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A couple of weeks ago, the Kremlin’s chief ideologist and one of its most powerful men came out with a surprising remark.
“If in multimillion-person Moscow, 200 people want to gather exactly on the 31st of the month, exactly on Triumfalnaya Square, in such modest numbers — let them gather,” Vladislav Surkov, who officially holds the post of deputy presidential chief of staff, said in an interview with a Russian newspaper.
Within about a week, city authorities, for the first time, approved the opposition’s request to hold a protest at the central square. Sunday night, that protest was held.
Opposition leaders were triumphant. “I congratulate you — this is really cool. This is cool. They didn’t want to do this for a long time,” said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, referring to the authorities’ approval.
Activists handed out leaflets and copies of the constitution (protestors gather on the 31st of the month to mark the constitution’s 31st article: the right to assembly). It was Halloween, so there were Putin masks aplenty. The usual slogans were shouted: “Russia Without Putin!” and “This is our city!”
The militia and riot police presence was hefty, as usual. And though some tussles ensued when protesters beyond the 800 approved forced their way into the square, the mood was, in general, more peaceful than protests past.
A sign that Moscow’s new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, is taking the city for a liberal turn? Nope.
It looks like the Kremlin has finally realized what many Russia watchers figured out long ago — if you allow these protests to happen, and allow them to go off peacefully, neither the world nor the regime will collapse.
Surkov is a wily fellow, young, clever and relatively hip (Don’t believe me? Listen to him read an Allen Ginsberg poem, in English). And he exhibits a flexibility that many of his Soviet forbears did not.
“The opposition shouldn’t get a feeling of permissiveness,” Surkov continued in his rare interview. “It has not been allowed everything. Violations of social order will always be stopped.”
As for Sobyanin, he gave his first interview this weekend, sitting down with Channel One to talk for nearly 20 minutes about traffic. Yes, traffic. Toward the end, interviewer Pyotr Tolstoy asked the new mayor, who hails from Siberia, whether he felt like a Muscovite yet.
“In all, all residents of Russia love Moscow. And I am no exception,” the new mayor said.
“I have lived for a long time in Moscow,” he continued. “But I’ll tell you, during this past week of work I, probably, became a Muscovite no less than any other Muscovite.” Not quite sure what that means, but considering Surkov made the decision to allow Sunday night’s rally, it looks like all decisions about the city’s development will be taken squarely inside the halls of federal power.