By Simon Shuster / Moscow, TIME, Jan. 15, 2012
When Russia’s protest movement came alive last month, bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Moscow, it only took an Internet connection to realize that its most vital cogs and gears were online. There had to be hundreds if not thousands of them, like an army of virtual worker ants, doing the grunt work that goes into a revolution in the 21st century. Someone had to be facilitating the movement’s Facebook groups, making its YouTube clips, tweeting and blogging its propaganda. And so there were. On a snowy night in December, dozens of them got together at a bar called Masterskaya, just down the street from the Kremlin, and turned the place into a buzzing revolutionary workshop.
At the time, the next big protest against Vladimir Putin’s government was only two days away, and the prime minister (who has said that he rarely uses the Internet) had just given the protestors an adrenaline shot by comparing them to bandar-logs, the wayward monkeys from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Their meeting at Masterskaya (the name of the bar, appropriately enough, means “workshop”) was partly geared toward proving him wrong.
The volunteers were not only better organized than a lot of Russia’s bureaucracy but far more dedicated. “I haven’t slept in three days,” boasted Rustem Davydov, 42, a scruffy TV producer wearing three layers of hooded sweatshirts. By day, Davydov told TIME, he works at a state-run television channel, wearing a suit and tie, by night he puts on his sweatshirts and sits on Facebook coordinating the opposition groups. Two weeks of this schizophrenic schedule had made him look like he needed a drink, but he refused one. “There is too much work to do,” he said.
At a table near the bar, a group of college students were cutting white ribbons—the symbols of the movement—from little plastic spools, taking the time to flay the ends of each to make it pretty. (Putin, in another snide remark, had said on live TV a week before that the ribbons looked like “dangling condoms.”) Near the entryway, graffiti artists were spray painting posters of Putin with the horns of a ram. “Go roam in another country,” its caption read. Stacks of stickers were passed around, showing Putin’s face with a big red line through it, like a no-smoking sign. (Almost everyone in the place, by the way, was smoking, and the bar’s dimly lit rooms were filled with a noxious haze.)
At one point, a producer for the BBC came up to Maria Baronova, a chemist who has volunteered to be a press secretary for the movement, and asked who was in charge of flashmobs. Baronova, a svelte blond, promptly shouted the question out—“Who’s got flashmobs!?”—and a group of eight beatnik-looking men and women turned away from their huddle and raised their arms. Every table was crammed with its own team of activists, and standing among them felt like being inside some churning organism, where each cluster of cells was fulfilling its own function but for the same basic purpose: change.
One of the projects debated that night was far more ambitious than stickers and flashmobs. Its goal was to create a kind of virtual democracy in Russia, allowing people to register on a newly designed website, verify their identities, and vote directly on the aims and leaders of the opposition movement. Alexei Navalny, the blogger who has been at the forefront of the protests, imagines it as a “reconstituted Facebook,” and brushes off the notion that such chatroom politics could have little impact on the real world. In the present day, he says, “the split between the virtual and real worlds is no longer relevant.” In December, the opposition organized the biggest protests Russia has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, and it did so by virtual means, primarily using Facebook. “Nonetheless, I think [the protests] were more than real enough,” Navalny tells TIME.
The idea of an electronic democracy is unprecedented in Russia, but in other parts of the world such projects have been known as Democracy 2.0, an umbrella term for letting regular folks influence politics through the Internet. It’s most famous application came in 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama created the Citizens’ Briefing Book just after his inauguration. It was a bold attempt to crowdsource policy ideas online, and it received 44,000 proposals, on which 1.4 million online votes were cast. But the results were an embarrassment, not so much for Obama as for the voters taking part. “In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana,” the columnist Anand Giriharadas wrote in the New York Times that fall. “Revoking the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.”
So it makes sense that some of Russia’s opposition leaders are concerned about switching to an online democracy, because it can always be skewed by the Internet’s abundance of kooks and fraudsters. A few of them have complained that someone like Ksenia Sobchak, a celebrity heiress often called Russia’s Paris Hilton, would win any online election. On Twitter, she has almost 300,000 followers, nearly twice as many as Navalny. “But I tell them, ‘Dudes, it’s a vote,’” Navalny says. “If you’re scared Ksenia Sobchak will beat you, then why are you saying you want the presidency? If you’re afraid of a vote, sit home.’”
In any case, the Russian opposition has little choice but to have their supporters vote online, because Putin’s Democracy 1.0 has effectively locked them out. When several of the opposition leaders tried to form a political party last summer, they were denied registration by the Ministry of Justice, and thus banned from taking part in elections. Nor do they have the option of holding a physical summit, where paper ballots could be cast. This would require renting a venue big enough to hold a quorum of the protestors, such as a stadium, and no landlord would risk angering the government by renting such a space to the opposition, Navalny says. “The police will come and break it up.”
Sure enough, that fear was confirmed when the activists tried to gather for a second night at Masterskaya. By midnight, the police showed up, and a handful of the activists were detained, taken to the station and released without charge. “It was just a stupid act of intimidation,” says Baronova, the movement’s spokeswoman. But in some sense, it worked. The activists were forced to look for another venue, while many retreated back to the safety of the Web. Clearly the split between the real and virtual worlds is not as irrelevant as Navalny claims.