"The increasingly real threat of economic turmoil is already chipping away at Putin's power with more effectiveness than any protest movement. There is bound to be a vacuum when the forces of economics prevail. But a movement that is pulled in myriad different directions, that cannot decide on an identity, and yet lacks variety in its leaders cannot fill the void. By crushing the opposition, Putin has all but ensured that, once again, Russia's history will repeat itself, and only the wrong people will be there to step in—the ultra-nationalists, childlike faddists, and dangerous purists."
On December 19, Maria Baronova met me on the steps of the Nikulinsky courthouse, a squat Soviet-era building lost in a construction zone somewhere in Moscow's eternal sprawl. Against the once-white building and dull pewter sky, Baronova was the sole splash of color, her puffy magenta jacket open to the cold afternoon.
It was an important day for the lanky, blonde 29-year-old; for six months, she had been coming to the courthouse daily to stand trial along with eleven others for their roles in protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin's third inauguration. Sixteen more were awaiting trial, and together they were known as the Bolotnaya prisoners, for the name of the square where a peaceful protest on May 6, 2012, had turned violent. For the crime of yelling, or in Putin-era legalese, "inciting mass riots," Baronova was facing two years in jail.
Today, however, it was rumored that, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the modern Russian constitution, Putin would free more than a thousand prisoners—including political prisoners, most famously two jailed members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot—and give some opposition defendants, such as Baronova, amnesty.