BYON 2/26/16 AT 7:16 AM (fragment)
Kremlin has been unable to entirely crush dissent. “Wake up Russia!” read a flyer at a demonstration in Moscow in early 2012, and, for many, those unprecedented protests were life-changing events, transforming thousands of once-apathetic Russians into active opponents of Putin’s rule. Backing down when the going got tough was simply not an option
Their struggle has taken on an undisguised moral element. Modern-day examples of the Communist-era inakomyslyashchie—literally, “those who think differently”—these men and women are no longer simply pushing political programmes: many are unaffiliated with any of Russia’s beleaguered and often outlawed opposition parties. Instead, by their willingness to speak out, to risk dismissal from their workplaces, or arrest, or beatings, or worse, they are simply refusing, in the famous words of the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to “live a lie.” Their bravery rarely makes the news, either in Russia or the West. They are Russia’s near-anonymous, modern-day dissidents, possessed of a quiet resolve to build a fairer future for their troubled homeland.
They are people like Denis Bakholdin, a 33-year-old financial expert, whom I first met ahead of the anti-war protest in Moscow in March 2014. He was standing near Red Square, in his hands a sign urging people to attend the upcoming rally. It was rush-hour, and it didn’t take long before he attracted the attention of passers-by. “Only a bastard would go on that!” yelled a middle-aged man, his face flushed with rage, after reading the sign, which was painted in the colours of both the Russian and Ukrainian flags. “We don’t need a Maidan here!” Shortly after, a swarm of pro-Kremlin youth activists surrounded Bakholdin and his dozen or so fellow protesters. “Traitors!” they chanted, before police officers moved in to break up the gathering.
Bakholdin is a rank-and-file protester who says he has no interest in a career in politics. A quietly spoken, studious man, he has paid a high price for his public opposition to Putin’s rule. Shortly before that afternoon’s protest, he had been dismissed from his well-paid job at a privately owned Moscow bank. The reason? His refusal to promise he would cease his frequent attendance at opposition rallies. The vice-president of the bank, it turned out, was a member of Putin’s United Russia party, and had ordered management to “tame” Bakholdin, or get rid of him. “I told them straight out that I was opposed to Putin, and that what I do in my own time is my own business,” Bakholdin told me. His defiance means he is unlikely to find work any time soon: Bank management wrote in his work book—the document that all Russians are obliged by law to present to employers—that he had “violated work discipline on multiple occasions.” He is now surviving on his rapidly dwindling savings.
I suggested that Bakholdin would perhaps be wise to consider following the well-beaten path out of Russia for a few years. If not until Putin leaves office, then at least until the searing hatred for those who dare to dissent has cooled. He smiled, as if humouring me. “I’ve thought a lot about leaving Russia, and trying to start a new life in Europe.” He shrugged. “I’ve seen how much better things are there. But, look, if your neighbour has better wallpaper and nicer furniture, you don’t just move into their apartment. You try to improve your own home, right?” He paused. “So that’s exactly what I plan to do here.”