As Putin's Grip Gets Tighter, a Time of Protest Fades in Russia

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MOSCOW -- As the final days of 2012 slipped away, no one at Denis Terekhov's company was talking about the next antigovernment protest.

Compared with the same time last year -- when Mr. Terekhov delivered an impromptu lecture on avoiding police detention -- Moscow feels like Moscow again. Profits at this marketing firm have tripled, the corporate holiday party featured cocktails in an unnatural shade of blue, and his "office plankton," as the city's legion of desk workers are sometimes known, scattered to vacations as far as Bali and Paris.

Mr. Terekhov, who watched his employees as last year's protests surged and ebbed, says it is now clear that they took part because it was fashionable, nothing more. They felt strongly about the anti-Putin rallies, he said, but "they also feel strong emotions about their iPhones."

Still, judging from this group, it would be wrong to say nothing changed in the year that Vladimir V. Putin returned to the presidency. The fizzy excitement around last year's street activism is entirely gone. But in its place is a deepening sense of alienation that poses its own long-term risk to the system.

Discussion of political activism in this office, an Internet marketing and communications firm called Social Networks Agency, is now coated with a rime of disappointment, as if a rare opportunity had been allowed to slip away. During the trial of the punk rock band Pussy Riot this past summer, Mr. Terekhov set aside one office as a screening room, where employees could watch a live stream of testimony with, as he put it, "laughter through tears."

A space has been left by Pasha Elizarov, a project manager and opposition activist, who resigned and left Russia after investigators summoned him in connection with an inquiry into inciting a riot. He sent in his holiday greetings from Tanzania.

Their story is the story of a political season. Mr. Putin reclaimed the presidency last year in the face of unprecedented public opposition from people like these, young urban trendsetters who stepped in from the sidelines of politics to tell him his return was not welcome. The Kremlin acted to stop the protests; new laws prescribe draconian punishments for acts of dissent, and the courts have imprisoned a small number of activists. Mr. Putin and those around him have embraced a new, sharply conservative rhetoric, dismissing the urban protesters as traitors and blasphemers, enemies of Russia.

Last year's protesters, who held out hope that Dmitri A. Medvedev would advance their agenda, are acutely aware that they are seen as outsiders. Irina Lukyanovich, 24, a copy editor who recently left the firm, said her peers were watching Russia's leaders more closely now, and judging them more severely.

"It's as if they are people from another planet," Ms. Lukyanovich said. "It seems to me that in a year, the distance between them and us has gotten much greater."

Yulia Fotchenko, an account director, sighed heavily when reminded of the elation she felt a year ago, when she stepped into the first large rally and her "consciousness was turned upside down."

How does she feel now? Insulted, disappointed. As if nothing in Russia will change. She blames the protest leaders, who she said proved so unable to capitalize on the moment that the crowds will never trust them again. As for the sudden sense of community she felt, it proved fleeting.

"Suddenly we -- a huge number of Internet hamsters -- we decided that we had had enough, we got together and we went out," Ms. Fotchenko said, using a slang term for Moscow's digitally connected youth. "And then, whoops! We turned back into Internet hamsters, the leaders and all the rest of us. Because nothing happened.

"And now I feel despair which is even stronger, deeper, worse than it was before we began these actions," she said.

Mr. Terekhov, 33, had been skeptical of the protests from the beginning, in part because he was left discouraged by his own brief career in opposition politics. A year ago, he made a point of warning his employees that by protesting they were facing serious risks, like riot police officers with truncheons. They needed to realize, he said, that "revolution is not a game."

The risks went beyond truncheons, it turned out. On a Sunday evening in September, Mr. Terekhov received an e-mail from Mr. Elizarov, 27, the single high-profile political activist among his employees. Mr. Elizarov said he was resigning from his position as a project manager and was leaving Russia.

He had been summoned in a political prosecution, one that has been used to cast the protesters as dangerous radicals. So far, 19 people have been charged in the case dating to May 6, when a large anti-Putin march ended in a melee between the police and protesters. The only one to be sentenced, a man who inflicted no serious injury and cooperated with prosecutors, received four and a half years.

Investigators looked for Mr. Elizarov at home, and they then began to visit his relatives, one by one.

In an interview via Skype, Mr. Elizarov said he did not leave for political reasons. He had long dreamed about visiting East Africa, he said. But Mr. Terekhov said Mr. Elizarov's decision had saved the firm the embarrassment of being associated with a notorious case.

"I would not have fired him, but he knows I have a lot of state contracts, and his status could have really interfered with our business," Mr. Terekhov said. "The fact that he resigned, I consider it a very decent act from his side."

Co-workers had a similarly philosophical attitude.

"I had this pure motherly instinct, 'O.K., he's safe there,' " Ms. Fotchenko said. "Because it's scary. If you know a person personally, and the system knocks on his door -- well, I would not wish this on anyone I know well. So he hid, and that's fine."

By the summer, as Mr. Putin tightened his grip, most in the office had concluded that the protests would not spread beyond Moscow's chattering classes.

Even then, it was impossible to ignore politics; everyone was talking about politics. When testimony began in the trial of the activists from Pussy Riot, Mr. Terekhov served tea as his workers watched prosecutors request seven-year sentences for three women who had lip-synced a crude anti-Putin song at an Orthodox cathedral. The judge ultimately sentenced each to two years (one was released early).

He described the atmosphere in the room as one of "black humor, like sarcasm. Laughter through tears." He reasoned that the screening was not exactly political; as marketers, they had a professional stake in the trial.

"From the point of view of international PR, if earlier Russia was associated with balalaika-matryoshka-caviar-Gorbachev-perestroika, now of course we have to add Pussy Riot," Mr. Terekhov said, his distaste apparent. "Balalaikas, bears -- they were fun. They were something you could joke about. But this is some sort of marvel from the Middle Ages."

So this is where they are at the start of 2013: No one expects political change. But steps by the government are still setting off waves of indignation, expressed mainly over social networks.

Mr. Terekhov said the year's third peak of political chatter, after the winter protests and the Pussy Riot trial, came last month, when the lower house of Parliament voted to ban adoption of Russian children by Americans. The ban was proposed in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, newly enacted American legislation punishing Russian officials linked to human rights abuses. Mr. Terekhov said he viewed this -- and many of the initiatives pushed through the legislature last year -- as an improvisation by politicians who are trying to please Mr. Putin.

"I do not think that Putin is some kind of super-brain who is controlling everything," he said. "It seems to me that some of the stupid things that are being done are being done not because Putin wants to eat children, but because there are a lot of stupid people around him, who took his return as a signal to tighten the screws."

In truth, he had not expected Mr. Putin to sign the measure into law. With its passage, he said, "the die has been cast, there is no way back."

As for Ms. Fotchenko, she said her plan was to "sit quietly, trying to separate my own self from politics." She said she could not imagine taking part in any more protests, ever.

Then she hedged just a little.

"There is a chance the leaders will surprise us again and will succeed in waking me up," she said. "Deep in my heart, I hope it may happen. If not -- well, we will live the way we live now."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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