Russia Goes to the Polls

Volunteer election monitors keep an eye on the vote at a polling place in Moscow during Russia's March 4 presidential election. Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

An official poster showing the candidates in Russia's presidential election. Vladimir Putin is shown on the far right. Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

Russians cast their votes in the country's presidential election on March 4. Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

The call center in the Moscow headquarters of Citizen Observer, an independent electoral monitoring organization, during the middle of election day in Russia. Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

Two volunteer election monitors watch as local officials prepare to count the ballots in Russia's presidential election. Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov, two leaders of Russia's anti-Putin opposition, address supporters after the polls have closed on election day in Russia on March 4. Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

Police set up metal detectors at the entrance to Pushkin Square, the site of an opposition protest the day after the election. Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian businessman who ran--and lost--against Putin, addresses the crowd at the demonstration in Pushkin Square. Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

A woman holds a sign in support of the jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a protest in Moscow on March 10. Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

Protest organizers on stage at the latest anti-Putin protest on March 10. The sign behind them reads: "These are not elections. This is not a president." Image by Joshua Yaffa. Russia, 2012.

The Russian presidential election on March 4, which was won by Vladimir Putin with an official count of 64 percent, represented both the end (of the cheerful or romantic phase) and the beginning (of the more fine-grained, step-by-step phase) for the resurgent opposition movement that has taken shape since last December.

That first phase was defined by large demonstrations—as many as 100,000 people, in some cases—that were notable in their feeling of ebullience and optimism. The Russian urban, professional class, which for so long had been in a political slumber, awoke to realize that it has more of a political voice then it once imagined, and quickly gained a sense of what previously felt impossible: that public pressure and action could perhaps force the Kremlin to change itself, to somehow soften or liberalize its control over the country’s political life. “We are here,” was a common refrain at these demonstrations—our voices, our votes matter.

But affecting real political change proved difficult. As the victory of Putin in the presidential election revealed, the state still enjoys an overwhelming advantage in administrative resources, and, no less important, Putin can count on a sizeable portion of the Russian population to be at least his passive supporters. The two opposition rallies held after the presidential election drew smaller crowds (though still huge in the context of Putin-era street politics) than those in December and February, and the mood felt less triumphant, and somehow deflated. But the middle-class protesters are not retreating from politics entirely; instead, they are focusing on regional and local governance, and attempting to build a new civic and political architecture from the ground up. And that will be the next phase: less photogenic, perhaps less fun, but as many who have become interested in politics for the first time in recent months hope, ultimately more long-lasting and effective.