That the so-called Russian Spring should have come to an end on the most pleasant day of the season thus far, when the weather could not be blamed for poor turnout, was sadly ironic.

Each of the protests before the presidential election had been preceded by an attempt on the parts of the opposition leaders and their media allies to play down potentially low numbers by pre-emptively blaming sub-zero temperatures. But it was only after spring actually hit — and president-elect Vladimir Putin won the election in a rout that even some opposition leaders admitted was an accurate reflection of majority opinion — did those numbers actually plummet.

To say that they did so is no exaggeration. Protest organisers estimated that there were 120,000 people at their February 4 protest and 25,000 at the weekend’s — and they tend to overestimate their numbers by about 10,000 at any given time. December’s excitement, last month’s high hopes and last week’s post-election anger had all but dissipated by Saturday afternoon. All that remained on New Arbat Avenue, one of Moscow’s largest and ugliest thoroughfares, was a vague and listless sense that the opposition’s wheels were spinning and that no one had any idea how to stop them from churning the snow into sludge and get the thing moving again.

The events on stage certainly didn’t help to dispel this suspicion. The consensus was that this was the dullest, least coherent, and most long-winded of all the protests thus far. It was easily the most factionally divided. Before the protest even started, ultra-nationalists were strong-arming their way to the front of the crowd with a huge black-and-yellow imperial flag, laughing at the liberals and leftists who shouted at them to watch where they were going. The nationalist’s mustachioed leader, dressed in army fatigues and carrying a megaphone, shouted back that the liberals and leftists were cowards.

When Kseniya Sobchak, the host of the longest-running reality show in the world and a family friend of the president-elect, took to the stage, half the crowd applauded her and the other half booed and whistled throughout her speech. “This is ridiculous,” the man in front of me said, taking his son by the hand and leading him away. “Let’s get out of here.”

Indeed, within half an hour of the protest beginning, people had started to peel away and go home. There were rivulets of departing oppositionists running from the front of the crowd to the back of it for the duration of the proceedings.

Most of the ones who stayed weren’t listening. The Communist in front of me, who kept dropping his flag pole on the person in front of him, causing the old hammer and sickle to jolt suddenly in the air before righting itself as a police helicopter flew overhead, was mostly mugging for the television cameras. The group of young Mikhail Prokhorov supporters to my right were huddled in a circle exchanging phone numbers and drinking tea.

Only the old man to my left seemed to be hanging on every word of every speech and the look on his face wouldn’t have been out of place at a cemetery. “There is no president,” he murmured every couple of minutes, unable to muster enough volume for anyone other than the Communist and myself to hear it. “There is no president.”

The speeches were distracted and unfocused, with as many solutions to the current inertia as there were speakers. The most obvious solution from where I was standing — reducing the number of speakers by about all of them — was noticeably absent from those on offer. As was any genuine leader among those offering them. Chess grandmaster and liberal Garry Kasparov spoke too long. Charismatic but strategically incompetent socialist Sergei Udaltsov promised a million-strong march for May 1, a week before Putin’s inauguration, inspiring as many cocked eyebrows and shakes of the head from the liberals as it did cheers from his loyal supporters.

The only person capable of uniting the liberal and nationalist halves of the opposition, the anti-corruption blogger and lawyer Alexey Navalny, chose to attend the protest as a member of the rank-and-file rather than as a leader on stage, in a move that spoke volumes about both him and the event alike.

Congenitally unable to make a speech without promising the world, Navalny is increasingly aware that his rhetoric of escalation has not only proved unappealing to large swathes of the opposition, but also more than a little empty. December’s parliamentary elections will not be held again, even though he promised they would be; the protests never got to even a quarter of the size of those that saw in the fall of the USSR, even though he said they would eventually be twice as large; and, when he advocated civil disobedience early last week, less than 500 people showed any enthusiasm for the idea while almost everybody else went home.

While it is arguable that Navalny did not want to tarnish his image by associating himself too readily with a protest that many seemed to be treating like a wake, or that he was worried about what fresh call to throat-slitting he might utter were he called on to say a few words, I would like to think that he is regrouping after realising how carried away he had become.Navalny is unlikely to rule out protest altogether, in part because he needs to keep the more radical elements of the opposition onside. But he is better suited to the role of a civil leader than a revolutionary one and must now concentrate on the genuinely positive role he can play in the forthcoming phase of party and institution building, political development at the local and regional levels, and necessary expansion of the opposition’s base beyond the urban middle class. This phase was to some extent the focus of many of the weekend’s speeches. Only Udaltsov and his radical comrades still seem to think that going off and getting themselves arrested at every opportunity is a viable strategy going forward.

Which is how they ended the weekend’s protest: by forming a column half the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, marching towards the nearest Metro station, and calling the police fascists as their leader was pulled off his garbage bin soapbox and shuttled away for the second time in a week. As the waiters at a nearby restaurant discreetly shut their blinds, even as their customers were wiping their mouths and reaching excitedly for their camera phones, the remaining hundred or so protesters and journalists were herded with more civility than force into the train station where their chant of “Russia without Putin!” suddenly turned into the more pragmatic one of “We don’t have money for the Metro!”

“I actually don’t have any money,” I told one OMON officer and he let me slip under his truncheon. As I trudged back towards my apartment and the giant-insect hum of the police helicopters slowly faded away, I found myself pleased that this election season has finally come to an end. I think it had to for the opposition to grow — not in numbers, necessarily, but in overall effectiveness.

Loose threads obviously still remain: important ones, like the future plans of figures such as Alexei Kudrin and Mikhail Prokhorov, systemic friends of the non-systemic opposition who remain the latter’s greatest chance of entering into dialogue with sympathetic elements in the government; and rather more trivial ones, like the fate of two members of the all-female punk outfit Pussy Riot, who are facing overly harsh jail sentences for an admittedly unnecessary anti-Putin performance in an Orthodox Church that did nothing to expand the horizons of the movement and in fact just made a lot of people more hostile towards it.

There is also the important question of whether the decline in protest numbers represents a widespread lack of interest in the mass rally model or a return to apathy in the wake of electoral failure.

“Hope,” I was told by a friend on the weekend, “is more fun than work. But hope is not a method.” And work is what the opposition must now do if it wishes to mature.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey