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Fury And Activism In the Urals: Yekaterinburg's Protest Spirit

  • Tom Balmforth

A man walks past a wall in Yekaterinburg painted with graffiti showing Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin.

A man walks past a wall in Yekaterinburg painted with graffiti showing Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin.

YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- Aleksandr Pronishchev hadn't paid much attention to politics before and never attended an anti-Kremlin rally. Until December 4, that is.

When news of widespread voter fraud in Russia's parliamentary elections spread via viral videos on the Internet, the 20-year-old student was outraged. He joined an impromptu -- and unsanctioned -- demonstration on Yekaterinburg's central Labor Square, climbed onto a friend's shoulders, and called on his fellow protesters to march on City Hall.

"It was just unbelievable -- to brazenly steal [votes] before your eyes, to decide everything for everybody without taking into account what people want," Pronishchev says of the emotions that spurred him from apathy into action. "It was almost a feeling of hatred that I felt at the time."

Pronishchev's rebellion didn't last long -- at least on that day. He was swiftly bundled into a police van and detained along with other demonstrators. But less than a week later, on December 10, he was back on Labor Square again, joining a 5,000-strong rally on the same day that tens of thousands of Muscovites made international headlines with the largest anti-Kremlin protest since the 1990s.

He plans to demonstrate again after this weekend's presidential election, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win easily.

Pronishchev's story, of course, is not unique. In cities and towns across Russia, people like him -- young, middle-class, and educated -- have joined a burgeoning national protest movement. Knitted together across thousands of kilometers by social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and VKontakte, as well as blogging platforms like LiveJournal, they read the same blogs, watch the same viral videos, and share each other's experience in real time.

Unhappy Hipsters

It is this connectedness, analysts say, that distinguishes what is going on in Russia today from the past, when antigovernment protests were more atomized, isolated, and centered in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Konstantin Kiselyov, 47, an independent political analyst who has participated actively in local protests, said Yekaterinburg's rallies are in many ways have followed the paradigm seen in Moscow.

"It is mostly the younger generation -- 25-,30-, and 35-year-olds. These people are much more active," Kiselyov says. "But there are also people of the older generation. As a rule, it is educated people."

An earring-wearing hipster who says he uses Twitter every day, Pronishchev very much fits the profile. But his case also highlights the growing muscle of local civil society in this Urals mining city of 1.4 million people located 2,000 kilometers east of Moscow.

After being arrested and charged with organizing an unsanctioned protest, it initially appeared that Pronishchev might face a brief jail term -- or at least a stiff fine. But local rights activist Vyacheslav Bashkov and opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman, head of the powerful "City Without Drugs" foundation, rushed to his defense and secured an acquittal -- one that was reported in full on local television.

Bashkov says the case marks a significant victory for civil society.

"In Yekaterinburg, we have a fairly strong democratic movement," Bashkov says. "It is a thin layer, but it is still quite strong. Any aggression from the authorities doesn't go unnoticed."

Adding Up

Another sign of the city's increasingly vibrant civil society, locals say, is the army of citizen election observers the opposition plans to deploy for the March 4 presidential vote to prevent the alleged widespread fraud that marred December's State Duma vote.

The effort is being spearheaded by Leonid Volkov, a popular local opposition and deputy in the Yekaterinburg City Council who was barred from running for the regional Duma last year on a technicality. Volkov and other members of their iCenter monitoring mission say they have received thousands of calls from ordinary citizens wishing to participate.

One of those taking part is Dmitry Golovin, a burly 47-year-old former bodybuilder and owner of a tool-leasing company. Golovin says he was motivated to become politically active after local bureaucrats began leaning on and interfering in his business.

Golovin ridiculed the Kremlin's efforts to smear the protesters as tools of the U.S. State Department. He thinks Putin has had more than enough time in power.

"He [Putin] wants to be crowned as a tsar and he wants me to agree to that. I'll never agree to that," Golovin says. "He wants everything to remain as it is now -- that is to say, they can steal as much as they like while we look on silently and wipe away our tears of fury."

He says, however, that he's "a strong person."

"I can't allow myself to sit in the kitchen crying because everything is bad and everything is gone," Golovin says, "so I take action, I do something."

Fear Factor

But Golovin admits he is one of only a handful of local entrepreneurs who dare to take this bold step. Most, he says, fear reprisals despite loathing the local authorities for harassing their businesses.

In terms of sheer numbers, Yekaterinburg’s protests have not showed the staying power of anti-Kremlin demonstrations in Moscow that have consistently amassed tens of thousands. The December 10 rally that drew 5,000 people, the largest the city has seen in more than a decade, was the talk of the town. But a week later, only half that total turned up.

But analyst Kiselyov says the protest mood goes far deeper than turnout at rallies. Going forward, he expects it to be driven by local concerns like the restoration of direct elections for the city's mayor.

Likewise, Pronishchev stresses that the city's protest mood runs deeper than numbers at rallies.

"With the Internet, society has activated its desire for change," Pronishchev says. "It is a change that doesn't suit certain people. This need became activated in the street protests where everyone who gathered online marched offline. Even if people stop coming out to the square, that need will remain."
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at


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