Pro-Putin Crowds Bash U.S., Demand Purge of Oppositionby
Toxic anti-U.S. rhetoric swelled in the streets of Moscow as thousands of president Putin’s supporters marched on the anniversary of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, which they regard as an illegal coup backed by the U.S. Protesters demanded that the Russian government clamp down on Putin's liberal opposition.
Organised by the Anti-Maidan coalition that unites a broad array of forces—nationalists, communists, Muslims and the country’s largest biker gang—the march rallied 35,000, according to the police. No reliable independent estimates were available, but it was visibly large by Moscow standards.
Hailing from Perm in the Urals, a group of students dressed as surgeons were carrying stretchers with an orange-coloured human effigy that had fake dollar notes glued all over its body. Orange was the colour of Ukraine’s first revolution in 2004. Aleksandr Chichulin, 19, explained that it was “the dead body of Maidan” and that the dollars referred to the allegation that both Ukrainian revolutions had been funded with American money.
“We are here to prevent a U.S.-sponsored Maidan from happening in Russia,” said Chichulin. The effigy was eventually thrown on the pavement along with a U.S. flag. People stomped on both and burned fake dollar notes while posing for selfies.
Putin's approval rating has remained at the record high for the last 12 months. It was 85% at the end of January, according to Levada polling agency. But the number of people who believe that the country is moving in the right direction has fallen from 66% to 55% since August 2014. The approval ratings of opposition members remain low.
Putin backers now deride liberal opposition as “the fifth column,” a 1930s term commonly used to identify groups working against the interests of the country from within.
“Purge the fifth column,” read a giant banner carried by the members of a major group, the National Liberation Movement. Other banners blamed leaders of the Russian opposition, such as Alexey Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for trying to stage a Maidan-style revolution in Russia. “Enemies of Russia want Maidan” said a poster flying next to an effigy of Navalny dressed as a clown. Speaking from the main stage, poet Ivan Kupriyanov said the “fifth columnists” were “non-humans.”
On Thursday, Navalny was sentenced to 15 days in jail for handing out leaflets for an opposition protest on March 1, which he will now have to miss. The opposition blames Putin for plunging Russia into the worst economic crisis in years and demands that he stop the war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin denies it is waging. But the authorities only allowed the protest to be held on the outskirts of the city, which may discourage many supporters.
By contrast, the pro-Putin march on Saturday ended up right by the Kremlin walls. Batches of banners and posters were waiting for the participants to grab along the route. Dozens were discarded at the procession’s end as people rushed off, ignoring speakers addressing them from the stage. Many participants were students and public sector workers bussed from provincial cities. Dozens of buses were waiting for them on the other side of the Moscow river.