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February 05, 2012

Russians Ignore Arctic Cold and Keep Protest Flame Burning

by James Brooke

It appears Kremlin strategists had hoped Russia’s mid-winter holiday would break the momentum of the country's political protest movement. But the coldest temperatures of the season did not deter thousands of protesters from taking to the streets over the weekend.

Arctic cold held Moscow in its icy grip, but tens of thousands of people left their warm apartments to demonstrate against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Braving the same sub-zero temperatures that have killed hundreds across Eastern Europe, protesters like Georgi, a lawyer, took to the Moscow streets.

He says that he and his friends realized they had to stop complaining in the privacy of their kitchens and show in public that they want political freedom and the rule of law for Russia.

Despite the brutal cold, there was humor. Anton Glotov came dressed as a tank, to show that the opposition also has tanks. He says the government may not change, but Russians are feeling freer to meet, express their opinion and even start smiling, “like in America.”

A Russian visitor from South America, Danila Terentevich, said she is not shocked by Russia’s cold, but by its corruption. He says he tells friends in Argentina, “You want to see real corruption, go to Russia."

But beyond the ice carnival mood, protesters like computer programmer Taras Mazhar, attending with his father, sisters and girlfriend, warns Mr. Putin to listen and liberalize or face radicalization. “We come here to give a chance to our government not to lead us to revolution," he said.

Mazhar and others are driven by the thought the March 4 presidential vote could put Mr. Putin on the path to ruling Russia for more than another decade.

Twenty-four-year-old Evdokiya Labazova was handing out stickers for a website to prepare observers for presidential elections, one month away. She says clear fraud in the December parliamentary elections pushed her to be a poll watcher for the presidential election.

Levada Polling Center political researcher Natalia Zorkaya says the large turn out of well-educated people proves there is a growing awareness of the need for political reform.  She says Russians in their 20s are in a fighting mood.

She says that young successful Muscovites have switched from wanting to emigrate, to wanting to fight corruption and bring democracy to Russia.

From a city park in the dead of winter, the message to Mr. Putin is, liberalize now, or face a hot spring.