The demonstrations in Moscow illuminate a dark sky like a flash of lightning. A storm might be on its way. Vladimir Putin has corrupted the country and thousands of outraged Russians are prepared to take to the streets in protest. More than just a reactionary, Putin is a throwback who in a process as inexorable as it is tragic has built what can only be called the post-modern version of Communism. In the manner of the old Soviet Central Committee, he and his cronies have made sure to monopolize power and wealth, those two engines of the Kremlin.
It is common knowledge that Putin has stolen an immense fortune, and has the state building him palaces and amassing collections of art for him. He has cut down freedom of speech to the point where it is virtually non-existent. It is taken for granted that he authorised the murder of anyone standing in his way, many of them journalists like Anna Politkovskaya or dissident exiles like Alexander Litvinenko. The way he bankrupted, imprisoned and arbitrarily extended the massive sentence of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is perhaps the greatest running scandal anywhere on the continent. Press-ganged, the judiciary has no independence. Grigory Yavlinsky, a possible future democratic leader, comments bleakly about these demonstrations that in Russia, “There is no rule of law.”
Accustomed to centuries of misrule, Russians know how to steer a course through injustice and make what life for themselves they can. They might have let Putin do his worst, and he must have thought so too. When his presidential term expired according to the constitution, he devised a trick to return to office for another eight years. The result of the presidential election due next year is already known. Now he has been caught rigging the parliamentary elections. People can stand hardship and absence of law, but this open contempt was really too insulting.
Demonstrators turned out in thousands, only to be outnumbered by secret police and riot troops. In Soviet days, live ammunition would have been used. Times have changed in that many more people refuse to be intimidated. So far, about 250 arrests have been made, among them some well-known bloggers and free spirits.
Oleg Gordievsky was the head of the KGB station in Britain until he defected a few years before Communism imploded. He told me that one look into the cold and utterly expressionless eyes of Putin gives away all that anyone needs to know about the man. Should demonstrations recur in the immediate future as planned, Putin is virtually certain to go down the Bashar al-Assad route and order repression. Beggars can’t be choosers, and the same goes for pocket dictators.