Something remarkable occurred in Russia last month: Large numbers of people protested openly against the government at a commemoration march for a prominent opposition leader murdered last year. A political demonstration in most countries that claim to be democracies would not be noteworthy, but Russia, under the firm grip of President Vladimir Putin, long ago ceased behaving as one.
The march last month recalled the enormous crowds that took to the streets in 2011 and 2012 to demand “free elections” following the ruling party’s victory in parliamentary polls conducted on a sharply uneven playing field. In response to those protests, Putin signed a spate of draconian legislative measures aimed, if not at destroying, at least at crippling the opposition. The laws were only the beginning. Opposition leaders have since been imprisoned, killed, harassed and otherwise intimidated, with large numbers of Kremlin critics choosing to flee into exile. And yet, there are signs that the Russian opposition, while battered, bruised and diminished, remains very much alive.
That became indisputably evident on the first anniversary of the murder of the charismatic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was shot on a Moscow bridge just outside the Kremlin on Feb. 27 last year. To mark the anniversary, a crowd estimated by journalists of 30,000 marched in Moscow. Another 6,000 took to the streets in St. Petersburg. Demonstrators chanted risky slogans, such as “Putin get out,” and carried signs that minced no words, reading, “Putin is Russia’s nightmare.” That evening, a huge line of people waited their turn to lay flowers on the spot of the killing, the Great Moskvoretsky bridge.