Vladimir Putin did not wait long to celebrate. At eleven o’clock on Sunday night, just three hours after the polls in Moscow had closed, he stood outside the gates of Red Square and addressed a crowd of 100,000 people—many of whom, reports would later reveal, had been bussed in from outside the city or been paid as little as 300 rubles (about ten dollars) to attend. By the final days of his campaign, Putin had begun to present his attempt to return to the Kremlin not so much as a contest for a particular political office but as an almost militarized battle for the future of the country. “We are a victorious people! It is in our genes, in our genetic code!” he said at a rally in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on February 23. And in his speech on Sunday, he resurfaced similar rhetoric, saying, “I promised you we would win, and we won.” He went on, “We proved that no one can force anything on us.”

With such language, Putin returned to the idea that has undergirded his reign for the past 12 years. As he likes to present it, the choice has never been between him and, say, Gennady Zyuganov, the longtime head of the Communist Party, who first ran for president in 1996, or between him and Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, who entered the race in December. Rather, the choice has been between Putin and chaos, between Putin and the abyss. In other words, there is no real choice at all—Putin is a politician above politics.

What has made Russian political life interesting for the first time in years is that this façade of omnipotence has begun to show cracks. After parliamentary elections in December were marred by gross falsification, the country’s urban professional class underwent a political and civic reawakening, a process I chronicled in an article for Foreign Affairs last week ("The People Vs. Vladimir Putin"). For the first time in a decade, there seemed to be a hope—however amorphous—that an actual, workable alternative to Putinism could emerge, even as the Kremlin kept any serious challengers off the presidential ballot and maintained its claustrophobic control over politics. 

On the surface, the events of the last days in Moscow look like setbacks to the momentum of that hope. First came Putin’s nominally overwhelming victory—63 percent, officially—on Sunday and his triumphant, almost goading victory speech that night. Putin seemed like a man who actually believed in the virtuousness of his accomplishment, a worrying sign for those who hoped that he might make some concessionary reforms. Then, the next day, an opposition protest at Moscow’s Pushkin Square drew around 20,000 people—an impressive crowd for an icy Monday night, but far fewer than the 100,000 people that came to Bolotnaya Square or Sakharov Street in December and February. 

What’s more, the mood at Pushkin Square was darker than the celebratory, almost carnival atmosphere that marked the earlier mass demonstrations, with little of the rich sense of humor that had come to define the Russian opposition movement in recent months. “Yes, the mood became more radical,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former Duma deputy and now a leading figure in the opposition, told me. “If there was hope in December that the state might engage in some sort of dialogue or negotiations, we now understand that the authorities are simply ignoring our demands.” 

Adding to the tension on Monday night, and the change in mood, was the fact that Moscow was on military-style lockdown, with armored troop carriers and battalions of riot police blocking off much of the city center; a report in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta said that one-quarter of all the country’s special police brigades were now in the capital. In a way, this revealed the Kremlin’s paranoia. Just before Monday’s rally began, Boris Nemstov, a longtime liberal politician, told me that the protest was “already successful, judging by the amount of armored troops that are here, by the amount of riot police.” As he put it, “It appears like they’re afraid of us like a fire.”

But whether the demonstration was in fact a success remains unclear, and so does the future of the Russian opposition. In the days leading up to the election, the protest movement’s main star, the blogger and anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny, had called for escalated civil disobedience, including telling people to go out into the streets of Moscow and “not leave.” He repeated that exhortation from the stage on Monday. And when Sergei Uldatsov, the firebrand leader of the Left Front, had his turn to speak, he called for an outright occupation of Pushkin Square. When the protest ended, nearly everyone headed home, but a group of several hundred people, led by Navalny and Uldatsov, stayed behind, taking up a position near the fountain in the center of the square. After an hour, riot police roughly ejected everyone from the square, arresting more than 200. 

Navalny would later call the decision to remain at Pushkin Square an “experiment” meant to test the public’s appetite for escalated forms of civil disobedience. The results, at least to judge from the small number who stuck around, suggest that the majority of the middle-class professionals who make up the critical mass of the protest movement do not have much of an appetite for facing off against the police. 

That leaves the opposition in something of a tough spot: in one sense, escalation in both thought and deed is the logical next step, since the Kremlin seems content to simply wait the opposition out, granting approval for protest after protest while ignoring their real demands. But at the same time, any escalation could well prove counterproductive, sapping the opposition movement of the tens of thousands of people who were drawn to the optimism and hope (and, it should be said, safety) of earlier rallies. And if that is the direction in which the protest movement heads, it may well return to the days of the so-called Strategy 31 of 2009–10, when several hundred people would gather on the 31st day of every month in Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square, only to be shoved, beaten, and arrested by the police. It was a righteous, committed group—but one whose numbers were limited. 

Then there is the question of Sunday’s vote itself. One of the most impressive efforts of the opposition in the weeks before the presidential vote was the registration and training of thousands of volunteer election monitors. The majority of observers were deployed to polling stations in Moscow, and their presence meant that the authorities could not fake the electoral results in the capital with the same crude methods they had used in December, when they heavily padded the results for United Russia, the country’s docile pro-Kremlin party. The authorities employed more slippery techniques this time, such as so-called carousels of voters that traveled from one polling place to another by hired bus. 

Nonetheless, the blanketing of Moscow and other large cities by observers, combined with the fact that Putin himself is much more popular than United Russia as a party, meant that the overall level of falsification, although still severe, was lower than it was in December. On Wednesday, the League of Voters, a civic group formed by a handful of notable journalists and other public figures, announced that its own analysis of the vote suggested that even with “systemic” fraud, Putin won with 53 percent. Meanwhile, Golos, perhaps Russia’s most respected electoral monitoring group, put Putin’s victory at 54 percent. 

In other words, whereas an honest and proper counting of the ballots from the December parliamentary election would have stripped United Russia of its majority in the Russian Duma, a similar tally of the votes cast in Sunday’s presidential election would have likely seen Putin still win in the first round with more than 50 percent support. Of course, that does not account for the overwhelming monopoly of power Putin wields over the political system and his refusal to allow even the most elementary forms of political competition. But overcoming those systemic advantages involves a harder, much more protracted fight, and one that is less easy to rally people around in the short term than an openly stolen election that effectively turned a minority into a majority. 

What seems clear to all is that the protests have entered into a new and uncertain period. This week, Boris Akunin, a popular author of detective fiction who has emerged as a sort of moral conscience of the Russian opposition (and is a founding member of the League of Voters), told me that “the three-month euphoria” is over, along with “any illusion that this regime could be changed by peaceful protest alone.” Things may get quieter for a while, he said, not because of “the capitulation of the opposition, but because of an internal, psychological reconfiguration to a different form of action.” 

What exact form that action may take may well begin to emerge on Saturday, when protest organizers have received approval from the mayor’s office for another large-scale demonstration in downtown Moscow, this time on the commercial thoroughfare of the Novy Arbat. The coming fight for political representation, Akunin said, will be “long and hard, and without any white ribbons or balloons.”

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  • JOSHUA YAFFA is a former Associate Editor at Foreign Affairs and a Visiting Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provided a travel grant for the reporting of this essay.
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