Russian Protesters Break Out Their Walking Shoes

In the wake of Vladimir Putin's surreal inauguration as president of Russia, both protesters and police are struggling to figure out what their new rules of engagement should be.

The violent clashes of May 6 have given way to a more peaceful form of protest: the demonstrative stroll. Last week, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny took a few hundred supporters on a “walk” along Moscow's downtown boulevards. Since the walk was not officially sanctioned, participants refrained from carrying signs or shouting slogans. They simply wore white ribbons to symbolize their anti-Putin views.

Authorities, in a knee-jerk reaction, stopped the march numerous times and randomly selected participants to be driven in paddy wagons to police stations in remote parts of town. It soon became a badge of honor for protesters to ride at least once in a police van. Some people, including Navalny, managed to get picked up as many as four times in the 72 hours that the sporadic “walks” lasted. Others willingly lined up to be detained. Almost the entire editorial staff of the magazine Bolshoi Gorod (Big City) scored a ride, posting sarcastic tweets as they were driven to the outskirts of the Russian capital.

Svetlana Reyter, writing for Bolshoi Gorod, captured the spirit of the game: “A simple thought crossed my mind: What the hell? We are not carrying a single placard nor shouting anything. What is this cowboys and Indians thing?" she wrote. "At 6 a.m. I'm walking an empty Tverskaya Street, cleared for the Victory Day parade. Catch me if you can.”

Most of those detained were released in a matter of hours. Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, one of the organizers of the May 6 march, received harsher punishment in the form of 15 days' detention for “resisting police.”

Not to be deterred, protesters shifted to the model of Occupy Wall Street, setting up an impromptu camp in a small park around the statue of Abai Kunanbayev, the national poet of Kazakhstan. It was soon known by the Twitter hash-tag #occupyabai. Putin's administration and police, apparently exhausted and frustrated by all the walking, left the camp alone. It soon became a magnet for 1,000 to 1,500 mostly young people singing songs to the accompaniment of guitars, playing badminton and engaging in political discussions. Residents banned alcohol and policed themselves to prevent violent incidents. Garbage collection and food delivery was organized. Local homeless zoomed in on the area, drawn to the free sandwiches.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist with close ties to the Putin establishment, visited the Abai camp to do a preliminary study. She found the campers to be young and highly educated: Their average age was 31, and 66 percent had a college degree. “People who have joined the protest action are hyper-communicative,” Kryshtanovskaya wrote. “For such people Occupyabai is a breath fresh air, a feast of human interaction.” According to her impromptu poll, 90 percent of those present would join other protests if police dispersed the camp.

Occupyabai became a trendy spot for amateur theater productions and lectures. Some participants lamented its tameness. “Sitting in a cozy corner of a boulevard creates a dangerous illusion of victory,” wrote journalist Olesya Gerasimenko. “Just try testing that by shouting a few political slogans."

Russia's most popular mystery writer, Boris Akunin, came up with a fresh idea to try the authorities' patience. He called on fellow authors and anyone else to join a "test walk" along Moscow's central boulevards on May 13, again without signs or slogans. The aim: to see if people, including well-known literati, would be detained just for marching together and wearing white ribbons.

“We will take a walk pretending that we're peacefully discussing literature, but actually shaking with fright,” Akunin wrote on his blog. “The purpose of the experiment is to establish if Muscovites may freely walk the streets of their city or if they require some kind of special permission to do so.”

Vladimir Platonov, speaker of Moscow's city legislature and a Putin ally, railed publicly against Akunin's plan, warning Muscovites that they would be attending it at their own risk. He met with Akunin on the night of May 12 in a cafe near the Abai camp. A transcript of the meeting shows the two failed to come to any kind of understanding. “It is impossible in any democratic nation to change election results through rallies," Platonov said. "It is only possible if blood is spilled, like in Northern Africa.” Akunin countered that his allies were just a bunch of “bespectacled writers” on a peaceful walk.

About 18,000 people showed up for the test walk on May 13, far more than the 2,000 who had signed up on Facebook. Authors, including Akunin, who showed up wearing a top hat, signed autographs as the crowd moved merrily through downtown Moscow with no police in sight. The authorities gamely shut off traffic along the route as soon as they saw the massive turnout. No one was detained, and in about two hours' time most of the crowd merged with the Abai camp.

It's still hard to say whether the test talk was a spectacular success or a baffling failure. It proved that an unsanctioned march could go unopposed, but nothing of greater political import was achieved. Navalny and Udaltsov remain in detention. Putin's party, United Russia, has come up with a new disincentive for would-be protesters: a bill imposing a fine of 1.5 million rubles ($50,000) for organizing, or even participating in, unsanctioned rallies. And on May 15, a Moscow court ruled the Abai camp illegal, claiming in the verdict that the commune had destroyed $600,000 worth of city-owned grass. Police dispersed the campers early this morning.

A few opposition leaders were conspicuous in their absence from the Abai camp and the various walks. Mikhail Prokhorov, who came in third in the March 4 presidential election, slammed both Putin's team and the protesters for a senseless escalation of conflict. “As for me, I will hold on to common sense and think about the destiny of our citizens and the nation as a whole,” Prokhorov wrote on his blog. “We need to restore calm in our heads and our cities.” He offered no details on how he intended to proceed.

Another absentee was Vladimir Ryzhkov, an active organizer of the mass rallies last winter. He explained in an interview with Ogonyok magazine that he had been ill, and that he saw no point in street violence or the walks. “So people have set up camp,” he said. “So what? If it affects anything, it's only the number of times some names are mentioned in the media.” His lack of enthusiasm for unsanctioned protest has one likely explanation: He has received permission to revive his dwarf Republican Party, and he hopes to start contesting local elections as soon as he rebuilds its infrastructure.

Even Navalny, who was instrumental in starting the latest wave of protest, has a Plan B. With the help of several anti-Putin financiers, he is launching a non-governmental organization focused on fighting corruption. One source of funding will be a plastic payment card that allows its holder to transmit a small percentage of every online transaction to Navalny's foundation. The card is supposed to debut in July.

Most people in the protest movement recognize that the situation has to evolve from the current stalemate. Putin's administration may have decided not to go for a massive crackdown, but it is not about to make concessions either. If protesters want to achieve anything, they'll have to come up with something more ambitious. With Putin enthroned for a six-year term, now is the time to experiment with all kinds of models, hoping that a successful one will emerge.

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


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.