As Moscow braces for organized protests this weekend, one indicator of the breadth of political discontent can be found in the sudden transformation of an Internet diarist named Bozhena Rynska.
The 36-year-old Moscow socialite and journalist has been a familiar figure in the press and cyberspace, known for her spicy chronicles of Russia’s oligarchs and Facebook photos featuring her frequent appearances at red-carpet events.
In the wake of Russia’s elections on Dec. 4, which sparked allegations of fraud, Rynska in quick succession attended a protest in Moscow, got arrested and produced a stream of Facebook posts that have stoked heated discussions among her nearly 5,000 cyber-friends.
Several influential actual friends came to see her at the police precinct where she was held -- “My high-society contacts are very supportive,” she said. Upon release around 12:30 a.m., Rynska left in a BMW, escorted by another friend driving a “giant Rolls Royce.”
“I am not a revolutionary, I’m just fed up,” Rynska said in a telephone interview. I knew her from when we attended the same middle school in St. Petersburg. It was past 1 a.m., Moscow time, when we talked, but she was still filing stories, posting on Facebook and giving interviews.
“Political activism has suddenly become hip,” said Maria Lipman, an analyst at Carnegie Moscow Center, in a telephone interview. “Young and urban Russians, who were absolutely not interested in politics a few months ago, have come out in droves to vote and monitor the elections. The mood has changed from resentment to defiance and it’s spreading thanks to the new technology and the Internet.”
Buzz Over Fraud
The Dec. 4 parliamentary election stirred widespread anger in Russia over fraud allegations and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s plan to return as president. Since then, Facebook, Twitter and blogs have been buzzing with discussions of corruption and injustice as well as mobile-phone uploads from the polling stations and demonstrations.
More than 35,000 people have registered to attend the protest scheduled for tomorrow in Bolotnaya Square, near the Kremlin, according to the event’s Facebook page. Officials have approved a rally for 30,000, which would be the biggest in the city in a decade.
One popular Facebook post offered step-by-step legal advice, ranging from what to do before the demonstration (notarize a copy of your passport) to how to select a lawyer and what not to do if arrested.
In her Facebook posts, Rynska’s curse-laden appeals for action compared the police to wild beasts and urged her compatriots to “strike back.” Some Internet readers accused her of extremism, while others commended her fearlessness.
The recent rise in activism, which was quickly dubbed “The Russian Winter,” can be traced to September, when President Dmitry Medvedev nominated Putin, his predecessor for two terms and current prime minister, to succeed him.
“Rationally, everyone had expected that,” Lipman said. “Emotionally, it was like a shock. The common reaction was, ‘Oh, no! Not for another 12 years!’”
This is why so many people went to vote and monitor the elections, she added. “They observed, they recorded and they reported,” she said.
“Social networks played a huge role once the drive was there,” Lipman said. “Now the protests are considered so popular in online circles, it’s almost impossible not to join. You’d feel like an outsider.”
(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)