Sergei Karpukhin / Courtesy Reuters

How the Anti-Putin Movement Missed the Point

Letter From Moscow

Exactly how many protesters flooded central Moscow last Saturday to demand a "Russia without Putin" is difficult to pin down. The police put the total at 10,000; protest leaders claim 25,000. I can say that in my particular square meter not far from the stage there were at least six people and one dog, and the chants echoing up the broad avenue suggested a very large crowd indeed. The turnout may have been low compared to the 100,000-strong demonstrations last December. But given that during the first 12 years of Vladimir Putin's rule, Russia never saw a single protest with more than a few dozen people, this was still a hefty display of displeasure about the March 4 election that installed Vladimir Putin as president once again, this time with 63 percent of the vote.

Walking toward the protest venue an hour before the event kicked off, I caught a whiff of revolution in the freezing air. The street was lined with buses full of riot police, demonstrators were converging from all corners, and coordinators were testing the PA system with Bob Dylan songs. But by the time I left -- after the coordinators declared the rally over, an hour ahead of schedule -- the mood was deflated. The protesters' hopes that a wave of mass discontent might push Putin from power had fizzled. Organizers discussed, in vague terms, plans of another protest in May.

The crowd receded, and the riot police passed around cigarettes, many of them looking relieved that they would not appear on the evening news whacking civilians with their truncheons. Opposition leaders all spoke of the "long, hard road ahead," of months or years of painstaking work building their movement and fighting on. But after three months of unprecedented agitation, they faced the frigid reality that Putin would soon embark on his third term as president, and there was nothing any person on the central Moscow streets could do about it.  

The protest leaders had decided that ordinary election observers should take

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