5 live in pre-Presidential election Moscow
Arkady is puzzled. He's wondering why we want to drive halfway across Moscow to catch the final minutes of a demonstration in support of the Russian government.
“They are all drunk on vodka,” he tells us as he swerves his battered Toyota Prius into a heaving mass of traffic, “they have been transported in from towns around Moscow and they are all being paid.”
It seems he, like many Muscovites, is somewhat disillusioned with the Putin-Medvedev partnership which has ruled his country for the past dozen years.
We've only just met Arkady – after randomly climbing into the back of his car. He's one of the enterprising citizens who volunteer in lieu of a proper taxi service in this bustling, modern, metropolis, picking up strangers and taking them anywhere they like for between two and five pounds. We've just flagged down his car at the end of a protest march involving tens of thousands of mostly-middle class Russians who are angry with their government and demand change, and we explain that to be balanced, we need to speak to those who are assembling to support the current regime.
To be fair to Arkady, he may have a point. It's widely believed by many in Moscow that the counter-demonstration being held on the opposite side of the capital city is just a showpiece event put on by the government's many-tentacled bureaucracy to deflect attention from the latest pro-democracy rally.
When we arrive, in what can be charitably described as one of Moscow's more 'Soviet-era' neighbourhoods, many of those streaming away from the pro-Putin rally are reluctant to talk to journalists of any nationality, let alone a group of shivering Brits from the BBC. Several tell us they can't talk, and when one of those does he admits he is only here because his boss ordered him to come.
Still, there are some who explain that they're worried by the growing trend for big, showy, anti-government demonstrations. They're worried that the opposition could ferment some sort of political revolution and threaten the stability that has defined Russia's political landscape ever since Vladimir Putin took over the mantle of leadership from Boris Yeltsin in 2000.
Putin may be coming in for some flak from thousands of middle-class, educated Muscovites, but in the country as a whole he still commands the kind of popularity for which most western leaders would happily sell their souls. After all, he – and his protégé Dmitry Medvev – have presided over more than a decade of almost uniform economic growth. Pensions and public sector salaries have risen, food queues have vanished, and millions of Russians live comfortable lives as the billions of pounds generated by the country's vast oil and gas reserves trickles down into the broader economy.
Despite that, he's facing the most significant groundswell of grass-roots opposition since taking power. On three separate occasions tens of thousands of Russians have gathered in Moscow city centre carrying banners and chanting slogans that demand he withdraw from next month's presidential election and make way for a new generation of politicians. Just an hour or so earlier we were in the thick of the latest march, timed to take place exactly a month before the country's voters go to the polls to select a new head of state.
The march itself was as well-mannered as any trade union rally in the UK. At the head of the half-mile long column of protesters were carefully organised groupings representing every major faction of the disparate opposition movement.
First came the members of the major liberal parties, followed by the independents whose candidates failed to gather the 2 million signatures needed to register a candidate in the presidential vote. Behind them, the nationalists, who complain about the 13 million or so foreigners who now live and work in the country, many of them illegally. They are followed by the familiar red flags of the Communists.
Though they still march under the banner of the hammer and sickle their influence in Russian politics has waned significantly in the past thirty years and, though they are still the second largest party in the Duma, they are unlikely to be able to reclaim their iron clad grip on power. They're tailed by anarchists, marching fists aloft, their faces covered by balaclavas designed less to keep them hidden from the watching police than to ward off the -20C temperatures that have gripped eastern Europe over the last week.
As they pass it's hard not to wonder how so many diverse political groupings can share the same street, let alone march peacefully together towards a park on the banks of the Moskva where they'll listen to anti-Putin heavy metal songs and hear speeches from prominent bloggers, recently released prisoners and major TV celebrities.
Perhaps most interesting of all though is the final group. A long, cheerful column of ordinary, middle class citizens, all of them united in their desire to see someone other than Putin take victory in the Presidential election. There's no easy way to define their constituents. Bands of young friends dressed in ski-suits and western-brand sportswear mingle with mink-clad babushkas. Some are even wearing fancy dress; one man has turned up dressed as a Soviet tank – the words “T-34 Sport Coupe” emblazoned on his chest.
As we chat to them it becomes obvious what has angered them the most – political corruption. They all believe that December's parliamentary elections were a fraud. They accuse United Russia, the party that backs Putin and Medvedev, of stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating voters. It's a charge that the Putin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, laughed off when we interviewed him the previous day. Nevertheless, independent election observers from both Russia and abroad claim there was widespread evidence of some fairly dodgy dealing in many polling stations.
What few can agree on, however, is who to vote for. One 28-year-old, Alexey, tells us that he's desperate to support anyone but Putin, but that no single opposition candidate can realistically hope for victory. He says he's considering casting his ballot for Mikhail Prokhorov, the 46-year-old multi-billionaire who is channelling a tiny fraction of his fortune into a political campaign. Just two yards down the road though, another protester, Alexandra, is not so sure he's the man for the job. Prokhorov, she says, is just a Kremlin stooge, a Potemkin candidate given the tacit backing of the current administration to help fracture the genuine opposition and draw support from those who might realistically challenge the Putin bandwagon.
Prokhorov is certainly interesting. A day earlier we meet him at a literary awards event he is sponsoring. Charming and impeccably dressed, the 6 foot 8-tall basketball fan towers over everyone at the event. I realise I'm in danger of seriously straining my neck gazing up at his earnest expression as he tells me why he's running. He has, he says, fulfilled all his ambitions in business and wants to do something for the Russian people. “How will they relate to a billionaire?” I ask him. “Because only a billionaire cannot be corrupted by the promise of money” he assures me, not quite answering the question.
He, of course, insists he is his own man, but won't rule out the possibility of serving as a minister under a future Putin-led administration. As he warmly shakes my hand at the end of our chat, I ask if he's ever considered following his countryman Roman Abramovich and buying into English football. “Perhaps,” he tells me, “when I have been President for eight years, and the basketball team I own (the New Jersey Nets) has won the NBA Championship, it will be the next thing to try”. Mr Prokhorov, it seems, is always looking for something to occupy his time.
Back at the protest we pass a furiously excited pack of Russian TV and radio crews. They're clustered around one man, almost invisible behind a mass of cameras and microphones; Alexey Navalny. He's the man many of those marching would like to see lead an opposition charge in the Presidential elections. He rose to prominence through his widely-read blog, and has become something of a figurehead for the educated young of Moscow's bar and café culture. Like the thousands he marches alongside, he is angry about the level of corruption in both politics and business, and predicts an Arab-spring like revolt in Russia before the decade is out. He's even made nationalistic overtones that appeal to the millions of voters who feel the country should do more to protect its home-grown workforce.
After the last major rally in Moscow, Navalny was arrested and spent 15 days in jail – something which has only helped his notoriety and appeal. Still, he's not standing in this election, and the consensus seems to be that he's waiting to see what happens this time around, while keeping his powder dry for a potential Presidential run in a few years’ time. So, for now, his supporters will have to find another candidate to back.
Back in Arkady's car he ponders the difficulties of ousting the current regime. He, like many, is concerned about the impact of Russia's huge immigrant population, and is tempted by the nationalist parties, though he also feels an affinity with his former paymasters, the Communists.
As we sit in an eight-lane traffic jam near a giant Stalinist skyscraper, his hammer and sickle key ring dangling from the car's ignition, he recounts his life story. After working for the KGB and serving in the Soviet Union's own Afghan war he was imprisoned – like many others, he tells us, for refusing to pay bribes to corrupt rivals and officials. He's now unemployed and makes his living driving his private car around the city giving lifts to anyone who sticks out their thumb and negotiates a fee. Once, he picked up a fare who wanted to go to Vladivostok, a two thousand mile journey that netted him 10,000 roubles – about two hundred pounds. It's a story he seems immensely proud of, even if the economics of a 10 pence per mile taxi fare encourage a degree of scepticism on our part.
Like Arkady on that occasion, it seems Russia's opposition groups and their supporters have a long road ahead of them, but like our frozen group of 5 live journalists, they'll certainly have some stories to tell when they get there.
Tom Green is part of 5 live Drive's team in Russia. Hear their special programmes live from Moscow looking ahead to next month's Presidential elections from 4pm on Monday 6th and Tuesday 7th of February.