Russia: Protests and opposition to Vladimir Putin
- 3 February 2012
- From the section Europe
Alexei Yakimov's brutal political awakening came early one April morning.
The previous night, the driver from Nizhny Novgorod had gone to help a friend who had become the victim of police extortion.
But when he challenged local officers, he was taken to a nearby detention centre and subjected to a night of horrific beating:
"Two officers handcuffed me and chained me to a locker," he told me.
"One of them grabbed my feet and turned me upside down. I kept losing consciousness.
"They threw me to the floor and placed a plastic bag over my head, so I couldn't breathe."
Eventually, they drove him to a quiet place along the river, threw him into a hole in the ice and left him for dead.
Alexei managed to clamber out, confused and concussed, with broken bones from head to toe.
A shocking experience, but what happened next was highly unusual, in a country where police have grown used to acting with impunity.
Not only did Alexei take his captors to court, but, after an 18-month battle, they were convicted and imprisoned.
Now he is trying to change a political system which, he believes, has allowed such corruption to flourish. He says it reminds him of the Soviet regime.
"If we put up with this system," he told me, "this country will turn back into a large prison. We left that prison 20 years ago, and we're returning to it."
In a cramped basement, where religious icons share wall space with posters comparing supporters of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party to sheep, Alexei joined other organisers of an unauthorised opposition march in the city centre on 4 February.
A previous demonstration in December, to protest at the alleged rigging of parliamentary elections, was broken up by police.
The protesters take each decision after a show of hands. One of Alexei's fellow organisers, Elvira Le Jeune, said the collective atmosphere reflected their collective target:
"Mr Putin is just a small part of a big, big team. It's not a question of changing him, because the system will stay the same - and it will be another him again and again."
Nizhny-based author Zakhar Prilepin is a rising star of Russian literature - and one of the intellectual driving forces behind the national protest movement.
Shaven headed and intense, this veteran of the most recent conflict in Chechnya proudly calls himself a nationalist.
In a book-lined, trendy Nizhny Novgorod cafe called "Biblioteka," he told me that the reason for his opposition to Putin might surprise Westerners.
"I'm not worried about freedom of speech. My main concern is the gap between Putin's rhetoric and his actions. He projects the image of a strong leader, capable of standing up to the East and the West, but in practice he's a weak politician.
"He depends on his associates, who keep their money in Western banks and their children in Western schools. What kind of a national leader is that?"
Prilepin believes that if the protesters had remained on the streets in the immediate aftermath of the December elections, they could have achieved the kind of change that Ukrainians did in their 2004 Orange Revolution, which also followed a disputed election.
Now, he laments, the opposition is becoming more diffuse, with liberal protesters trying to elbow the nationalists and communists out of the anti-Putin camp.
But, he argues, the genie is out of the bottle.
"In the next four years, changes in the government are inevitable. A financial or economic crisis, an environmental disaster or a terrorist attack - any of those events could trigger mass protests."
Forty minutes from Nizhny Novgorod, political change has already come.
Dzerzhinsk was the polluted heart of the Soviet chemical weapons programme. Although 70% of its chemical factories have now closed, vast clouds of smoke still fill the air and darkened river water betrays signs of the mercury and other pollutants which have seeped deep into the ground over the decades.
A poster at the entrance to the city features a green bear, with the slogan "Dzerzhinsk - United Russia's Favourite City".
It seems the feeling isn't reciprocated. Following December's parliamentary elections, the Communist Party holds power here - for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed.
Travelling in one of the trams that first ran in Dzerzhinsk in the year he was born, 78-year-old retired engineer Valery Yunitsky told me why Vladimir Putin had lost his support.
He'd liked Putin when he was younger, but felt he'd lost touch with ordinary citizens and their concerns.
By voting for the communists, Valery assured me, he wasn't harking back to the past. If he had been given the choice, he would have liked to re-elect President Medvedev - but he was not.
"It was a protest vote," he explained. "And I'll do the same in the presidential election. If the communist candidate gets through to the second round, it will hopefully tell Putin that he needs to listen to the people."
The reasons for people's disaffection with Vladimir Putin may be varied, but - after years of unchallenged popularity - this disaffection is, in itself, a new and unpredictable political force in Russia.
It may not change the result of the presidential election, but it is already changing the relationship between the country's rulers and the ruled.