A Russian Awakening?

Russia's once apolitical youth has taken to the streets of Moscow and launched the largest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union

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Demonstrators march in Moscow / AP

MOSCOW -- Shortly after seven on Tuesday evening, at the protest against the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Moscow's central Triumfal'naya Square, about a mile north of the Kremlin, protesters chanted, "Down with Putin!" "Putin Get Out!" "Russia Without Putin!" and, most ominously in a country where the only real leader is a strong leader, "Putin is a Coward!"

Police in riot gear separated the 1,500 or so predominantly young demonstrators from members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, who played drums and maintained an insistent (and unimaginative) chorus of megaphone counter-chants, mostly "Putin Russia!" and "Putin Medvedev!" At times, Nashi's leaders appeared to coordinate their movements with police, with whom they seemed to be on friendly terms.

News of similar rallies in other parts of Moscow filtered quickly through social media and text messages. Within an hour, and more and more young people streamed onto Triumfal'naya from all quarters, shouting new refrains -- "Free elections!" "Count my Vote!" -- that bespoke what had drawn them onto the streets.

Triumfal'naya has been for years the locus of choice for anti-Putin dissidents in the capital, who have shown up, typically relatively few in number, to suffer the ritual of arrest and brief detention. This time (as well as the night before, at a rally on the same square that drew as many as 15,000), things were different -- and tellingly so. The faces in the crowd were new, the slogans spontaneous enounced, the reactions fearful and evasive ahead of phalanxes of burly charging police -- even to the appearance of police vans. Demonstrators turned and ran -- just what one would expect of neophyte protestors. With genuine outrage they berated the police ("Shame! Shame!" and "These are Your People!") who dragged and manhandled youths into the waiting vans.

Every so often, someone in a passing car would open their window and shout, "Russia Without Putin!" or honk and make victory signs, smiling at demonstrators through the glass.

Thousands of these often shockingly apolitical people, angered over apparent electoral fraud, videos of which have registered hundreds of thousands of hits online since December 4th, are now rejecting the prospect of 12 more years of Putin's rule and have finally stood up for themselves.

At Monday's demonstration, authoritiesarrested the chief opposition figures in attendance (among them, the esteemed anti-corruption firebrand blogger, Alexei Navalny), and preemptively detained others on Tuesday, including nationalist oppositionist Eduard Limonov and Parnas leader Boris Nemstov.

But who in Russia has the widely recognized, if informal, authority -- the street cred, as it were -- to lead the protests and transform them into a viable movement capable of ousting a regime that has shown itself, so far, to be extremely adept at thwarting opposition? If we know what the protestors dislike, what exactly do they stand for? Free elections and Putin's departure, we know, but what else? The Western-style democracy advocated by Grigory Yavlinsky and his Yabloko party and by the now-silent, onetime challenger, former chess champion Garry Kasparov? The hard-line nationalism espoused by, among others, Limonov and his National Bolsheviks? Or some other figure yet to appear? Given Putin's effective marginalization of potential challengers, who is left to stand in his stead? And following Putin's imposition of the "power vertical," based on his authority and that of the intelligence services from which he came, which state institutions have retained enough legitimacy to back a new pretender to the Kremlin throne?

More protests are scheduled. Will the government suppress them, deploying the Dzherzhinksy division of Internal Ministry troops it transported into Moscow yesterday? Now seeing how sharply public opinion has soured on it, would Putin's regime dare annul election results, as former President Mikhail Gorbachev is calling for it to do, and announce new, honest, and truly inclusive polls? (Many challengers and their parties were proscribed from participation in the December 4 elections.)

Who would trust Russia's judicial system, now staffed with Putin supporters, to adjudicate cases of alleged fraud? Will Putin really want to face voters, as he had planned to do, in presidential elections scheduled for March?

Events have a way of taking their own course, creating their own logic and inevitabilities, and engendering outcomes no one could have imagined; the tsar's abdication paved the way for the Soviets' seven-decade reign.

Perhaps, somehow, the protests will dissipate and this will all blow over.  But whoever rules Russia will have to take into account the newly incensed political consciousness of its younger, and now most active, generation of citizens and voters.