Vladimir Putin, President of the Land of Make Believe

On May 7, a black motorcade carried Vladimir Putin to his inauguration as Russia's president through a capital city that looked like a ghost town. Police had cleared the streets of all traffic and pedestrians after a violent resurgence of protests the day before. It was an inauspicious start of a third term for Putin, who is still bent on acting as if his opponents do not exist.

Nobody expected the demonstration of May 6, called the "March of Millions," to be a big event. The opposition had planned it, and the authorities had sanctioned it, soon after Putin won the presidential election in March. Poor turnout at demonstrations in the interim had lowered expectations.

It is not easy to piece together exactly how what started as a peaceful march ended with 570 people arrested and dozens injured, including 29 police. Eyewitness accounts are emotional and unreliable. Pictures taken by bloggers, such as the popular photographer and photo editor Rustem Adagamov, probably provide the best idea of what occurred. What follows is a composite sketch built from a dozen first-hand reports.

Protesters showed up in force, with delegations arriving from many Russian regions. Various estimates suggest between 50,000 and 80,000 attended. The day was warm. Women wore summer dresses. Many Muscovites brought their children. It was all in good fun until the marchers reached a bridge across the Moskva river opposite the Kremlin.

At the bridge, the marchers were supposed to turn right toward Bolotnaya square, their officially sanctioned destination. There, they encountered a narrow passage lined with riot police wearing shiny black helmets and wielding rubber truncheons. Behind the riot police, more special forces waited in tight formation as if preparing to repel an armed attack.

Corruption fighter Alexei Navalny and left-wing radical Sergei Udaltsov, who were leading the main column, refused to enter the cramped passage. Instead, they staged a sit-in in front of the police line, declaring they would stay there until Putin's inauguration the following day. Many marchers sat down with them.

Meanwhile, a crowd had already assembled in Bolotnaya square, expecting the leaders to arrive onstage and start making speeches. When they heard an announcement that the police gauntlet was preventing Navalny and Udaltsov from joining them in the square, some walked toward the bridge to demand that the organizers be allowed to pass.

The bridge area soon became overcrowded as more and more protesters arrived. After about an hour of extreme discomfort, a group of protesters -- apparently leftist activists or anarchists -- tried to break through the police line. The troopers regrouped and counterattacked with indiscriminate force, their truncheons coming down on the heads of muscular opposition activists, hapless youngsters, old ladies and whoever else had found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. A veritable street battle unfolded with enraged marchers tearing off the troopers' helmets and tossing them into the river.

It was only a matter of time before the riot police won. By then they had pulled out all the stops, beating a few people unconscious with their batons and dragging hundreds to waiting vans with barred windows. Tear gas -- which might have come from either side, or both -- floated over the bridge. Navalny and Udaltsov were briefly detained.

“Why a peaceful march... turned into a massacre and who was to blame -- you decide,” Adagamov wrote. “I believe the culprit to be the current government, which twisted people's arms to turn elections... into a pitiful circus. People feel deceived, and things reached a boiling point at Bolotnaya.”

Marchers who had been merely critical of Putin arrived home beside themselves with anger and hurt. “They got their wish -- they have made people really mad,” wrote blogger Tatyana Belonovskaya. “There are no more illusions. We will neither forget nor forgive.”

Hers was among the milder comments. “This is war," wrote activist Vladislav Naganov, a close ally of Navalny, on his blog. "War has been publicly declared on the people.”

The street violence clearly frightened police officials. They decided to take no chances the following day as Putin rode to the Kremlin to be inaugurated. Parked cars were towed, pedestrians kept away. Never in recent memory has downtown Moscow been so quiet.

“A neutron bomb called Putin has exploded in Moscow," journalist Alexander Golts wrote on Facebook. "A touching moment: a leader communing with empty streets instead of his people.” Political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, once close to the president, likened Putin to Napoleon, who arrived two centuries earlier to a Moscow set ablaze and abandoned by its residents.

Putin seemed unfazed throughout the inauguration ceremony. He made a short speech stressing the need for national unity and expressing his confidence in Russia's great future. The president did not mention the previous day's disturbances and expressed no sympathy for the victims. He signed 14 decrees on May 7, none having the slightest bearing on what was going on in the capital city. Earlier, his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, had told the TV channel Dozhd: “In my view, the police were too soft. I would have liked tougher action from them.”

Protests went on after the inauguration, albeit on a smaller scale. Riot police dispersed an opposition gathering at Cafe Jean Jacques, a bohemian spot in central Moscow beloved by the city's intelligentsia.

Navalny, now released, led several hundred to 1,000 people on a peripatetic demonstration that began in a downtown square, moved through the capital's boulevards and was back at its starting point by the morning light of May 8. Navalny was again detained but soon released. A newly minted joke making the rounds on social networks described Navalny leading people around Moscow for 40 years like a modern-day Moses.

On May 8, Putin named his new prime minister: Dmitry Medvedev, who had kept the presidential chair warm for him for the last four years. In a farewell interview with journalists from state-owned TV stations, Medvedev said of his joint rule with Putin: “You've got to relax, this is all built to last.” Few commentators are so sure. By using force on mainly peaceful protesters, rounding up coffee drinkers at a popular cafe and clearing the streets for Putin's surreal trip through the capital, the authorities have shown enough fear and uncertainty to undermine the ruling tandem's show of confidence.

The opposition still lacks universally recognized leaders, a positive program and an organization capable of contesting elections. Very few protesters are prepared to stand up to riot police by choice rather than by accident. Yet curiously, as one watches video footage of Navalny's supporters playing badminton and singing songs as they wait to be chased away by helmeted storm troopers, one feels that Putin can hardly spend his entire six-year term in denial.

“The next cycle of protest will definitely come,” wrote Alexander Malashenko, a political scientist with Moscow's Carnegie Center. “It is quite likely that it will creep up on us unexpectedly, like the first one did. There's no way the country can avoid it.”

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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