This is the paradox of contemporary Russia: a nation-wide election is marred by massive, tragicomic fraud and no one — save for a few parliamentarians — so much as yawns. The government introduces a new transportation tax and a tariff hike on imported cars and the country explodes in surprisingly organized protests.
This Saturday, in six cities across Russia, thousands of protesters thronged into town squares and created traffic jams of discontent, all over the tax and tariffs scheduled to kick in this January. It’s an echo of protests last winter over the ban on importing used Japanese cars to the Russian Far East and protests, back in 2005, when a regional potentate caused a fatal car crash (he died) but got the other guy in trouble. (There was a similar protest in front of the American embassy last month.)
Russians have a unique relationship with their cars, and it is one that puts the American automotive romance to shame. This dates, perhaps, back to the shortage of cars during the Soviet era. The scarcity was directly proportional to the hike in your social status when you were lucky enough to get a Lada after waiting for years on some government list or for, say, winning an Olympic medal in the shot put.
Nowadays, even long after the boom has turned bust, having a car — the right car — is a major status symbol. It shows the means to not ride the metro with the unwashed subterranean masses, the means to control your own space if not your time (killer traffic jams, for some reason, are no reason not to ditch the wheels).
When the government somehow impinges on this sanctity, it is also a violation of a tacit pact between state and people: you do your thing, we do ours. Russians have long ago given up on weighing in on the business of governing as long as the Kremlin does its part to keep up the standard of living — and, crucially, does not weigh in on the business of living. It is for this reason that most Russians will always protest over cars and never over democracy.
To wit, Michael Idov had a fantastic piece about last winter’s protests in The New Republic. Highly recommended.