If Russia is, as Winston Churchill said, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, then it is time to add another layer. In the past year or so, a parallel universe has sprung up in the country, one catering to the tens of thousands of Russians who have banded together to oppose the continuing rule of Vladimir Putin.
They have their own media. They read the weekly magazine Bolshoi Gorod, watch the hip independent TV channel Dozhd, and listen to the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy. They go to their own cafes, peopling tables at the French-style bistro Jean-Jacques. On Friday nights they can be found at Mayak, a smoky bohemian stronghold, and on Saturday nights they go to Zavtra to hear each other DJ from their iPods.
Now, they have their own mini-democracy. On Monday night, the opposition wrapped up three days of voting for a 45-member “coordinating council”, a new body designed to lead the movement beyond regular protests. It will help field candidates in local elections, support political prisoners, and help spread the message about the “crooks and thieves” who sit in the Kremlin, to use a phrase coined by the movement’s best-known leader, Alexei Navalny.
It was a weeks-long experiment in building democracy from the ground up and trying to expand the opposition into something beyond those few Moscow cafes. As part of the elections, the opposition organised 16 straight days of debates on Dozhd, a platform for the more than 200 candidates to put forward their views.
Part of the point of the exercise was to “legitimise the opposition”, Navalny told me last week. The opposition has its stars, including Navalny, TV personality and Russian “It Girl” Ksenia Sobchak and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. And it has thousands of nameless others, some of whom appeared at the debates.
Meet Vasily Kryukov, who describes himself as a former MP from the Urals city of Izhevsk and a “fourth-generation repressed”, a particularly Russian turn of phrase to mark his family’s long struggle with the authorities. Or Konstantin Yankauskas, an economist and municipal deputy, who turned up to his debate wearing a T-shirt showing a smiling Stalin draped by two adoring women. His nod to Stalin appeared ironic, but Anton Kongangov’s was not. The young candidate described himself as “a Stalinist, an activist and a supporter of legalising weapons”. Obama v Romney this was not.
The candidates were taken to task on their beliefs. They did better on the general questions, posed by moderators Yury Saprykin and Demyan Kudryavtsev, both prominent journalists. “What is Russia’s greatest shame?” they were asked. “Television!” said one candidate. “Our greatest shame is that the great European people that is the Russians have allowed themselves to be ruled by Asian means, like Turkmenistan,” said another, the far-right nationalist Nikolai Bondarik. Another, businessman Igor Ovdienko, said: “Our great shame is that this is not a country that is attractive for living. I’m abroad often, and there’s never the feeling that Russia is made for life.”
What Russia is made for is poetry, and the debates made sure to address that. “Recite or name your favourite poem about freedom, politics, rights,” Kudryavtsev asked at one point.
Policy questions caused rather more problems. Do you believe in a presidential or parliamentary republic? Should Russia get rid of its flat income tax? And what of judicial reform?
Maxim Kats, a candidate who became something of an opposition hero in December after being elected to a local parliament, finally blew his top: “Judicial reform? That’s not in my competence. I don’t know. I don’t have a position.”
It was left, in the end, to the stars to show how debates are done. “I’m 36 and the last time I had a chance to vote in somewhat free elections I was 18, 19,” Navalny said from the podium. “I’m taking part in the free elections to the co-ordinating council now because I believe in democracy, I believe in the power of the people, that people should decide their own fate. Elections, competition, debates – even with unpleasant people – are what make us stronger, what will help us win.”
Each night, candidates, their supporters and the curious took to social networks to comment on the debates. “Good question!” “What an answer …” “I will vote for her!” filled the feeds.
Online, all was euphoria. The opposition’s Facebook and Twitter accounts even put out a video showing interviews with Moscow factory workers who were largely oblivious to what was going on, with the majority saying they had never heard of the online vote. They added the message: “If it seems to you that everyone has heard of the elections to the coordinating council, watch this video.”
In the end, just 97,500 people registered to vote (it required filing their passport details – a potential gift to the security services, some noted with worry) and around 80,000 cast their ballots. That’s a bit more than the hundred who can fit around the tables at Jean-Jacques and Mayak.