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Still dissenting in Moscow

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An exhausted protester on Turgenevskaya Square in Moscow, where political opponents of Vladimir Putin gathered on March 3, 2008, the day after Russian elections. (Matt Siegel)

An exhausted protester on Turgenevskaya Square in Moscow, where political opponents of Vladimir Putin gathered on March 3, 2008, the day after Russian elections. (Matt Siegel)

MOSCOW (JTA) – It was late afternoon the day after Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor won Russia’s presidential contest by a landslide, and police were lining up in Turgenevskaya Square to stymie an illegal protest.

Several blocks away, in Pushkin Square, the pro-Kremlin Young Guard group was holding a sanctioned rap concert and rally in support of Russia’s next president, Dmitry Medvedev.

Whereas the concert crowd was exuberant, the scene at the impending protest was grim.

For at least an hour before the demonstration began in Turgenevskaya Square, baton-wielding police from the elite OMON forces stood, arms interlocked, securing the perimeter. Eventually the protesters, some of them elderly, trickled into the square in defiance of a city ban, which an Interior Ministry representative attributed to concerns for traffic flow.

Shortly after 5 p.m., the smell of burning chemicals brought a stampede of activists, police and journalists streaming across the square, where a small group of opposition activists had lit a flare as a signal. Members of the crowd began chanting “Fascists!” and “We want a different Russia!”

Police responded immediately, arresting recognizable opposition figures and chasing protesters into the crowd. In some cases, officers beat individuals with truncheons even after they had surrendered.

Nikita Belykh of the Union of Right Forces was dragged by the neck to an unmarked bus. Many more protesters disappeared into police vans and unmarked buses.

For many, especially those old enough to remember a time before Putin, the authorities’ actions evoked painful memories and a sense of lost opportunity.

“I see so many possibilities here in Russia, but we need reforms,” said Vladimir Zakaryan, 60. “People’s salaries are so low, and the young people are terrified of having to join the army.”

Monday’s demonstration was the latest in a series of confrontations between the government and Other Russia, a loose coalition of opposition groups led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is Jewish, and radical nationalist Eduard Limonov.

Experts said the government’s harsh response to the demonstrations sends a clear signal that political opponents should not expect any slackening of the tight controls the government has placed on dissent here over the past several years.

Yet despite the pressure and the danger, many Russian Jews, young and old, continue to be active in opposition politics.

Marina Litvinovich, a prominent activist who works closely with Kasparov, sounded upbeat but cautious in the hours leading up to the protests. Like many leaders in the opposition, she is of Jewish provenance.

Asked about the response she expected from police, Litvinovich talked soberly about the dangers.

“I asked people with bad hearts, those with children and those who are sick not to come because everyone should understand what could happen,” she said.

Other prominent Jewish members of the opposition, including Eduard Glezin of the youth movement Oborona, were behind Monday’s protest marches in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Many Jewish opposition members remain optimistic, even after Medvedev’s overwhelming victory in elections Sunday that many observers here and abroad described as unfair and unfree. Many expressed a similar view as those who fought against the Soviet regime from the inside: that a corrupt system must fall apart sooner or later.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Valentina Chubarova, 21, a student and daughter of the famous Jewish cartoonist and opposition figure Viktor Shenderovich.

Active in opposition politics, Chubarova was arrested in December for attempting to attend a court hearing for Kasparov in Moscow.

“I wasn’t optimistic about the elections or the march today, but I think that this system will destroy itself in a couple of years,” she said. “Not because we’re so strong, but because they’re so weak.”

The opposition’s faith in the justice of their own cause notwithstanding, most Russians welcomed the selection of Putin’s choice as president. They want Medvedev to perpetuate Putin’s policies, which have brought Russia stability, wealth and growing global power over the past eight years.

One 21-year-old student at the Turgenevskaya Square protest said he came to see the crazy people.

“These people live in another Russia,” he said, “a Russia that only exists inside their own heads. It’s created out of a combination of Soviet and anti-Soviet propaganda.”

The student voted Sunday for Medvedev and in December for Putin’s party, United Russia, in the Duma elections. Life in Russia has improved under Putin, he said.

Shrugging off allegations of police brutality against the protesters, the student pointed out that demonstrators in Western countries are treated the same way, citing footage he had seen on state television of German police in the 1990s clashing with protesters against the World Trade Organization.

Zakaryan, however, said this year’s elections and the police crackdowns are reminiscent of the Soviet era.

“No, I didn’t vote,” he said. “It was a farce.”

This sense of despondency is precisely what Litvinovich hopes to counter with her opposition activism.

“We’re reaching a critical mass, but this critical mass isn’t very big yet,” she said before Monday’s protest rally. “Many people aren’t content, and if there’s an economic crisis, for example, they will become even more discontented.”

The police response to Monday’s protest did little to dampen Litvinovich’s enthusiasm. She and others like her see themselves as the vanguard of a political movement that in time will emerge as a viable alternative – when the rest of Russia opens its eyes to the corruption and lawlessness of the Putin regime.

“A friend of mine from Belarus asked me, ‘Why do you come to these meetings? There are so few people there,’ ” Chubarova said. “I answered that I must keep the place going because when more people decide to join, there will be something to join.”

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