Well past midnight on Wednesday, Dec. 21, a few dozen Russian activists gathered outside a jail in the south of Moscow to await the release of Alexei Navalny, the blogger at the forefront of Russia's opposition movement. A snowstorm had begun that night, so only his hardcore supporters showed up at the jailhouse gate, passing around thermoses of tea and flasks of whiskey to keep warm. It was an odd mix of people, about as eclectic as Navalny's own political views, and ranged from tree-hugging liberals to hate-spouting nationalists and everything in between. Seen from a distance, they would have looked like a crew of hipsters who were, for some reason, really excited to be caught in a blizzard. But insofar as the ongoing wave of protests against the government can be said to have a vanguard, this was it. And they were waiting for the only man who has so far been able to unite them.
Navalny, 35, a lawyer by training, had been arrested during the demonstrations in Moscow on Dec. 5, when a crowd of about 7,000 people came out to protest the parliamentary elections held the previous day. The ruling United Russia party, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, 59, had won a majority in parliament during the vote, but claims of fraud — a regular trope during Russian elections — finally seemed to hit a nerve among the urban middle-class. For the first time since Putin rose to power 12 years ago, they came out by the thousands to protest in the streets, chanting Navalny's viral nickname for United Russia, "the party of crooks and thieves." From the stage, Navalny told them them that, "After these elections, the Kremlin crooks have no right to say they are in power. They are nobody!" Riot police grabbed him afterward, when he tried to lead a column of protesters in the direction of the Kremlin. He was sentenced to 15 days for disobeying orders to desist. (See "Russia's Crisis: This Winter the Bears Will Not Hibernate.")