MOSCOW — It's hard to pin down the exact moment when it became clear the protests in Russia on Saturday — where tens of thousands of people, stretching across the country, called for the release of the jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny — were something special.
It definitely wasn't the violence doled out to protesters and even bystanders — like a woman in St. Petersburg being casually kicked in the gut by a riot cop — or the deliberate targeting of reporters. Such occurrences are sadly commonplace. It wasn't even the people coming out to protest in the unlikeliest corners of Russia, like Yakutsk, where the temperatures dipped to minus-60 Fahrenheit. Extreme cold and remoteness have never before stopped Russians from expressing their displeasure.
No, if there was one incident that suggested the significance of Saturday's protests, it was probably the footage of riot police in Moscow looking lost and disoriented as a crowd blitzed them with snowballs. Or perhaps another video of young men charging at the fully clad riot police so ferociously that the officers, who clearly didn't expect to meet such resistance, almost backed down.
These acts of defiance and escalation — in the past, people have been convicted of throwing plastic cups and bottles in the general direction of police officers — underscored the depth of popular dissatisfaction with life under President Vladimir Putin. These protests, summoned by an imprisoned opposition leader and undertaken against the government's warnings, are a significant development. After years of relative calm, Russia is restive once more.
To judge by the government's response, it knows it has trouble on its hands. The crackdown is breaking records. On July 27, 2019, in what was one of the largest roundups of protesters in decades, 1,373 people were detained. On Saturday, around 3,100 were hauled in. At times the process was almost mechanical: In one exchange caught on video, a protester, realizing that the police officer wants only to fulfill an arrest quota, offers himself in place of another — and is duly led away.
The calm manner of that arrest — far from common on Saturday, which saw many ugly displays of heavy-handed policing — harked back to the precursors of today's protest movements. During the Strategy 31 movement, named after the article of the Russian Constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly, from 2009 to late 2011, protesters gathered in Moscow on the last day of every 31-day month. Though never permitted by the authorities, the protests were orderly and pointedly legalistic.
The habit stuck. Before holding a demonstration, protesters over the past decade have tended to seek permission from the authorities. Some of the biggest rallies for fair elections in late 2011 and 2012 were sanctioned by Moscow's city government; so was the "Digital Resistance" protest in April 2018 against the government's attempt to ban Telegram, a popular messaging app.
Not this time. If, permit or not, you are at risk of being beaten, detained and forced to face absurd charges, why bother with the paperwork? The lack of central organization on Saturday — instead of confining themselves to one central square or street, crowds moved across cities and towns — is a notable feature. It also makes counting heads difficult. For Moscow alone, the number for those protesting varies from 4,000 to 10 times that.
Several factors have led to this point. The obvious one is Aleksei Navalny himself. A decade of anti-corruption activism long ago elevated him to a position of authority among those who oppose the president. By the time of his poisoning in August, which he claimed was undertaken at Putin's behest, he effectively embodied the opposition. His brave return to Russia this month, knowing he would be arrested immediately, won him more acclaim. That thousands of people, all across the country, defied the government's order to stay home testifies to the strength of his appeal.
What's more, while Navalny was in jail last week, staff members at his nonprofit organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, released a nearly two-hour-long video that claimed to reveal the details of an opulent mansion on the shore of the Black Sea — complete with spa, hockey rink and casino hall — owned by Putin through a network of intermediaries. (Putin denies the allegations.)
While it's hard to know what effect the revelations had on the protests, some suggested that the video, which has been watched well over a hundred million times, played a role in turning people out all over the country, especially in regions not normally considered to be hotbeds of protest activity.
But the protests also emerged from — and revealed — the impotence of the government. To its discontented citizens it fails to offer anything but crude force and conspiracy theories. (Navalny is often depicted as a foreign agent, and protests as financed by "the West.") There's no vision of the future and little effort in the present to improve people's lives, now worsened by the pandemic.
Tellingly, state propaganda is failing on platforms where it's attempting to compete with independent voices. On Saturday, 10 times more people watched coverage of the protests on TV Rain, a small independent channel, than the live-streamed show on RT, the government-controlled network.
More protests may be coming, as Leonid Volkov, a close ally of Navalny, has promised. It would be foolish, however, to think they are going to lead to significant political changes or concessions from the state. If anything, as with the mass protests nearly a decade ago, they will probably just lead to more criminal cases and more repressive laws.
Yet what happened on Saturday matters. Crackdown and coercion are no longer enough to discourage Russians from protesting: According to sociologists who studied Saturday's demonstrations, at least 42 percent of all participants were first-time protesters. Navalny has clearly struck a chord well outside his regular circle of supporters. The Kremlin, its room for compromise limited, is likely to respond with further escalation.
What that might lead to, no one can say. But one thing's certain: It doesn't bode well for anyone.
Alexey Kovalev is the investigations editor at Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet, and wrote this article for the New York Times.