MOSCOW (Reuters) - One by one, young Russians take the microphone in a smoky Moscow bar, struggling to be heard over jazz music, to swap ideas for keeping alive a nascent protest movement against Vladimir Putin.
Discussion at their weekly meeting is dominated by mundane matters: Who will write the next protest leaflets? Does anyone have access to a photocopier to produce them? Are there any volunteers to distribute them?
“Will anyone come and support me when I go to court?” asks Olga Kuracheva, who was detained by police and accused of holding an unsanctioned protest and is now worried about the consequences.
“I‘m a lawyer, I can help you,” comes a voice from the group.
Soprotivleniye (Resistance) is one of a number of politically aware groups that have sprung up in Moscow as Putin prepares to reclaim the presidency in an election on Sunday and extend his 12-year domination of Russia for six more years.
Born of frustration with a political system controlled by one man, such groups, largely made up of well-heeled and well-educated young voters, are laying the foundations of a civil society after two decades of rampant capitalism unleashed by the collapse of the communist Soviet Union in 1991.
These groups, and the opposition protests that started in December, ensure that Putin will find the country has changed since his last, eight-year spell as head of state ended when he became prime minister in 2008.
What is less clear is whether the former KGB spy is ready, or able, to adapt to the changes and permit opposition protests and a slight relaxation of his grip on the media to continue.
“Nobody knows what will happen, but nothing will change if we do nothing,” said Maria Shubina, one of the organizers of Soprotivleniye. “This is a fight for us to have a normal civil society in Russia.”
Bringing change is far from glamorous in Moscow. Discussion in Soprotivleniye ranges from issues such as arranging a taxi fund to help people get home after the meeting to who could provide cups of hot tea for protesters on the snowy streets.
A studious young man, Anatoly Kats, tells the group he has a computer-based method of counting crowd numbers so the protesters can challenge police estimates that they say are always too low - but that he cannot attend the next protest.
“What computer language does it use?” another group member asks, offering to do the count in his absence.
“Could we not just ride past on a bike and count the protesters?” suggests another member, Sasha Primakova, prompting yet another proposal - that they attach a video camera to a cyclist’s helmet to have a visual record of the protest.
The group was created after discontent with Putin’s system, corruption and disenfranchisement became too much to bear for tens of thousands of people after a parliamentary election on December 4, which international monitors said was slanted to favor the winner, Putin’s United Russia party.
It was the last straw for Russians already feeling cheated by the back-room deal that Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev revealed on September 24 when they announced that they planned to swap jobs after the presidential election.
Tens of thousands of people are now training to be monitors in Sunday’s election to try to prevent, or limit, fraud. The number of volunteers has soared since the parliamentary vote.
EMERGING FROM “SLAVERY”
It is a big change in a country where opposition to the government had for years been dulled by public apathy and a daily diet of pro-Kremlin television news.
Since Soviet times, the urge to make a fast buck and get a nice flat or car had erased most traces of a civil conscience.
“It was like being in slavery. At a certain point the people stop putting up with it,” said Sergei Parkhomenko, one of the organizers of three big rallies in Moscow since December 4, the biggest opposition protests since Putin rose to power.
Each week, 30 to 40 people meet to enlist each other’s help and moral support in Soprotivleniye. They spend many hours at home on tasks such as preparing car stickers to advertise their cause or cutting white ribbons, the symbol of the protests.
“People come to us and say: ‘I always thought I was alone. Now I know I‘m not’,” Shubina said.
The events of December 4 and September 24, which have also triggered smaller, symbolic protests such as a human chain around Moscow city centre, have accelerated a gradual loss of hope among many Russians that their leaders can bring change.
“The day after the parliamentary election, we woke up in a different country. People came out to protest because they had been cheated,” said Yevgeniya Chirikova, one of the organizers of the street protests in the capital.
“Changes are possible in Russia only from below. Nothing will come from Putin, that has become clear. People want to live in a decent country.”
Putin’s supporters say the opposition protests threaten Russia with instability and chaos, but the new groups say the opposite is true.
A key event in dispelling Russians’ traditional blind faith in their leaders was the outbreak of forest fires that killed dozens of people in 2010. For long periods, the state was completely helpless, and people had to fend for themselves.
Chirikova has shown that change can be resisted from below as the leader of an ecological movement that temporarily forced the suspension of a project to build a motorway through Khimki forest outside Moscow.
Other movements that have taken matters into their own hands include the Society of Blue Buckets, formed in 2009 to object to the huge number of minor officials or people on government committees who use flashing blue lights to speed through traffic as if there were an emergency.
Fed up with being forced to pull aside, members of the group put blue buckets on their cars in protest. Other drivers now sound their horns in protest, sometimes even when Putin’s motorcade speeds by.
“A new street politics has surfaced in Russia,” said Yevgeny Starshov, a Blue Buckets member. “Now most of the action is organized not by the political parties sitting in the Duma (parliament) but by average Russians.”
“People are no longer indifferent, no longer thinking ‘We can’t change anything anyway’, but have begun, little by little, to organize themselves and to change some small things.”
The Internet has also helped groups and individuals who challenge the status quo.
Chief among these is Alexei Navalny, a 35-year-old blogger who has exposed corruption at state companies and emerged as one of the leading figures of the protest movement.
One of the more bizarre groups to emerge in the past few months is an all-girl, anti-Kremlin punk rock group called Pussy Riot, whose illegal performances and dissident songs are popular on the Internet and have inspired copycat groups across Russia.
Pussy Riot started with five permanent members but now has 10. They wear masks so that anyone can join in their protest when they perform, and the names and costumes they use are interchangeable.
The group have given impromptu concerts in public places including one in Red Square, beside the Kremlin, that police broke up. They took Putin and Medvedev’s job swap announcement on September 24 as a call to action.
“I couldn’t sleep after that. I wanted to go out in the street, take a microphone and scream ‘Russia without Putin!’ because I had so much rage,” said one member, her face concealed by a brightly colored ski mask.
The changes under way now have drawn comparisons with the rush towards capitalism after the Soviet Union collapsed, and with the opening up of society under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, especially as they have been accompanied by a slight relaxation in the Kremlin’s grip on the media.
Vladimir Pozner, a prominent television journalist who lived through all those upheavals, said Russia was going through an historic time and the changes would be hard to turn back when Putin returns to the presidency.
“We are witnessing the birth of a civil society, something that never existed before. The vast majority of people in the Soviet Union and Russia were never really citizens in the common understanding of that word. They never had a social conscience, a sense that they had a responsibility,” Pozner said.
The civil and opposition groups will still face problems, regardless of whether there is a crackdown against them. The protest movement is concentrated in Moscow and a few other big cities, and change generally comes slowly to the provinces.
Parkhomenko and Shubina made a brief trip to Siberia in February to try to spread the word about the events in Moscow and offer whatever help they could.
“Most of all they wanted to know what will happen after the election on March 4. That’s the big question,” Shubina said. “They don’t have anyone yet as active as us.”
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Kevin Liffey