The last week, things have been very different, in a different way. Of course, I’ve continued working with my classes, slowly weaseling my way into how they do things, while at the same time getting more and more excited for going home and Christmas. But my frantic desperation for home has been diverted by the uproar around the elections last Sunday.
In case you hadn’t heard, there were elections in Russia last Sunday. They were for the Duma, Russia’s parliament, and I didn’t think they were a big deal, although it was interesting to me to ask people if they planned to vote, and listen for who they planned to vote for. Everyone I’ve talked to (admittedly not that many people) told me they planned to vote against United Russia (the ruling party, and the party Putin is most closely related to). Not that they necessarily had anything against United Russia itself, but that they didn’t want a monopoly of power in the parliament. One woman in her late 40s told me it reminded her of the Communist Party during the Soviet Union, when “everyone always said yes.”
So, the elections happened, and United Russia actually lost a good number of seats, getting 49.41% of the vote, which is down from the 60-something% they got last time. If you read Russian, here’s a fun interactive map of the official final count for which regions voted for whom.
Despite this dramatic drop, though, the country has gone into an uproar, declaring the elections unclean and unfair. The evidence of ballot-stuffing, of carousel-ing (driving busloads of people from polling place to place to vote multiple times) and bribery (offering people vodka as a gift for voting United Russia) has piled up since last Sunday. There were protests in Moscow starting almost from the day of the elections, and the rest of the country responded by organizing an All-Russian Demonstration for today, Saturday December 10. Over 81 cities organized demonstrations, including Arkhangelsk!
All of a sudden, I was wishing I’d paid more attention to the last half of my Russian Politics class, so I might know what the heck was going on. I remembered terms like “power vertical” and hearing something about Right Russia being a fracture party from United Russia, but I couldn’t remember the details. I found myself in a frenzy of very pointed reading, trying to catch up, trying to weigh the pros and cons of attending the rally. I read a lot of articles, but the one that really summed things up well, with good, purposeful background information, was this article from Al Jazeera (written by a guy at Pitt, incidentally!).
There were the news reports of 200 being arrested in Moscow. The discussion among the other Fulbright teachers on facebook varied between wanting to see what would go down and not wanting to fuel the arguments that the U.S. was trying to undermine the Russian government by inciting the protests. There were Hillary Clinton’s strong words against the Russian electoral system. And then there were the other foreigners here in Arkhangelsk making plans to go down and watch. In the end, I decided to go with them, but to make my own decisions about how long I stayed.
As we rode the half-empty bus downtown around 12:30 pm today, to be in time for the 1 pm demonstration, I felt like all my preparation and thoughtful consideration was for naught. As Rune said, “I can’t really feel the revolutionary spirit.” It felt like any other sleepy Saturday midday. When we arrived at Lenin Square, things picked up, as we joined a couple of hundred protesters milling about and waiting to see where they would move. From following the event page on vkontakte, Russia’s facebook, I knew that, due to some bureaucratic mumbo jumbo, they had decided to meet at Lenin Square and then move to the officially-sanctioned location of Trade Union Square before starting the proper protesting with banners and bullhorns. So, we all sort of quietly, amiably shuffle-marched through the 23-degree afternoon, to end up at another square. Liv, Rune, Nils, and I stayed towards the back, hearing the occassional chant of “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia without Putin!” drifting back over the crowd. The pedestrian street we marched down is intersected by several roads open to cars, and the police helpfully stopped traffic for the protesters to make their way past.
When we arrived at the second square, we were able to take stock of who was there. There were flags from the Communist party, the small party Apple, the youth movement “Defense,” and the Monarchist/Nationalists. And a banner from the city of Severodvinsk saying “Severodvinsk is for Honest Elections.” Some people wore Communist Party scarves, some young kids wore masks with an Internet meme face. The police suggested that people standing on a fountain to take pictures get down, as it might be dangerous. There were more chants, including “No elections without choices!” and some others we couldn’t make out. All in all, it was a good showing, for Russia, but not terribly exciting, and rather cold. In Moscow, over 35,000 came out to two protests–one official and one unsanctioned–making it the biggest demonstration in Moscow in ten years, according to the news.
Now, everyone is trying to weigh what this will mean for Russia’s future. Revolution? Probably not. But will it mean anything at all? Will the momentum keep up enough among the people to change anything by the presidential elections in March? Will the momentum of the people matter? Who knows? I certainly don’t. But I think that part of the importance of these protests is the same as the occupy movements back in the States; not necessarily that anything will come of it, but that they’re happening at all. And, we can scold Russia all we want for having these farcical elections, but as far as I’ve heard, nobody was pepper-sprayed today.
For more pictures from Arkhangelsk’s protest, you can see my album on facebook.