The grimness of Grozny that day was only slightly softened by mild air of the early Caucasus spring. The centre of Chechnya’s main city was a wasteland of fractured masonry. High-rise buildings, where they still stood, were scarred with blackened circles where shells had hit. Here and there, though, there were signs for polling stations.
It was the 26th of March 2000, and I was reporting on the election which would put Vladimir Putin in Kremlin’s top job for the first time. Mr Putin had gathered great political capital from his promise to take a tough line with the separatist fighters then waging war on Moscow’s control of the North Caucasus.
His first presidency was forged in this atmosphere of confrontation, and his entire political career has had this theme running through it. His campaign – such as it was – for this latest victory – also saw him warning against those who, he said, were seeking to interfere in Russia’s affairs.
Political discourses of post-Soviet Russia have often been dominated by the sense that everything is a zero-sum game. In my time as a correspondent based in Moscow for the BBC, I heard the complaint from business people and diplomats alike: everything was a battle. No issue, it seemed, could be resolved in a way that would permit different points of view to co-exist.
Mr Putin has presided over that system. His first election victory was a response to the chaos which followed the collapse of communism. He seems to have understood better than most – including many of his critics outside the country – what would go down well with an electorate worn out by western-backed, wrongheaded, and unjust economic reforms.
He seems to have understood less well that things have changed since then. The generation who saw their humiliated parents struggling to put food on the table in the 1990s are no longer satisfied with the latest digital devices and the prospect of package holidays in the sun; nor are their parents. As Masha Gessen argued in the Observer, this is an opposition which includes a wide variety of voices.
That diversity may undermine unity. And their single demand after the parliamentary elections in December, that the vote be re-run, was ignored – with, as Sunday’s result showed, little or no short-term consequence for Mr Putin.
Change is underway, though. On the day of the election, I exchanged messages with a friend of mine, Alexandra Eritsyan, a publisher from Moscow – and one of those who did not vote for Mr Putin. “I don’t want a revolution, I don’t have this irrational desire to see existing people in power go to jail,” she said.”I want peace, freedom and booming economy; where people can work and build careers and businesses. It can’t happen at once but over time it can and I hope it will…I think lately something has shifted, a lot of people realized they want to be respected and that is great.”
The extreme hardship of the 1990s has put many in Russia off the idea of radical, rapid, change. That does not mean that it is impossible, just less likely. At the launch last week of a new report published by Chatham House Putin Again: Implications for Russia and the West one of the authors, Lilia Shevtsova, told the story of a police officer offering an opinion on opposition demonstrators. “If there are two thousand, we will whack them. If twenty thousand, we will watch them. If two hundred thousand, we will join them.”
Russia is entering a new phase of its post-Soviet life. The days when demonstrations were small enough to be broken up with a few whacks have passed. The numbers have grown – but not yet to the stage where the officer and his colleagues might be willing to switch sides. Now it’s time to watch what happens.
James Rodgers is Senior Lecturer in International Journalism at London Metropolitan University. He first worked as a journalist in Russia in 1991, and has covered all the main news stories of the post-Soviet era, most recently as BBC Moscow correspondent from 2006-2009. His book, Reporting Conflict, is due to be published in June by Palgrave Macmillan.