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.
Consider the evolution of what should have been the least "political" organization in my sample: the Federation of Automobile Owners of Russia.
FAR has been exposing the official corruption that grows out of the "transportation tax" that's levied on every car in Russia. But along with the group's demands for "public control over everything that is connected to the formation of monopolistic prices, state regulation, and duties," FAR links its mission to the deeper effort to make government accountable to the people. "It is not just the price of gasoline that will depend on how we act," reads a post on FAR's website, "but to what extent the authorities will take into consideration our interests in the future."