Many years from now, if the Russian opposition movement ever manages to budge President Vladimir Putin from power, it will take a scrupulous historian to trace all the groups that have claimed to be its leader. Only 10 months have passed since the movement was born, in December 2011, when the mass street protests against Putin’s rule began. But there have already been at least a dozen revolutionary councils playing the role of its vanguard. The most legitimate one to date was formed on Monday, Oct. 22, after about 90,000 Russians voted to elect a set of leaders for the movement. Before that, all of these groups were self-proclaimed, and all of them dissolved in their infancy.
The first set, assembled a few days after the first mass demonstration in Moscow last December, took several hours of shouting in a sweaty basement room even to decide what to call itself. Such was the breadth of disagreement in that chamber that it finally settled, more out of exhaustion than anything else, on the almost meaningless name Initiative Group. Insofar as it had any kind of organizing principle, it amounted to come-one-come-all, and it consisted of such a cantankerous, disheveled and random group of people (one active participant looked like nothing so much as a hobo) that at one point a woman stood up on a chair and shouted, “For God’s sake, have the decency to put your egos away!” But her cry did not carry over those of her comrades. “It was hell,” recalls Alexei Navalny, a blogger and activist who from the beginning had the movement’s greatest claim to leadership. “The last time I went to a meeting of the organizing committee before a protest, it seriously looked like that painting of the Cossacks drafting a letter to the Sultan. Fifty people in a room, half of them screaming. It was nuts.”