Putin's Paranoia: Moscow Protest Reveals a Fanatical Fear of Dissent

If a visitor to Moscow had just one day to see Russia's political system in action, Monday would have been as good as it gets. In part that's because riot police were again hoisting protestors up like human battering rams and throwing them into paddy wagons. But that's a small part of it, and not an unusual one. Far more impressive was the sheer scale of the government's effort, the lengths it was willing to go to repress a few hundred people who tried to hold a rally against it. That was a thing to see.

It started with a bit of ingenuity from the mayor's office, which is given the job of denying permission for these rallies in the first place. This always requires finesse. Russia's constitution, after all, guarantees the freedom of assembly and speech, so it would seem undemocratic to forbid the things outright like they did in the Soviet Union. Moreover, Putin had said just the previous day, on May 30, during a rare confrontation with a dissident, that local authorities should not use lousy excuses to block opposition rallies, that such rallies are even helpful as long as they offer constructive criticism and don't disturb the peace. So they had to find a pretty good reason this time.

For both its wit and its cynicism, the one they came up with deserves applause: they decided to hold a blood drive, the biggest and loudest the city had ever seen. A pro-Kremlin youth group called the Young Guard was then given the money to construct an enormous stage on Triumphal Square, right where the protestors had petitioned to rally. It included a sound system that would have put Lollapalooza to shame, and for the protection of the selfless young donors who were bussed in to participate, the police blocked off the entire square with saw horses and vans full of riot police. It was a matter of public safety, you see.

Then around 5:00 p.m., an hour before the banned opposition was set to begin, the blood collectors from the Young Guard began parading across the stage and giving short, patriotic speeches. For instance, "My name is Dmitry, and I donate blood because I love my country, and I want my country to thrive and be healthy." The state TV cameras eagerly taped this for the evening broadcast. But there were no blood collection vans anywhere in sight, and no one could have considered this anything more than a farce.

It's only purpose (and at what cost!) was to push the protestors into a tiny corner of the square, maybe a couple hundred of them, where they could be surrounded by riot police and kept well out of sight of the evening traffic. This began at about 6:00 p.m., when roughly a hundred people started chanting slogans, old people and young people, many with children on their shoulders, and many passersby who just seemed to like the naughtiness of shouting in the street: "Russia without Putin," "This is our city, too," "No to Putinism," and so on. The chanting was spontaneous, and there were no leaders around and no sign of any organization. But those who shouted the loudest, or held any kind of banner, were grabbed by riot cops, lifted off the ground and thrown into police vans. Pepper spray was used on at least one of the men who resisted. (I got a mouthful; it wasn't fun.) For a couple of hours this went on, and according to official figures 130 people were taken to jail.

But it was all quite pointless in the end. When the anti-Putin slogans began, the Young Guard cut out their speeches and started blaring music that drowned out everything for a block around. (You want to talk about disturbing the peace?) So despite Putin's rhetoric the day before, any constructive criticism the protestors may have wanted to share wouldn't have gotten very far. What's more, any idiot passing by, whether sympathetic to Putin or not, could plainly see what the authorities were doing at the rally. They really weren't fooling anybody.

Down the street, well away from the action, I caught up with some of Russia's famous dissidents, the only people one could reasonably call leaders of the opposition. They were a pretty pathetic sight, and no one was paying much attention to them, including the police. The younger ones hadn't even made it to the square, no Garry Kasparov or Boris Nemtsov, and the two most prominent ones have such radically different views that it was funny to even see them together. There was 82-year-old Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a human rights activist from the Soviet days and one of the only dissidents left in Russia with any moral standing. And then there was Eduard Limonov, the rambling and wacky head of the National Bolshevik party, which wants to turn Europe and much of Asia into part of a new Russian empire. (Why Putin loyalists try so hard to discredit him -- most recently by leaking footage of him with a whore -- is beyond me. He does a fine job of that himself.)

Alexeyeva, flanked by her fellow activist Lev Ponomaryov, had little more than this to say: "We were unable to secure permission from the authorities, but still, we managed to show some sign of discontent." By that point, Limonov was already walking away, and he wasn't in the mood to talk. The cops had made no move to arrest him, to put him in the headlines, so he had eight of his party's activists, guys with Nirvana t-shirts and pierced lips, walk him a few blocks to where a KIA sedan was waiting. "I don't know why he wanted to leave. He left and that's it," one of his body guards complained to me as we walked back to the protest. "This is the first time they didn't arrest him. They didn't even try. They didn't even come up to us."

As we approached the square, the national anthem was playing, and beneath it the protestors were still chanting something. (In one of the day's strangest ironies, the Young Guard's soundtrack also included the diametric opposite of the national anthem: "Blood Type" by Viktor Tsoi: a song about what war and the state have always done to the individual.)

The crowd was starting to thin when I ran into another old-time dissident, Sergei Kovalyov, who had helped organize the protest (insofar as it had any organization at all). He is 80, he was heading home, and said he understood perfectly well why the government was acting this way. "The authorities simply can't back down, because they understand better than you or I that their power is not legitimate, and if they show any weakness in the face of reason, they won't survive. It's very simple. If they want to hold on to power, they need to act this way."

I can't say I agree with him. Could it really cost Putin that much to allow a few thousand protestors to rally in Moscow, even if they demand his resignation, even if they make the evening news? Isn't the absurd comedy of the blood drive more embarrassing than allowing some semblance of political debate? It has to be. And the fact that his government doesn't realize this suggests a level of paranoia and self-doubt that only a guy like Khrushchev could match. Then again, it seems like only a weak system would go this far to repress debate, to make sure that it's voice is the only one getting through. So maybe Kovalyov is right. It seems clear, in any case, that not even the frailest gesture of protest gets to see daylight in Moscow today. That says a lot about the withered state of the opposition, sure, but I think it says more about Putin's leadership.

You can watch a short video of the day's festivities here.