This August I went to Moscow for the first time in over a year. I was there to help my grandmother move, a move necessitated in part by the fact that my sister, Masha, is leaving the country after twenty years. Masha is leaving the country because she is gay, and the Russian parliament, with the full support of the Kremlin, has decided that gay people are what’s wrong with Russia. A recent law even suggested that gay couples who had adopted could be stripped of parental rights; Masha adopted her son Vova twelve years ago. It was time to go.
I read the Russian news with particular intensity in the weeks before my visit, and not only because I was heading over. After a decade of stagnation, pseudo-politics, and the soft Putinism of the Medvedev years, things were getting interesting. The drama of the charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny was entering a new phase. Navalny was the first more or less legitimate opposition leader since, basically, forever—certainly since Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire oil oligarch who’d been jailed in 2003; and before that Aleksandr Lebed, a popular general who’d managed to receive 15 percent of the vote in the presidential election of 1996, before being co-opted by Yeltsin; and before that Yeltsin himself when he mounted his opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev in the final years of the USSR. But Navalny was more intriguing than any of these people, because he hadn’t come up through the Soviet system. He was 15 when the Soviet Union collapsed; the Soviet Union, for him, meant standing in line for milk. Navalny owns an iPhone and a Twitter account, and he knows how to use them: he has more than 400,000 followers, and he is funny.
Navalny, whose background is in corporate law, came to prominence as an anticorruption activist and blogger during the Medvedev years, and became the de facto leader of the opposition during the protests that followed the rigged parliamentary elections in late 2011. It took the authorities barely a year to bring a rigged case against him; while on trial, he declared his candidacy for mayor of Moscow. In mid-July, just a few weeks before I arrived in Moscow, he was sentenced to five years in prison.
Crowds gathered in the center of Moscow to protest. They were not massive, and they were not violent, and yet that evening it was announced that Navalny would be released pending his appeal. Navalny, who’d been standing trial in Kirov, an overnight train ride away, returned to the city to a hero’s welcome.
The commentariat began trying to figure out which forces in which Kremlin corridor had secured his release: allies of the current Moscow mayor, who wanted to show he could beat Navalny in a free election, or enemies of the mayor, who wanted to embarrass him, or . . . ? Eventually all conspiracy theories come to look alike. In this case they weren’t very useful. “Not because there aren’t any conspiracies,” as the socialist activist Ilya Budraitskis put it, “but because there are so many.” And the people were in the streets. Next time the protest will be bigger, and the next time bigger still. One of my favorite political columnists, Alexander Morozov, posted a photo on his blog: it showed a column of helmeted riot troops, in full gear, facing off against a column of citizens. They were across the street from Duma. “Someone needs to show this photo to Putin, and explain what I’m talking about,” Morozov wrote. “It will be clear to anyone who’s studied the history of the 20th century. . . . Looking at this photo, we need to recognize a clear political development. On one side are citizens who no longer trust a single institution; on the other is the only institution that is keeping the regime in place.” There are only two ways in which the situation can develop: either the defenders of the regime decide to evaporate, or the citizens resort to violence. Another political columnist, Victor Shenderovich, was less circumspect than Morozov. He wrote a column he called “Idiots,” in which he described the foolishness of the regime. “Idiots,” he kept repeating. “They are idiots.” They didn’t know how to run the country, and what’s worse they didn’t know how to respond to criticism. By responding so aggressively, they were pushing Russia in the worst possible direction. “You are idiots,” Shenderovich concluded, “who are leaving less and less room for any political compromise, and who are pushing this country toward the shedding of blood.”
Russia was in a revolutionary situation. That’s what it felt like from my computer screen in Brooklyn. I packed my stuff and got on the plane.