Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fear and Joy at the Picket Line

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

You going to the picket today?" I asked a journalist who blogs for the magazine where I work. His specialty is taking pictures of various city events -- mostly things that take place outside -- and writing hilarious captions. Whenever I get a press release that concerns a demonstration, a rally, a picket or a march, I forward it to him.

"No," he said, surprising me. "I can't turn the magazine's site into one big collection of picket pictures."

He had a point. If he had attended every picket this week, he would have had to photograph a demonstration in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, several demonstrations calling for a harsh sentence for Khodorkovsky, a demonstration in support of continuing to choose the Moscow mayor through direct elections, a demonstration in support of appointing the mayor, a demonstration in support of Cuban dissidents, another one in support of Fidel, a picket organized by Yabloko in support of (or in opposition to) I can't for the life of me remember what, and, finally, Sunday's rally against censorship, held at the Ostankino television tower.

This is pretty incredible, if you think about it. A year or even six months ago a street protest, even if it boasted fewer than 20 participants, was a news event.

Then things happened. There was a revolution in Ukraine, demonstrating that a really big street protest, under the right circumstances, could lead to regime change. Then the ill-engineered benefits reform hit, driving pensioners into the street. And somewhere in there, people generally started feeling less satisfied with their lives and their president -- the polls show satisfaction in all these areas has been dropping for over a year -- and, considering that virtually all democratic institutions have been hijacked, the dissatisfied had no way to express their dissatisfaction but through street protest.

Now what? The problem with street protests is, they really work only under two sets of circumstances: either if the media react, forcing government institutions to react, or if the protest is so huge that it overwhelms the authorities, becoming a revolution. The former is not what's happening in Russia: Television, which is controlled by the state, covers the protests highly selectively, often in distorted ways, and this kind of coverage exerts no pressure on the state. The latter is the outcome that terrifies the state, which accounts for all the talk of revolution in the air and the extreme reaction of the police in some instances.

One example is Monday's picket in front of the courthouse where the verdict in the Khodorkovsky case is being read, interminably. The police beat up several participants in a perfectly legal and peaceful picket and briefly detained at least 15 of them. For the rest of the week, police restricted traffic on Kalanchevskaya Street, where the courthouse is located, posting as many as 500 police in front of the court. In addition, they banned the sale of alcohol in nearby shops. What was the point of this? Certainly the pro-Khodorkovsky protesters weren't going to blow up the courthouse or do something equally reprehensible, even if they were able to buy beer and vodka near the picket site. The point, I think, is fear. The regime and those whose job it is to protect it simply have no idea of what might trigger the revolution they have now come to expect.

But they just might be looking in the wrong direction. On Wednesday night, I worked late at my office at Pushkinskaya Ploshchad and, when I was ready to leave around 1 a.m., I was terrified: There was a mob, tens of thousands strong, in the streets outside. The people were screaming, lighting torches and jumping on top of cars. They were celebrating Russian soccer team's victory in the European Cup. It turned out to be an amazing night: No one was hurt, everyone was happy, and the fact that there was only a handful of police in the streets probably was for the best.

Now imagine what would have happened if Russia had lost.

Masha Gessen is deputy editor of Bolshoi Gorod.