'We Are the State': Grassroots Movement Gains Momentum in Russia

By and Matthias Schepp

President Vladimir Putin has overwhelmed the leaders of Russia's opposition with Soviet-style methods. But he will not be able to stop the modernization of Russian society in the same way. A new grassroots movement is already taking shape.

On an island in the Moskva River, in the shadow of the Kremlin towers, the new Russia fills in the gaps left behind by the old one: artists' cafés, nightclubs and the editorial offices of Internet media have moved into the former buildings of the "Red October" chocolate factory. The factory, nationalized after the October Revolution and renamed "Candy Factory No. 1," is now a gathering place for young and affluent Muscovites, artists and the "it girls" of the Russian capital.

On this day, the opposition's new Coordinating Council is holding its first meeting in a bar that used to be a cocoa warehouse. Waiters have pushed together lounge chairs to form a rectangle, and there are two microphones in the room. One is for the delegates, and the other is pinned to the lapel of Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and popular blogger.

A few weeks ago, Navalny was elected chairman of the 45-member Coordinating Council. He heads a colorful group that includes a Jewish poet, a right-wing extremist, a liberal economist and Sergei Udalzov, a neo-Stalinist who called for the return of the Soviet Union in 2004.

The group is united by one overriding goal: to eject President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin and offer a direct democratic response to his Potemkin village-style democracy, with its Kremlin-controlled parties.

Blogger Navalny received the most support to head the council via the Internet, where he ended up with the most vote. He was subsequently selected by the body as its chairman. Writer Dmitrii Bykov took second place and former chess world champion Garry Kasparov was third. The opposition TV station Dozhd had previously hosted televised debates among the candidates in the style of American presidential debates. "Our committee is supposed to coordinate the efforts of millions of people who are waiting for changes," Navalny said. "This is something that has never existed in this country before."

A Spark of Hope

That's true. For decades, the opposition was a quarrelling bunch of ideologically entrenched people who tended to tear each other apart. The newly elected Coordinating Council includes both Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB colonel who was expelled from the Russian parliament, the Duma, and blonde socialite Kseniya Sobchak, the daughter of the former mayor of St. Petersburg, one of Putin's mentors.

Sobchak, pretty, rich and largely apolitical for years until she attended the large protest rallies last December, came in fourth in the online vote. Her boyfriend, liberal opposition politician Ilya Yashin, was fifth. Until recently, however, the two were garnering less attention with political statements than with an attractive photo shoot in Hello!, the Russian version of People, which depicted them in various poses at the five-star Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakesh: playing chess, with their arms around each other, wearing Moroccan kaftans and holding iPads.

The magazine spread promptly reinforced the view held by many Russians that "the people at the top are all the same, swimming in luxury." This illustrates the new opposition's next problem: So far, it hasn't managed to tie in the political protests of Moscow's middle and upper classes with social dissatisfaction in the country. Blue-collar workers and farmers are still Putin voters.

Nevertheless, the newly elected council has sparked hope, both in the country and beyond Russia's borders. Could it be true that the traditionally divided opposition is now putting on a united front? Could it even be capable of posing a threat to Putin? Does this first meeting of Putin's opponents perhaps mark the birth of an opposition government, the nucleus of a parliament legitimized by the will of the people?

The composition of the council, with representatives from very different parts of society, suggests that this could be the case, but the numbers do not. Only 81,808 Russians, or less than a tenth of a percent of the population of 142 million, participated in the Internet election. "It wouldn't be a bad result for the Seychelles," the normally pro-opposition Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote derisively.

Important opposition leaders, like former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and leftist Duma member Ilya Ponomarev, promptly boycotted the election, partly because of Navalny. "He has a neoliberal economic program inspired by oligarch-ideologues and a nationalist worldview," says Ponomarev. "If he came into power, it would be worse than under Putin."

'Municipal Hell'

The council meeting in the former cocoa warehouse ends in a quarrel. Communist politician Udalzov wants to organize another major rally instead of "rattling on about rules of procedure." The youngest council member, Maxim Kaz, disagrees. The 27-year-old doesn't think much of demonstrations and wants the subject removed from the agenda. "Then go fuck your mother," Udalzov responds.

After the meeting, Udalzov and Navalny attend a rally in front of the Lubyanka building, the headquarters of Putin's intelligence service. They are arrested by the police and released a few hours later. "The usual pointless games," says Kaz, before leaving to give a TV interview on the need for bike paths in major cities.

A few days later Kaz, with his long hair and baggy jeans, drives his SUV into the courtyard of a concrete apartment building in the Shchukino district in northwestern Moscow. After dropping out of three different academic programs, Kaz became the Russian poker champion. He is considered a rising star of the non-parliamentary opposition.

His poker career has made him independent. Kaz's company seeks out talented players, lends them the fees for major tournaments and, in return, collects a share of the prize money. Kaz earns about €250,000 ($320,000) a year, enough to keep his head clear for future political plans.

Kaz gave a much-noticed speech at a major anti-Putin rally, and on March 4, when Putin was elected president for the third time, he captured a seat on the district council of Shchukino, a bastion of Putin's United Russia Party. The district is home to the Kurchatov Institute, the cradle of the Soviet atom bomb, and the streets still bear the names of Soviet-era generals.

Kaz is late, and when he arrives 14 council members are already waiting for him in room 103 of the district administration building. He sits cross-legged on a chair. The chairman, a woman born in 1941, promptly calls him to order: "Feet down, comrade Kaz!" "Municipal hell," Kaz tweets with his iPhone.

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