Russia's beleaguered liberals and other Kremlin opponents rallied in downtown Moscow a few days ago — and succeeded in showing just how marginalised they have become during six years of Vladimir Putin’s highly popular rule.
About 2,000 people gathered, amid freezing rain and blustery winds, to accuse the Kremlin of crushing press freedoms, straitjacketing democracy and curbing human rights. Marchers were outnumbered about five-to-one by riot police, and few passers-by on Teatralnaya Ploshad, near the Kremlin, paid much attention to them.
Pro-Putin analysts say the event proves that political freedom is alive and well in Putin’s Russia, since the demonstrators were allowed to hold their meeting, even though it featured provocative speeches comparing Putin to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and accusing Moscow police of being ‘fascists’. Protestors, on the other hand, claimed their point of view was validated by the behaviour of the police, who arrested about 40 people and allegedly beat others with truncheons. State-run television stations barely mentioned the event in evening newscasts, and edited out critical remarks made by speakers.
Human rights monitors say hundreds of people from out of town who wanted to join the protest, were prevented from reaching Moscow by the police, who closed regional train stations, pulled known critics of Putin off Moscow-bound buses, and blocked access to the city centre during the rally.
It was a strikingly different scene on Sunday, when about 70,000 activists of the Kremlin-backed youth movement Nashi (Ours) rallied freely on Red Square, making a massive show of support for President Putin.
Few policemen were on hand to dampen the festive atmosphere as the young activists, some wearing Santa Claus suits, and many waving Russian tricolour flags, listened to pro-government speeches and songs honouring the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Moscow, when Soviet troops stopped invading Nazis at the gates of the city.
Thousands of participants were reportedly brought in from other Russian cities in buses provided at government expense, and free food and coffee were laid on for the thousands of young activists and elderly war veterans who turned up. This demonstration received lavish coverage on state TV’s evening broadcasts.
He was the butt of jokes during his lifetime, but a majority of Russians now say the best time in history was the 18-year rule of the jovial, bear-like Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. A wave of Brezhnev nostalgia swept over the Moscow media this week to mark what would have been Brezhnev’s 100th birthday, had he not died in office in 1982.
Some newspapers even ran pages of favourite old Brezhnev jokes, which invariably targeted him as a stuttering old dummy. An example: "We must beat the Americans in the space race, and I have a plan," Brezhnev tells a meeting of the Politbureau, the top Soviet leadership council. "Instead of going to the moon, we shall land a Soviet spaceman on the sun," he continues. "But Comrade Brezhnev, our man will be burned up!" the other leaders gasp. "Do you think I’m an idiot?" replies Brezhnev. "We’ll send him at night."