A protester at the February 4 rally in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. (Max Avdeev)
As usual, there were lines at the metal detectors to get into the protest; this time, though, the pandemonium was more unexpected, given that the temperatures had hovered around, and occasionally dipped below, zero all week. Instructions on how to dress for the demonstration, aimed at the fashionable crowd that has constituted much of the power behind the anti-election-fraud rallies, were posted on social networks ahead of the Saturday gathering. They recommended thermal underwear, warming shoe insoles, an extra scarf around the waist, mittens instead of gloves, and, in one case, “a dead animal from the Mustelidae family tightly pulled over” your head. They also advised against drinking before the rally, which started at 1 p.m., and warned that thermoses would not be allowed beyond the metal detectors. One could buy tea along the protest’s route for 50 rubles (about $1.50).
Saturday’s event, sanctioned by the Moscow government after the by now-habitual negotiations over location, took the form of a march. Walking, the organizers reasoned, was more suited to winter weather than standing. The rally started at the Oktyabrskaya metro station (so named after the October Revolution) and ended at Bolotnaya Square, where the first such demonstration took place in December. The main drag of the protest, Bolshaya Yakimanka Street, was closed to traffic, and the police had blocked off all side streets. Demonstrators could either begin at the Oktyabrskaya metro or show up at Bolotnaya to hear the speeches. Along Bolshaya Yakimanka, people watched the march from their windows and balconies; some spectators waived white ribbons in support.
Protesters make their way through the Oktyabrskaya metro en route to the rally. (Max Avdeev)
Protesters walk the Bolshaya Yakimanka Street parade route to Bolotnaya Square. (Max Avdeev)
Along the parade route, supporters gave protesters white ribbons to pin to their coats and white balloons to release when they reached the square. (Max Avdeev)
It only takes a half-hour to walk the protest’s route, but the organizers had allocated an hour. Then, at Bolotnaya, the rally was supposed to go on another hour. The march was peaceful, journalists omnipresent, the police calm and cold. All the usual factions, from the Rainbow Association of Russia to the nationalists, had shown up. Although the demonstrators walked at a leisurely pace, mixing snow and de-icing chemicals into a gray-brown slush beneath their feet, the square was full by 1:30 p.m.—half an hour ahead of schedule.
If the walk felt brisk and crisp, at Bolotnaya people were starting to feel the weather’s bite. One man was carrying a felt blanket neatly folded up inside a plastic bag; I later spotted another protester wrapped in one, jumping in place to keep warm. Small icicles had formed on countless beards and mustaches. Walking through the square, the demonstrators were watching their step carefully, trying to avoid the muddy puddles that would mean frozen toes later on.
A band of Buddhist drummers was performing on a patch of untouched snow in the middle of Bolotnaya. The loudspeakers blasted classic Russian rock songs, many of them the soundtrack of Perestroika, including the legendary “We want changes!” by the 1980s band Kino (which had been recently banned on the Belorussian radio). Flags, animated by a slight but cold breeze, occasionally wrapped around protesters’ heads. A plethora of trenchant banners and posters, the trademark of oppositional rallies, filled Bolotnaya, invigorating the protesters who quoted choice slogans to their companions. Many of the signs poked fun at the rival pro-Putin demonstration that was taking place simultaneously in another part of Moscow. One poster read, “I am a teacher and I am here,” referring to the alleged government recruiting (under the threat of being fired, some reported) of state employees, from managers to mailmen, for the anti-opposition rally; another said, “I paid for this protest, not the other way around.”
The music ended, and speeches began crackling from loudspeakers on stage. We tried to get close but were pushed back by dozens of people going the other way. A moment of panic followed, as protesters stumbled backward onto one another, and for a second it seemed we would all fall into the slush. “Why is everyone walking back?” a man in his forties, his glasses fogged up and his face white from the cold, asked. Then we heard “Prokhorov! Prokhorov!” Video operators with giant cameras were bumping into protestors while their colleagues tried to interview the newly-minted presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov. The owner of the New Jersey Nets soon appeared, towering over the crowd and looking tall enough to be a basketball player himself. As he exited the rally, calm returned, and we made our way forward.
Protesters line the wall along the frozen Moscow River. One sign compares Vladimir Putin to Montgomery Burns on the American TV show The Simpsons.
It was hard to hear what was being said on stage; Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the Yabloko Party who had recently been denied registration for presidential elections, made a short speech that met with the crowd’s approval. So, too, Leonid Parfyonov, a news anchor. The six speakers had been allotted only three minutes each. Mostly, we could only make out the usual slogans, “Russia without Putin!” and “Freedom to political prisoners!” To my left, a group of young women chanted, “Our feet are not frozen!” while hopping in place. A couple of men in their twenties were searching for a comfortable place to stand. Surveying the banners of the Rainbow Association, one of which read, “You too are queer,” they mumbled to themselves and walked on.
Half an hour ahead of the rally’s planned conclusion, there was a momentary lull in the speeches from the stage, and the demonstrators began to disband. Then Yury Shevchuk, a rock star well-known both for his music and his dislike of Putin, began singing his 1990s hit “Motherland.” The crowd halted, and enthusiastically joined in on the chorus: “Motherland! Let them yell that she’s ugly! But we like it, although she’s no great beauty!” The song’s end signaled the conclusion of the rally; the sea of banners resumed its movement toward the square’s exit. The organizers thanked the protesters for attending, the police for their service, and the government for sanctioning the rally. Once again, the neighboring restaurants overflowed with well-heeled demonstrators trying to regain feeling in their extremities. Meanwhile, ten kilometers away, over a hundred thousand people who had attended the pro-Putin rally were trying to do the same.