Tens of thousands of Russians took to the rain-soaked streets of Moscow today – Russia Day – to protest against their country's quickening shuffle toward dictatorship. The message, as it has been for months, was clear: Russians, like everyone everywhere, demand dignity, accountability and the basic rights of a free society.
But their deja vu president, Vladimir Putin, is having none of it. The Kremlin has passed laws levying astronomical fines for protesting, arrested peaceful demonstrators, and launched night raids against opposition leaders. Russians are fed up – but can their people-powered movement survive Putin's vicelike grip?
A movement awakens
Russia's protest movement took shape last autumn, when Russians demonstrated in their thousands ahead of parliamentary elections, demanding political transparency and an end to the oligarchy's notorious corruption. When Putin's United Russia party narrowly won the polls, in a contest beset by allegations of cheating, protesters hit the streets again.
Putin was clearly not happy with the relative leniency protesters enjoyed under Dmitri Medvedev, his successor (and predecessor) as president. Since reassuming the presidency he has thrown his weight behind a draconian protest law that would fine participants the equivalent of $9,000 dollars (Russia's annual average wage is $8,500). Demonstrators who last month took part in an action that turned ugly are facing years in prison, and the government's army of hackers continues to filter the media and stifle a free press.
In the run-up to this latest rally, Putin's bullying tactics were on open display. Last night, the Kremlin dispatched security forces to the houses of protest leaders, including celebrity Kseniya Sobchak, blogger Aleksei Navalny and organiser Sergei Udaltsov – doling out intimidation and summonses to appear before the Investigative Committee (sometimes called "the Russian FBI").
In the case of Ms Sobchak, a TV star and the daughter of Putin's political mentor, a former mayor of St Petersburg, they left with well over $1m in cash, and a promise to examine her tax affairs.
The bare-knuckle tactics did not have the desired affect. As Sobchak and Navalny arrived smiling for their appointments with the Investigative Committee today, thousands of their countryman peacefully marched through Moscow. They wore white ribbons and chanted: "How awful".
Leaders like Putin thrive on a cult of vanity and a culture of fear. Since he took back the presidency, he has worked to cultivate both. But today's mass demonstration showed, once again, that Putin has one remaining obstacle: the Russian people.
One protester, Natalya Z Mazurchik, a doctor, told the New York Times that "the country’s moving toward dictatorship at a fast tempo". It's hard to disagree: but dictatorship will remain impossible so long as Russians maintain the courage to speak out in public.
Learn more: Writing in the Moscow Times today, Vladimir Ryzhkov, co-founder of the opposition People's Freedom Party, explains just how harsh the new protest law is, and Putin's "personal and emotional reasons" for pushing it.