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Anti-Putin protesters: Coping with bitter cold and big questions

Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP - Getty Images

Two of the organisers of the upcoming opposition rally "For Fair Elections," anti-Kremlin blogger Alexei Navalny (R) and former chess champion Garry Kasparov (L), speak as they attend a meeting of the rally organisers in Moscow, on Jan. 31, 2012.

MOSCOW – By any standard, it was an impressive array of individuals. Seated under a large poster of a young Andrei Sakharov – the Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident, 1975 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and spiritual father of their movement – the brain trust of Moscow's anti-Putin opposition sat at card tables debating their next move.  

The group was putting the finishing touches on the plan for this Saturday's protest – an hour march through central Moscow and a short rally across the Moskva River from the Kremlin. It will be the third mass opposition demonstration in Moscow since the December 4 parliamentary polls that were widely criticized for voter fraud in favor of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party.  

Six weeks ago, more than 100,000 protesters took to the streets to vent their anger with the corruption and stagnation of the Putin regime. But since then, the end-of-year Russian holidays, followed by a Siberian cold snap with record-breaking temperatures, has undeniably sapped the protest movement's energy. The organizers collective fatigue was palpable.


Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, led the meeting. Not because he's so smart he almost beat a super computer at chess, but because his countless arrests and beatings at the hands of Russian riot police had earned him the mantle. Seated beside him were the two young stars of the new generation of Russian dissidents, the right-of-center blogger Alexei Navalny and socialist activist Sergei Udaltsov. 

Str / AFP - Getty Images

Opposition activists hang their banner reading: "Putin, go!" atop a bulding's roof, just over the Moskva River river from the Kremlin (foreground) in Moscow, on Feb. 1.

Both men, in their 30's, had recently spent weeks in jail on charges of organizing illegal protests. Now they were subdued, speaking occasionally, but more often just listening, scrolling through their iPhone messages or tweeting.

Opposite Kasparov, sat Vladimir Ryzhkov.  He too had paid his dues. Once the youngest MP elected to Boris Yeltsin's parliament at age 27, Ryzhkov, broad-minded and articulate, was seen rather differently by Putin's Kremlin. The “dangerous” reformer has effectively been ostracized from mainstream politics. 

“No doubt the Russian Winter is not as inviting as the Arab Spring,” Kasparov quipped. “But I would say that 30, 40 or 50,000 in this weather will send a message across the river to the Kremlin.''

But what message will that be? Putin's propaganda machine will likely jump on any smaller turn-out, proving, they will no doubt say, that the protest is petering out.

By the end of their two hour meeting the protest organizers were clearly divided over what to do next to regain some momentum.

Navalny argued that the mass protests of December needed to grow bigger and more frequent to pressure the Kremlin. But author Boris Akunin argued that the days of the big protests were over. They were too costly, too time-consuming, and had already peaked. It was time, he said, to focus on smaller, flash mob-generated actions.

Misha Japaridze / AP

Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov shows a V sign after he was released from a detention center in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012. Udaltsov, whose jailing became a rallying point for the Russian opposition, has been freed after a month in custody.

Indeed, across Moscow, such “attacks” are growing in number. On any given day, small groups of protesters walk out of the city's many subway stations, their mouths covered with strips of masking tape, on which is written “We Have No Voice.” They're arrested almost as soon as they walk into the street. They also have tried cyber-attacks on the Kremlin's Internet. Within hours of the launch of Putin's own website, it was jammed by thousands of emails calling on him to resign.

And in arguably the most startling “protest,” several activists managed to hang a giant banner on the top of a building directly opposite the Kremlin for all to see. Painted on the banner, both Putin’s likeness covered by a huge “X,” and beneath it, the words, “Go Away!” in Russian. Amazingly it took an hour for the police to spot it and tear it down. But, while often hilarious, none of these flash mob tactics are likely to keep Putin from winning a six-year term in the March 4 presidential elections.

Kremlin's photo-doctoring backfires big time

Putin himself seems to have come to that conclusion. Creating massive traffic jams in central Moscow today as his convoy skidded over the icy snow from one campaign stop to another, he's got his swagger back. His camp believes the protest movement is too divided to coalesce around one opposition candidate. And, besides, the other official candidates – Communist Gennady Zyuganov, Nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Social Democrat Sergei Mironov and billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets Mikhail Prokhorov – are all Kremlin-approved because they pose no real threat.

Andrey Smirnov / AFP - Getty Images

A police officer braves the cold as he detains a demonstrator wearing a carnival costume of death who tried to take part in an unauthorized stage protest just outside the Interior Ministry headquarters in Moscow on Friday. The sign on the protester's chest says "Corruption."

So what happens to the movement if Putin wins? Ryzhkov painted a dark picture: “There will be mass protests starting March 5th,” he said in his Moscow home and office following the meeting. “And then we stay in the streets until reforms start and Putin promises new legislative and presidential elections.”
 
“You mean Tent Cities,” I asked?

“Yes,” he replied. “Like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.”

And what if Putin doesn't reform, but instead cracks down?

“Unfortunately Putin is a dangerous man. He can start some violence like [Syria’s] Bashar al-Assad or [Libya’s] Moammar Ghadafi. But I hope that if he sees a half million people in the streets, he will start reforms instead of violence.”

Many middle-class, well-educated Russians are calling the protests a turning point. But is it the beginning of the end of Putin's political career? Or rather the beginning of an unprecedented second 12-year run of power for the only real leader Russians have known this century?

The answer is blowing in a bone-chilling, Siberian wind.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London who has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union since the 1980's.