A few months before this week’s parliamentary elections, around 10 of us gathered in a small room at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center, a place meant to honor freedom of thought, a place that no one visits.
Boris Nemtsov was there, a former deputy prime minister whose opposition party was one of the many excluded from the elections. And so was Viktor Shenderovich, who hosted a popular satirical TV show and now performs only rarely in tiny clubs. There were entrepreneurs with no business opportunities and lawyers kept from the courtroom. And then there was me: a disenchanted former political reporter.
During the many years of Vladimir V. Putin’s rule, we lost our jobs and so much more. So our luckless gang had met to ponder what to do about the coming elections, all too aware that nothing could be done about them.
This is how parliamentary elections work in Russia: Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia, faces off against collaborating parties — which would never dare to criticize him. And the real opposition parties are banned. But one cannot simply vote against every party involved. Nor is there any use in boycotting, because the election would be considered legitimate even if no one but the prime minister and president showed up.
The only solution, we decided, was irreverent protest. And so we came up with a cartoon pig called Nah-Nah, a name that, in Russian, evokes an unprintable version of “get lost!” — an expletive for what we’d like to say to those in power. We made posters and animated cartoons depicting Nah-Nah at the polls, destroying the ballot. He would check the box for every party running and draw an X across the ballot. He would do this not in hopes of changing anything, but to illustrate how nauseating these pretend elections are. We posted them online and called on real voters to follow Nah-Nah’s lead. Mostly, we wanted to laugh and misbehave a little, even as United Russia kept its throne.
At the same time, a young activist and very well-known blogger, Aleksei Navalny, offered a different protest strategy for the elections. He proposed voting for any of the collaborating parties in order to avoid casting a vote for United Russia — for the Communists, for A Just Russia, for Yabloko.
These two protests — Nah-Nah and Navalny — gained attention, and for the first time in the history of the anti-Putin movement, there was a real debate about methods, a conversation with substance and without enmity, taking place on the Internet, in cafes, in Moscow and the suburbs.
Mr. Navalny’s supporters argued that destroying the ballot would simply split the anti-Putin vote, giving United Russia a bigger victory.
“Nonsense!” Nah-Nah’s fans insisted. “Nothing depends on the vote. Our only option is protest.”
The Navalny faction thought there was hope for the collaborating parties. “If they could get enough seats in Parliament, you would see how quickly they would move away from Putin.”
The Nah-Nah enthusiasts disagreed. “The moment they get to Parliament, they will obey Putin like well-trained puppies.”
Though no one could convince anyone else, more and more people entered the conversation, more and more people abandoned the apathy that is the very foundation of the Putin government.
A few days before the election, I heard a rumor that United Russia would be satisfied with only a simple majority, as opposed to the two-thirds majority it has now — the party’s main concern is that the presidential election in March appear legitimate, so that Mr. Putin can replace Dmitri Medvedev, his underling and the current president, and stay in power until 2024. But in the end, when the government said that United Russia received half of the vote, most Russians knew the results were manipulated, and suspected the party got even less.
That is because voters, fueled by the debate between Nah-Nah and Navalny, came to the polls armed with cameras. There was footage of abuses and many accounts of corruption: witnesses said that the head of the Election Commission had thrown packaged ballots into a voting bin and that pro-Putin youth voted multiple times with fraudulent IDs; impossibly different results from incredibly similar polling stations have been posted online. And the government-controlled television stations said nothing.
On Monday, the day after the election, there was a protest in the center of Moscow; despite the rain, thousands assembled — a sight unseen since the time of Perestroika. The leaders of the Nah-Nah movement and Mr. Navalny’s supporters stood together. The police arrested nearly 300 people. Among them was one of the authors of the Nah-Nah strategy, Ilya Yashin, as well as Aleksei Navalny himself. They were held by the police all night, prevented from meeting with their lawyers. In the morning, they were brought to court and sentenced to 15 days for disobeying police orders and obstructing traffic, respectively.
An even larger protest is planned for Saturday. It seems that the government has decided to turn the two into heroes.
By Valery Panyushkin, the author of 12 Who Don’t Agree: The Battle for Freedom in Putin’s Russia. This essay was translated by Yevgeniya Traps from the Russian.