He crushed his opposition and has nothing to show for it but a country that's falling apart
On December 19, Maria Baronova met me on the steps of the Nikulinsky courthouse, a squat Soviet-era building lost in a construction zone somewhere in Moscow’s eternal sprawl. Against the once-white building and dull pewter sky, Baronova was the sole splash of color, her puffy magenta jacket open to the cold afternoon.
It was an important day for the lanky, blonde 29-year-old; for six months, she had been coming to the courthouse daily to stand trial along with eleven others for their roles in protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. Sixteen more were awaiting trial, and together they were known as the Bolotnaya prisoners, for the name of the square where a peaceful protest on May 6, 2012, had turned violent. For the crime of yelling, or in Putin-era legalese, “inciting mass riots,” Baronova was facing two years in jail.
Today, however, it was rumored that, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the modern Russian constitution, Putin would free more than a thousand prisoners—including political prisoners, most famously two jailed members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot—and give some opposition defendants, such as Baronova, amnesty.
Baronova hadn’t exactly dressed up for the occasion. A motley scarf was tangled around her neck and through her uncombed hair. She clutched a small bottle of Listerine, periodically tipping it back to gargle, then swallow. Last night, she had been at the company holiday party for Dozhd (“Rain”), the last independent Russian TV channel, where Baronova is now a science correspondent. It is the only work that she, a chemist and once a well-paid sales manager at a chemical-supplies company, could get after becoming a defendant in such a public, politicized trial.
“I’m hungoooover,” she moaned to the bailiffs as we handed our bags and passports over for inspection inside the courthouse.