red Square, separated from it by an area called Revolution Square. A larger protest would fit nicely there.
The prospect of tens of thousands of protesters in Revolution Square was evidently not one Moscow authorities were willing to entertain. Nor were they willing to negotiate with the women who had secured the permit. They reached out to Nemtsov and to several other prominent men whom they believed to be associated with the protests, and proposed an alternative: Bolotnaya Square. Boloto means “swamp.” The square in question used to be just that; now it was an island, separated by the Moscow River from the Kremlin on one side and by a canal from a residential neighborhood on the other. Nemtsov’s apartment happened to overlook Bolotnaya Square from across the canal. The police liked Bolotnaya for obvious reasons: it was easy to cordon off; access and egress would be naturally slowed down by the geography of the place. All the men agreed that a demonstration involving tens of thousands of people would be more orderly at Bolotnaya. They shook on it, and even shared a bottle of whiskey.22 Nemtsov was convinced that the protesters would be safe only if they complied. He wrote an appeal on his blog:
Dear friends! For me the safety and security of people are more important than Twitter and Facebook. It’s not only experienced opposition activists who are planning to come to the protest but also a huge number of people who have never been to a protest before. It would be a low, provocational, and criminal thing to do, to have them end up beaten by riot police. I could never let that happen.23
Nemtsov and two other activists also recorded a video putting forth this position and specifying the demands of the upcoming protest at Bolotnaya Square: the release of all political prisoners—they meant the casualties of the last two protests, when nearly nine hundred people had been detained and scores of them had been sentenced to fifteen days in jail—and new elections.24 Tens of thousands of people were clicking “I’m going” on the social network pages created for the protest, and the activists felt it was important that they go to the right place and make the right demands. It was for their own good.
THE NIGHT before the protest at Bolotnaya, Masha was hanging out with her new friends from Starlight Diner and her childhood friend Tolya, whose family had emigrated to Canada almost twenty years before. Tolya was now a computer scientist working for a Russian company in Moscow. Everyone was planning to go to the protest the next day, and no one could understand why they were supposed to go to the island rather than Revolution Square. Consensus was, this would be a wasted opportunity: for the first and quite possibly the last time in their lives, these people, who had been weaned on profound disgust for any sort of collective action, were moved to join one. They naturally assumed this was true of all other newly minted protesters. How could they allow such a chance to be wasted by going to a place where they would be neither heard nor seen, except by one another?
Masha said that she had been reading about Occupy Wall Street, and it was obvious to her that Occupy was the right model. Go to Revolution Square, set up camp, refuse to leave. Or go to the Central Election Commission, which was just a block away from Revolution Square, and occupy that, demanding new elections. In fact, that was what the Ukrainians did in 2004, long before Occupy Wall Street, and it had worked for them.
“When I was a student at Oxford,” said one of the young men, and he launched into a long description of the tactics he saw used by student activists there. “But you need a leader to follow for that.”
Did they have a leader? The group began tossing names around. Nemtsov was a holdover from a previous era. Yashin was always trying to get people to take him seriously, because they did not. Another self-proclaimed leader, Sergei Udaltsov, had orthodox Soviet views and generally seemed to want to be a 1920s commissar. That left Navalny. They liked Navalny, though his nationalist views and what they called his “Komsomol ways”—including his love of chanting slogans such as “One for all and all for one”—made him less appealing. Still, they would be willing to follow him if he called them to a good protest. But Navalny was still serving his fifteen-day sentence.
“He should make a statement from jail,” said someone. But it was too late for that.
“I think you should go and talk to the organizers and tell them they are wasting an opportunity,” said someone. Masha realized that they were addressing her. All of them, in fact, seemed to agree that Masha would be a good person to deliver this message. But she did not know how to contact any of the organizers. So the next day they went to Bolotnaya. So did about fifty thousand other people, making it the largest Russian protest since the Soviet Union collapsed.
THERE WAS A STAGE, and speakers on it—apparently, people always had this at protests. Looking at them—he could not really hear them—Seryozha realized that he had been to a protest once before, more than ten years earlier. In April 2001, after almost a year of threats, police raids, and court disputes, the journalists of NTV, the independent national television channel, had been told that the company was now under the control of the state gas monopoly. They called for a protest in the street in front of the television tower, where all the broadcasters had their offices. Seryozha wound his way out there—the television tower was far from the Metro, and Seryozha had trouble navigating the buses in an unfamiliar neighborhood of Moscow. Then he stood in the pouring rain, watching his favorite television anchors, people whose faces had been on the screen as long as he had been aware of television news, come out and speak from the temporary stage. Some of them looked like they were crying, though it was hard to tell in the rain. It had seemed like the end of the world.
Since then, one of the anchors had demonstratively quit journalism to take up the traditional dissident occupation of stove-stoker, another had moved to Ukraine and had his own show there, but the rest of those journalists had found some accommodation within the new, entirely state-controlled television world. Some were enthusiastically stumping for Putin, while others confined themselves to culture and apparently innocuous social issues. The city had built a monorail road to the television tower. And Seryozha forgot about that protest. If someone had asked him, the day before he went to Bolotnaya Square, whether he had ever been to a protest, he would have been adamant that he had not. He would have said, in fact, that up until a few months ago, when he first learned of the Makarov case, he had had no argument with the regime.
Now someone very loud on or near the stage began shouting, “Down with Putin!” A few hundred people picked up the chant. Seryozha did not. Something about it made him uncomfortable. He had not come here to bring down Putin. He did not want to think of himself as a revolutionary—to his grandfather, that had been a dirty word. All that had gone wrong, Alexander Nikolaevich believed, had been the result of drastic action taken without forethought. Good change could be only gradual and intentional. Also, Seryozha did not want to chant. Chanting put one in mind of either Communist-era parades, which Seryozha remembered, or perhaps felt like he remembered, or of the Kremlin youth movements, which sought ecstasy in unity and aggression. Seryozha did not want ecstasy. He wanted to register his existence as someone separate and different from the state. For this purpose, he wore a white ribbon. Somehow, over the last few days, white had become the color of this protest. It was a symbol like Ukraine’s orange, but also its opposite. White was pure, it was nonaggressive, and it was every color. It was important to Seryozha and to the people he was now meeting here that this was not a protest of any political party or movement. They preferred to think of it as not being political at all.
ALEXANDRE BIKBOV, the sociologist who had been providing an educational alternative for students of Moscow State University’s sociology department, now turned his seminar into a mobile survey unit. Their goal was to ask people what they were doing, and why, while they were doing it. Both the Kremlin and the media in Russia and abroad quickly accepted the understanding that the protesters were members of the middle class who opposed Putin. One commonly used phrase was “angry city dwellers,” where “city dweller” implied affluence and youth. The Levada Center conducted surveys that showed that the protesters were not in fact predominantly affluent—they included some poor people, many people of moderate means, and some rich people. Nor were they predominantly young: just slightly more than half were under forty, but 22 percent were older than fifty-five.25 Bikbov found that they were also not particularly angry. They liked to joke, and they loved a good funny banner, like I DIDN’T VOTE FOR THESE ASSHOLES, I VOTED FOR THE OTHER ASSHOLES, the runaway favorite among the many visual and textual gags held up on handwritten placards at Bolotnaya. The humor, Bikbov concluded, served a dual purpose. On the one hand, it defused the feeling of having been violated: one is less of a victim if one can laugh about it. It also signaled that the protesters were not dangerous. Revolutionaries do not kid around. By cracking jokes the protesters shifted their focus from the Kremlin to one another. The protest seemed like a contest in which like-minded people looked for the wittiest person among them.26 Afterward, participants combed social networks to see if their particular placard had become an audience favorite.
“White, the color of our protest, is a good symbol,” wrote Nemtsov in a euphoric blog post on December 10. “It means that protest participants can harbor no ‘dark’ thoughts.” The blog post began with the words, “I am happy. The 10th of December, 2011, will go down in history as the day of resurrection of civic dignity and civil society. After ten years of hibernation, Moscow and all of Russia have awakened.”27
It was all of Russia indeed. On or around the same day, nearly a hundred Russian cities and towns—which is to say, all of Russia’s cities and towns—saw protest rallies, demonstrations, or marches. In several places, the relative number of participants—the percentage of a town’s population that came out to protest—far exceeded that of Moscow.
In his blog post, Nemtsov announced that the protesters had “unanimously adopted” a list of demands. There had been no vote at Bolotnaya, and most of the participants could not hear the speakers, but the last time Nemtsov had attended a protest this large—over twenty years ago—there had been lists and demands. That seemed to be the way these things worked. There were six demands. One was to release “all political prisoners,” meaning the people arrested at last week’s protests, and five concerned the parliamentary elections—annul the results; fire the chairman of the Election Commission; investigate reports of vote-rigging; allow opposition parties on the ballot; and hold new, open, and fair elections. Putin’s resignation was not on the list, nor did the list include any mention of the upcoming presidential election. The demands did not explicitly include Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had been in jail for eight years, or Vladimir Makarov, unknown to most of the protesters. The demands made no mention of the killings of opposition journalists, or of media freedom at all. The demands were intentionally minimal, apparently easy to carry out. They were modeled on the logic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Gorbachev’s Politburo, weak and uncertain, might have been open to compromise and reason. The Communist parties of the Soviet Union’s satellite countries had sat down to negotiate with protesters in response to similar kinds of demands during the “velvet revolutions” of 1989. To Nemtsov and his co-organizers, Putin’s government seemed, suddenly, to be in the same sort of teetering state as those governments had been.
“Suddenly” was the operative word. Then again, those old enough to remember the fall of the Soviet Union remembered that the regime had seemed eternal until one day it did not. But what had happened now? Why had people taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, people of different ages and income levels, all over the country? Social scientists who wrote about the protests invariably used the word “mystery.”
A Russian-born, Western-educated German sociologist undertook probably the most thorough attempt to crack the mystery. Mischa Gabowitsch based his study on interviews with dozens of protesters all over the country as well as on a close examination of the posters, slogans, and forms of protest. His evidence debunked the idea that this was a middle-class protest or even a protest primarily driven by middle-class values such as the desire to protect private property and receive good government services in exchange for one’s tax rubles. Gabowitsch concluded that the critique of corruption, and especially Navalny’s narration of it, created the preconditions for protest. Navalny’s term “Party of Crooks and Thieves” supplied the language. Protesters talked about many things being stolen from them—not only money and government services but also votes. Nemtsov put a number on it: he claimed that thirteen million votes had gone missing. The most blatant vote-fix of them all—Medvedev’s handover of power to Putin—could also be framed as a manifestation of corruption.
At the same time, noted Gabowitsch, seeing the protests as solely a reaction to witnessing the blatant fraud in the parliamentary election would be wrong.
Compared with the reforms of electoral law and the elimination, intimidation and pre-selection of opposition candidates, the vote-rigging on election day itself may not be a trifle, but they are no more than the last cog in the power vertical’s steering mechanism. This distinguishes the situation in Russia in December 2011 from that in Serbia in 2000, in Georgia in 2003, in Ukraine in 2004 or in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. There electoral manipulation had been the decisive tool to prevent the victory of a candidate who was popular or at least supported by a broad coalition. In Russia, by contrast, the preceding reforms had made the emergence of such a candidate or coalition unlikely. Why, nevertheless, was it a rigged election that led to spontaneous mass protest in Russia?28
He suggested that part of the answer lay in the ritual of elections, which had been painfully violated. In other words, it was precisely the obscene manner of the rigging, not the fact of it, that caused the outrage—like what had caused Seryozha to throw a blank ballot in the bin in disgust, after flying all the way from Kiev to Moscow to cast it. If the protesters were objecting primarily to what had felt to them like public indecency—not just at the voting booth but also earlier, in September, when Putin and Medvedev publicly shook on the presidency—then it stood to reason that they did not call for Putin to be deposed and did not confront the regime with its gravest crimes. Held on a cordoned-off island, the protest was not confrontational at all. Some of Bikbov’s respondents said that they were demonstrating for stability—using the keyword of the Putin era, turning it into their demand. Or their request.
Even though the protesters belonged to different age groups, Putin had now been in power long enough that a majority of them had spent all or most of their adult lives in the era of supposed “stability.” Some of them had expected the Putin era to be like the Soviet past they remembered or imagined, the object of national nostalgia. According to these memories, that time was slow, predictable, and essentially unchanging. But in Putin’s era of “stability,” things refused to stay the same. The markets crashed because Putin said or did something. Innocent, randomly chosen people went to prison just because the government had declared a witch hunt against pedophiles. The spectacle of the Putin-Medvedev handoff and the experience of the farcical election served as reminders of how powerless Russian citizens were to affect any aspect of life. The protests were an attempt to renegotiate, to reclaim a little bit of space from the ever-expanding party-state—and it so happened that the party was the one of crooks and thieves.
ON DECEMBER 15, Putin held his tenth annual hotline, a show during which he answered questions from a carefully screened audience and an equally well-screened selection of callers. Even though Putin had not formally been president for the last three years, these shows, starring Putin, had continued on schedule. Seryozha watched as for the first twenty minutes Putin fielded softball questions about the protests. He seemed a little unnerved at first, but then Seryozha thought that might have been wishful thinking on his part. Putin grew more confident as he talked. He even took credit for the protests: his regime had produced many active citizens. He promised to place a web camera at every polling station to assure the public that there would be no fraud during the upcoming presidential election. This was ridiculous: web cameras would be useless against most of the falsification practices. But at least they had forced him to respond. Maybe he was scared, after all.
The show’s host had once been a brave young reporter at NTV. Seryozha remembered seeing him at that protest, when everyone found a way to promise never to give up. Now he was ten years older and twenty kilos heavier, sitting behind a desk at a state-channel studio, tense and eager next to Russia’s most powerful man. The host read a question from a laptop screen in front of him:
During the protests in central Moscow people put on white ribbons. Those ribbons are almost like the symbol of a looming “color revolution” in Russia. Do you agree with this assessment? . . .
As far as “color revolutions,” I think everything is clear. They are an established practice of destabilizing societies, and I think that this practice did not come out of nowhere. We know what happened during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. By the way, some of our opposition activists were in Ukraine at that time and held official positions as advisers to then president Yushchenko. They naturally try to transfer this practice to Russian soil. But to be frank, when I saw, on the screen, that some people were wearing something on their chest, I’ll tell you honestly, even though it’s inappropriate, but I thought that this was AIDS education, that they had, I’m sorry, that they had pinned contraceptives to their chests. I just couldn’t understand why they had taken them out of their wrappers. But then I got a closer look.29
It got worse. Putin went on to claim that people had been paid to attend the protests and that the “opposition leaders” had humiliated them by calling out, “Sheep, go forth!” But Seryozha barely heard this, because he was already livid—at the obvious reference to Nemtsov, whose work in Ukraine was described as something akin to treason, but more than that, by the stupid condom joke.
From this point on, Seryozha was driven by rage. His rage focused on producing as many white ribbons as possible. There was a shortage. Retail shops all over Moscow had run out of white ribbons. People were wearing ribbons not just to protests but every day, to work and in the streets. They pinned them to their coats, tied them to their bags and to the antennae of their cars. Seryozha found wholesalers and bought large heavy rolls of ribbon, an inch wide and hundreds of yards long. Cutting the ribbon into tens of thousands of roughly six-inch strips was no trivial task. He invented a technique. He wound the ribbon around the back of a bentwood chair, thirty to fifty times over, and then made two strategic cuts—for as many as a hundred pieces at once. Then the ends of the strips had to be singed with a lighter, to keep them from fraying. Before the next planned protest, on December 24, Seryozha set up a workshop at his apartment. Several people he had met at a gathering called the Protest Workshop came to help. They also produced an instruction video and uploaded it to YouTube.
MASHA WENT TO EVERY ACTION, protest, planning meeting, and related social occasion. Within two weeks of becoming an activist, she had started a new job, as press secretary to parliament member Ilya Ponomarev of A Just Russia, who had been speaking at the protests. She had joined the protest art group Pussy Riot. The all-woman open-membership collective staged guerrilla performances and posted videos online. In December, they sang on a garage roof outside the detention center where Navalny and other protesters were held. In January, they sang in Red Square; the song was called “Putin Pissed Himself.” That time, like many other times, they were escorted to a police station and allowed to leave after a couple of hours. Next, Masha wanted them to stage an action in the parliament chamber. They would descend from one of the side boxes, in their mismatched multicolored tights and balaclavas, when the parliament was in session.
This action turned out to be harder to organize than Masha could have imagined. On February 21, Pussy Riot performed instead at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the gaudy giant wedding cake of a church near the Kremlin. They sang a song called “Punk Prayer,” in which they pleaded with the Virgin to “chase Putin out.” Their message was directed at the protesters as much as at anyone else. Rather than assemble in cordoned-off spaces, it said, be confrontational—go where you are not supposed to go and say what you are not supposed to say. In this case, they were confronting the church and state where church and state became one. The presidential election was two weeks away. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was campaigning for Putin.
On March 4, just before the polls opened, two members of Pussy Riot were placed under arrest on suspicion of felony hooliganism, a charge that could carry up to seven years in prison. Masha was not one of them because she had not made it to the cathedral that day.
LYOSHA HAPPENED TO BE IN KIEV the first weekend of March, at a seminar in the Gender, Sexuality, and Power series. The election looked even more bizarre from a distance. Putin declared victory in the first round with 63 percent of the vote, and the white-ribbon crowd in Russia seemed shocked by this predictable outcome.
On March 8, International Women’s Day, the participants staged a march down Kiev’s main avenue. They marched for gender equality, LGBT rights, and freedom for Pussy Riot. There were maybe 150 of them, twice as many police, and, it looked to Lyosha, four times as many counterdemonstrators. It was the first time Lyosha marched for LGBT rights. It was also the first time he saw police protecting protesters rather than threatening them. He felt oddly inspired, despite having had to march through a tunnel of police in riot gear.
When he returned to Perm, his dean said nothing about the march. But she did suggest that it would be wise to change the title of the seminar when he put in the paperwork for where he had been.