When Protest Fails

There were, sure, and there seemed to be a lot more people marching against Trump than came out for his inauguration the day before, but it seemed like the equivalent of winning the popular vote by about 3 million and losing the Electoral College. Sure, there were a lot of them and one of him, but he’s the one in the White House, signing executive orders while they were outside under a dour sky.

If riots are the voice of the unheard, then protests are, too. It’s a notion that’s both romantic and accurate: People on the street have a voice, and it is often unheard even then. And sometimes it’s heard in exactly the wrong way. Those protests in Moscow grew in size as the winter changed into spring and spring became summer. Putin was able to lie about the crowd sizes reported in the media, like Trump, and was still able to easily win a third term in the Kremlin. The opposition, the unheard with their witty posters in the streets, began to fracture and bicker, like the organizers of today’s event, and there was no clear leader or agenda. After a May protest was violently dispersed by police, who plucked them from metros and cafes, the opposition was despondent: They felt they had come out rallied—once, twice, five times—and had achieved nothing.

That wasn’t really true. They had changed Putin, just not in the way they had hoped to. He went from being a non-ideological, pragmatic kleptocrat to a revanchist, nationalist neo-tsar. He passed laws making it harder to protest, to express dissent online, to inhabit one’s sexuality. And after similar protests sprung up in Kiev and helped overthrow the Ukrainian government two years later, he invaded the country, in part to show his citizens that they should stay unheard. And when his agents, masked as rioters, protested in the country’s east, they didn’t bring witty posters and sandwiches; they seized government buildings and the television towers, much like Bolshevik revolutionaries had made a beeline for the telegraph posts in 1917.

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