Are we seeing the end of 'Putin's Russia'?
Presidential elections are Sunday, March 4
Until recently, Moscow's uncompromising sprawl and unique smell of bad gas, harsh tobacco, and floor cleanser overlaid a pall of bad history that could intimidate a visitor.
But today, even in the coldest winter in years, there is a noticeable lift in the cleaner air and the self-confidence of well-dressed Muscovites. Something has changed in Russia.
Twenty years ago when I lived here during the post-Soviet convulsions, the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, warned that the unevenness of the change that was then taking place meant that democracy and dictatorship were "living side-by-side."
Those tendencies are still sparring today.
But as we have seen in the huge anti-Putin rallies that have been springing up of late, democratic impulses are finally beginning to assert themselves in today's Russia, though probably not by enough to alter Sunday's presidential election.
A man for his time
It was Sobchak, incidentally, who saw in post-KGB Vladimir Putin a very effective operator and handpicked him for deputy mayor.
As Canada's ambassador, I saw Putin sort out a situation where small and idealistic Canadian businesses were being shaken down by mafia thugs who grew like topsy in the early economic free-for-all.
Russia's economic activity cascaded downward every year during the 1990s.
Violence and terrorism stalked the land and the urgent need for a pair of competent hands propelled Putin upwards to succeed Boris Yeltsin, whose own effectiveness had long since bowed to the Russian love of vodka.
Sober, in-shape, decisive, Putin was a very different story. He restored order and national morale, reversing the sense many Russians had that they were global losers, let down in the clutch by the West.
They had a point. We in the West frankly didn't have much of a clue how to help Russia shed its Soviet ways. The ominous "shock therapy" approach opened a human casualty ward whose dimensions were beyond the imagination of Western technocrats.
However, thanks to the spiking price of oil (Russia is now the world's largest producer), real incomes gained under Putin's presidency, rising 142 per cent from 1999 to 2009, and fuelling a new middle class.
At first, this new group was satisfied with higher incomes and free private lives. They had little appetite to rock the boat after the social convulsions of the 1990s.
But they began to chafe once Putin and his corruption-friendly team began to reflect the dark, undemocratic side of Sobchak's side-by-side equation.
Today, Sobchak's own daughter is one of the bright activists demanding that Putin's "imitation democracy" be exposed to the light of transparency, fairness and freedom.
"Russia without Putin," has become the rallying cry in big city streets for hundreds of thousands of largely post-Soviet, younger citizens feeling their first political oats.
Will they get their wish when all of Russia casts its ballots in the presidential election on Sunday, March 4? Probably not, but that doesn't mean they have not changed the very tenor of the country.
Russia's political passivity was jarred awake in September when Prime Minister Putin casually let it be known that he would switch places with President Dmitri Medvedev, Putin's hand-picked successor when he was forced to step down in 2008 after serving two successive presidential terms, the constitutional limit.
What's more, they said the arrangement had been decided between them "years ago."
As president, Medvedev had seemed more the modernizer, and showed a better set of ears than the stagey, hyper-confident Putin.
Younger, upwardly mobile Russians dared to hope that the inclusive Medvedev might be for real.
But the September announcement, especially its offhand delivery, changed perceptions almost overnight.
Russians I spoke with felt duped. But the graver insult was the rigging of the parliamentary elections on Dec. 4.
It's hard to know how far the electoral fraud actually went but it was a tipping point when YouTube showed clear ballot-box stuffing, and some official results defied belief, such as 99.5 per cent support for Putin's party, United Russia, in disputatious Chechnya.
Mega-blogger Alexsei Navalny dubbed United Russia "the party of crooks and thieves," which soon made for popular Moscow bumper stickers.
In the parliamentary election, governing authorities had disqualified opponents and kept opposition arguments off the state-controlled TV, from which most Russians got their news.
But they couldn't control the internet in this technically fluent society (60 million online) and United Russia's support dropped from 64 to under 50 per cent and the party lost 77 seats.
Can Putin change?
Clearly, Russians had become fed up. But tone-deaf Putin didn't get this change.
In the weeks since he announced his new presidential bid, he seldom missed an opportunity to deride opponents for being on the payroll of Western governments, a retro-authoritarian reflex.
The truth is, the U.S. and other democracies have long ceased giving financial or other support to political candidates or even activists in Russia, and he knows it.
Putin's charge that the protest movements were full of "traitors" and "Judases" only served to recruit tens of thousands more who resented being treated as political infants.
His popularity has dropped from the celestial levels of a few years ago, but the dearth of plausible opponents means he is still likely to win an unrigged election with more than 50 per cent of the votes on March 4, making a second, run-off round two weeks later unnecessary.
But this is likely to be the last time he can pull it off.
Putin's aura of invincibility has been fractured, punctured by the protesters' characteristically satiric Russian humour.
While some here fear a crackdown after the election — already there have been tax audits and denial-of-service hassles directed at those independent media that oppose him — others believe Putin will have to take the changing realities seriously. The key question is whether he can.
At this point, Putin is clearly trying to represent his own rigidity as essential stability in a still-perilous time — witness the (staged?) revealing of a Chechen assassination plot only days before the vote.
Plus, he is still pumping out an anti-Western, nationalist line.
In the long run, though, Russia's modernizing reality is more apt to prevail over nostalgia for a past that was always more cruel than the present and riddled with ineptitude and unfairness.
Millions here know that modernization has to be Russia's destiny. It does not mean Westernization. But it is probably not possible without a stronger dose of authentic democracy, which, as all of Russia now knows, Putin just doesn't have the instincts for.