An early test will come Feb. 4, the date of a planned massive protest in Moscow. One month later is the presidential election itself. A victory by Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party was once seen as inevitable. Mr. Putin still may well win and resume the presidency, but Russians are beginning to see that they have a choice. Acquiescence to authoritarian rule is not in their DNA.
The dissent I witnessed last summer emerged not so much from political as moral rationale. Indeed, the six activists I interviewed shared a strong commitment to keeping their work nonpolitical – but they still found themselves forced to grapple with the regime.
Take Evgenia Chirikova. She leads ECMO, a group that works to protect Moscow's Khimki Forest of birch trees from reckless highway construction. "I have no intentions of going into politics," she told another interviewer last year. "It is the regime functionaries that make me into an opposition leader." Ms. Chirikova is now one of the political protest movement's most visible leaders.
Confronted with the inherent defects of the Putin regime, all the other activists experienced a similar evolution. It is as if, having resolved to clean up your small apartment, you are almost immediately confounded by problems – faulty designs, leaking ceilings, lack of heat and hot water, crumbling walls – that are beyond your control and require a capital repair of the entire building.