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.”
Not only did this cripple the movement’s ability to form any kind of platform, but it also gave Putin an excuse to dismiss the protesters live on television as Bandar-log, the leaderless monkeys from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. That insult stung partly because Putin had a point: the movement could point to no genuine leaders. So in December, Navalny began pushing for an online election that would allow anyone who attended or sympathized with the street protests to vote on a leadership council. (TIME reported on that page in the movement’s history here.)
The task of organizing this virtual democracy then fell to Leonid Volkov, a pudgy and jovial activist from Yekaterinburg who happened to be good with computers. With the help of four volunteer programmers — “no wizards,” he told me, “but superenthusiastic” — Volkov then designed what Navalny had envisioned in December as a “reconstituted Facebook.” It allowed Russians to register online and cast their votes for 45 out of a list of about 200 candidates, who only had to pay a fee of roughly $300 to get on the ballot. The resulting body will be called the Coordinating Council of the Opposition, and given the fact that it garnered 90,000 votes from around the world, its election was perhaps the greatest experiment in online democracy ever.
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Its most impressive feature, however, took place off-line during the pre-election debates. In the two weeks before the vote, the small, indie television channel Dozhd (Rain), which is itself only two years old, allowed all the candidates to spar during its midnight time slot. They hardly made for thrilling television, because most of them agreed on the basics. (In the final round, a Navalny ally named Lyubov Sobol asked her rivals: “Is Putin a thief?” No one answered, because the question was taken as rhetorical.) But the larger point of the exercise was not merely to introduce a new generation of politicians, but to bring back the genre of political debating: Putin, throughout his 12 years in power, has never once debated with his rivals. “We are seeing the revival of a lost art,” Demyan Kudryavtsev, the host of the debates, told me after airing the semifinals.
The actual voting did not proceed so calmly. “It was the second worst day of my life,” Volkov says. (To put that in context, the worst day of his life was when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car a few years ago and nearly killed himself and his three passengers in the resulting crash.) When the virtual polls opened on the morning of Oct. 20, a hacker attack crippled the system. “The attack was like a diamond drill,” says Volkov. “Whoever did it had to study our system’s infrastructure to figure out its weakest point.” It took Volkov’s team 20 hours to patch the hole, so voting had to be extended for an extra day.
His team throughout this process was housed in a tiny conference room that one of the candidates let Volkov borrow, and it looked more like a study hall the night before final exams than the nerve center of a national election. Boxes of half-eaten donuts and Chinese food were piled on top of the table along with half a dozen laptops. Volkov, wearing socks and a rumpled shirt, looked like a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. His staff of four volunteers were no better-off. At one point, a call came in from one of the physical polling stations (six had been set up in Moscow, mostly for the elderly voters with no Internet connection), and a volunteer said police had arrived to close it down. “On what grounds?” Volkov asked. “Since when do they need grounds?” was the answer. “I give up,” said another volunteer, biting into a Danish. “Let them close the whole thing down. I can’t take it anymore.”
Outside the office building about a dozen burly men were picketing against the elections. These were investors in MMM, Russia’s most famous financial-pyramid scheme, which gave the already cartoonish drama of these elections its requisite villain. The founder of MMM, Sergei Mavrodi, who has already served four years in prison for running an enormous Ponzi scheme in the 1990s, is now running another one, and he made it his mission to derail the vote. In a video statement to TIME, he said this was meant to curry favor with Putin’s security forces so they would leave his financial pyramid alone. (As TIME reported last year, the state’s efforts to shut Mavrodi down have been half-hearted at best.) “The state’s No. 1 enemy right now is the opposition, and thank God for that!” Mavrodi said in the video statement, which was the only way he would agree to answer questions. “We’re only too happy to help the authorities crush the opposition,” he added. “We’d help the devil himself if it served our interests.”
His tactic was crude but effective. Mavrodi allegedly blocked thousands of MMM investors from accessing their investment accounts until they registered to vote as he instructed. A few dozen MMM investors apparently also paid the $300 fee and got on the ballot. Volkov quickly identified and banned these candidates, whom he called “MMM zombies,” but they then went to the police and accused him of stealing their registration fees. This allowed the general prosecutor to open a criminal case against Volkov’s team for fraud. “Whoever came up with this has a wonderful sense of humor,” says Volkov. “The nation’s most famous charlatan is accusing us of being crooks.”
And he is not the only one. The state’s television channels devoted ample air time to denounce the elections as undemocratic, even though they spent precious little energy exposing the evidence of fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections last December and the presidential vote that gave Putin another term this March. “This is an imitation of democracy!” one host on the NTV network shouted a week before the online elections were held. But these attempts to discredit the vote are perhaps the greatest sign of its success. “I don’t know if it’s paranoia or what, but they’re clearly afraid of this thing,” says Navalny, who took first place in the ballot, as predicted. In second place was Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, and in third was the poet and author Dmitri Bykov. The other 42 members of the council include everyone from Stalinists and socialists to hard-core nationalists, and there is no telling whether they will be able to form a political program or even avoid a massive fistfight. But since the days of the Initiative Group, they have still come a long way. They are, at least, no longer Bandar-log.