The Abominable Snow Protests of Russia: Moscow's New Cold War

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Ivan Sekretarev / AP

Demonstrators braving bitterly cold temperatures attend a massive protest against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's rule in Moscow on Feb. 4, 2012

Unless you have a passion for ice fishing or catching pneumonia, Feb. 4 would have been about the worst day to spend outdoors in Moscow. The temperature fell to 20 degrees below zero Celsius, the kind of cold that sinks into your bones and sucks the feeling from your face. But on Saturday, exactly a month before Russia's presidential elections, Moscow became the city of dueling protests, which took hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.

The biggest rally was held in opposition to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has ruled Russia for 12 years and plans to return for at least another six after the March election. The protesters were out to make that as difficult as possible and, according to its organizers, there were more than 100,000 of them marching through the center of the city, which would make it the largest demonstration since the fall of the Soviet Union. Their flags and slogans ran the gamut from communist to nationalist and every shade of liberal in between, but they agreed on one thing: not one vote should go to Putin in this election. "Our society has been asleep for a decade," Leonid Parfyonov, one of the protest leaders, said from the stage. "In that time our rights were being stolen. But we've had enough. We've got to wake up. We've got to do something."

Across town in Victory Park, way on the northern outskirts of Moscow, Putin's supporters held a massive counterprotest, busing in tens of thousands to prematurely defend his likely presidential victory. Unlike the usual pro-Kremlin rallies held in recent years, this one did not have the feel of a personality cult. Putin's image was not stenciled on T-shirts or plastered on the stage. Instead the organizers sought to convince the crowd that Russia was on the brink of a full-scale revolt, and "staying the course" was the only way to avoid an Orange Revolution like the one that overthrew the government of Ukraine in 2004. "Say no to the Orange plague!" the speakers screamed from the stage, spouting fire and brimstone about a Washington-backed rebellion trying to hack Russia to pieces. "We say no to the destruction of Russia!" belted the TV presenter Sergei Kurginyan, who founded the so-called anti-Orange movement this year. "We say no to Orange arrogance! We say no to the American embassy!"

According to Kurginyan and the other organizers, this rhetoric will now set the tone of the response to the recent wave of anger at the government. In December, when Putin's United Russia party was accused of rigging an election, Russia's normally placid electorate rose up in protest for the first time in a generation. A rally held the day after the disputed vote attracted 7,000 people. Five days later, the opposition took 50,000 people onto the streets, and two weeks after that, their numbers grew to 100,000 on Moscow's Sakharov Avenue. All the while, Putin fumbled for a response, either calling the demonstrators nasty names or dismissing them as marginals and kooks. Now he looks to have found his footing.

On Feb. 3, the day before Saturday's rival demonstrations, a directive went out through the ranks of Putin's party telling every lawmaker to attend the "anti-Orange" rally and take at least two of his assistants along, according to RIA Novosti, the official state news agency. "Oh, they're herding us [to the rally] alright, along with our parliamentarian," an assistant to one of the lawmakers was quoted as saying. The news agency even acquired a copy of the directive, which it said included a map of where each parliamentarian was to stand as well as orders on how to check in upon arrival with a "supervisor." Asked by TIME to respond to the leak, Robert Shlegel, a lawmaker for United Russia, said he could neither confirm nor deny it. "I didn't attend either of the rallies myself," he said. "And nothing happened to me."

Other reports flowed in through the weekend of state-run factories, schools and branches of government ordering their employees to attend, sometimes offering bonuses as compensation or threatening to withhold pay or vacation time if the employees played truant. Irina Chevtayeva, a Moscow reporter for Radio Liberty, went undercover as a protester-for-hire and said she was paid 500 rubles (about $17) to stand in the cold at the anti-Orange demonstration. "We stood there for about an hour," Chevtayeva reported. "One elderly man from our group held a sign the whole time saying, 'For Russia, for Stability, for Putin.' A lot of people couldn't stand the wait to be paid, and they left, mumbling curses at our group leader, at the police, and at Putin."

But the result was achieved all the same. Photographs of the pro-Putin rally showed an enormous mass of people filling the square in loose columns. And with the help of state media, this image was presented as proof that Putin enjoys genuine support. Evening news broadcasts reported that the pro-Putin crowd had outnumbered the representatives of the "Orange plague" by a factor of 4 to 1, which was decidedly not the case based on TIME's reporting. Earlier in the day, Putin went before the cameras to thank the people who had gone out to encourage his presidential campaign, suggesting that their numbers were as high as 190,000, far more than even the official police estimates. "This is very important to me," Putin told reporters. "It's absolutely clear that people simply came out to state their position, and this position stands behind everything we're doing."

In the latest independent surveys, which were released at the end of January by the Levada Center polling agency, 37% of respondents were ready to vote for Putin in the presidential race. That is far from the overwhelming support Putin's rally tried to engineer, but it is still well ahead of all the other candidates.

So even if the cold could not kill the momentum of the anti-Putin protests, they still have no political leader to rally around, at least not one who can challenge Putin for the presidency. That means Putin is almost sure to win, and afterward, United Russia is hoping that the trend in street politics will quickly die down. "It has become fashionable now to protest," says Shlegel, the United Russia lawmaker. "But like every fad, this one will soon pass." The next protest against Putin, however, is scheduled for Feb. 25, about a week before the presidential ballot, and when the weather clears up in the spring, the opposition has promised to set up an encampment and stay until their demands are met. One can only imagine how Putin's government would entice its employees to build a rival camp out in the streets. But at least they won't have to freeze anymore.