Conventional wisdom holds that Russians are largely apathetic to politics, that they remain fractured and apolitical, and may suffer a kind of malignant strand in their national fiber that draws them to strong, unitary executives. The idea of a Khozyain, the owner, a kind of paternal provider, carries weight. And the Kremlin, with its complete domination of televised media, has carefully curated the image of Vladimir Putin as exactly that man.
Valdislov Surkov, a round, boyish faced apparatchik, has moved deftly between employers. He first worked for oil magnet Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now in prison, then for Boris Yeltsin, and finally for Putin. He has been described as a Russian Karl Rove and is responsible for dispensing the narrative of Putin. In many speeches, he advocates a kind of authoritarian, "sovereign" democracy. The Kremlin's political maestro, who once wrote songs for a rock band and styled himself a Havel-eque Bohemian, has designed a Stalin-like false dichotomy -- either Russia will remain stable, with sure-handed Putin at the wheel, or it will return to the shortages and misery of the Boris Yeltsin era.
Despite Surkov's hypnotic machine, though, on December 10th, 40,000 Muscovites marched downtown, protesting parliamentary elections held earlier in the month. Putin's United Russia narrowly won the vote, and estimates put the number of votes stolen to secure that win in the ballpark of 12 million.
The demonstration was certainly modest compared with many of 2011's historic revolutions, but it wasn't modest for Russia.
The last time Moscow saw an uprising of that size -- interestingly, one of very equal size -- was in 1991, when a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev threatened to roll back his reforms and return the Soviet apparat to power. The coup failed; Gorbachev's power evaporated; and Yeltsin, over a drunken night shared with the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, drew up documents to finish off the Soviet Empire once and for all.
Despite the stakes of that August 1991 coup, though, fewer than 50,000 Muscovites came out to stand alongside Yeltsin, who mounted a tank and demanded an end to the putsch.
Nine years after the Soviet collapse, in another icy December, Yeltsin signed the nation over to Vladimir Putin, a former KGB man known to almost no one. Putin, as head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, drew the favor of "the family," the circle quietly running the country in place of the drunken Yeltsin. He helped that clan dodge a zealous Moscow prosecutor investigating the Yeltsin family finances by orchestrating a filmed orgy with a look-alike, thus forcing the prosecutor to resign. It was a telling start to Putin's career on the world stage.
Putin's Russia has returned the state's spy service to ultimate power. The FSB took over the borders and control of Chechnya, and planted operatives in every ministry, from the Bolshoi Theater ballet school to major television stations. Putin abolished several time zones and began appointing governors to the provinces, rather than suffer what elections might yield; five of the seven initial appointees were alumni of the KGB.