Russia’s Opposition Movement Starts To Crack

Maria Baronova was a rising star of Moscow’s anti-Putin activist movement. Now she’s not sure she wants to continue the fight.

Sergei Fadeichev, ITAR-TASS / Newscom

Maria Baronova has dark rings under her eyes. Her silky blonde hair is mussed, she’s in saggy jeans, and she’s almost an hour late for a meeting when she runs into the coffee shop. The only remnants of her former life as a glamorous Moscow socialite are the string of gems around her neck and the cloud of Chanel perfume trailing behind her.

A year ago, the fiery, idealistic 28-year-old joined the ranks of opposition leaders protesting against Vladimir Putin’s allegedly rigged presidential elections. Baronova threw herself into street rallies, where activists often received jail time and beatings from the riot police. Thanks to her charisma, Baronova quickly became a celebrity of the anti-Putin movement. Then, she wrote a Facebook post last week that changed everything.

In the post, which appeared recently on her personal wall, Baronova registered her searing disappointment with the high personal price—injuries, prison—that opposition members ended up paying for their activism. Six of her friends were already in jail, she wrote. She saw “no more sense” in continuing the revolution.

Now Baronova sits in the coffee shop and nervously fiddles with an unlit cigarette. She runs through a list of the darkest moments during the last few months of her life. First there was the news that she was under investigation by the authorities, accused of organizing mass disturbances. She’s apparently facing two to four years in jail if convicted. Then her boyfriend—a talented war photographer—“ditched” her because, she says, he “could not stand the mess in my life.” Anonymous text messages started arriving, which threatened to kill her and her 6-year-old son. To top everything off, her own grandfather accused her of secretly working for “Russia’s worst enemy,” the U.S. State Department.

May 6 was especially memorable. That morning, police detained Baronova at the Zakonospassky monastery, where she had asked a priest to say a prayer in support of her friends, the three jailed members of the Pussy Riot band. She was released a couple of hours later, and immediately began coordinating for a protest, nearly 100,000 strong, scheduled to take place in Bolotnaya Square. The protest ended in a police riot, mass detentions, and beatings. Red-faced, enraged, Baronova confronted the police, yelling, “You violated your oath just as badly as your tsar did!”

In the months that followed, Baronova says she endured hours of interrogations at a special investigative committee. Social-service workers came to her house to spy on her parenting skills—a thinly veiled threat that her son might be taken away from her. She was forbidden to leave Moscow. But still she retained her passion for activism. As a former business manager and assistant for parliamentarian Ilia Ponomarev, Baronova strongly believed that her skills as a professional organizer “could help to bring down the power of crooks and thieves.”

It was something she’d felt during her first street protest, nearly a year ago last December. Back then she spent evenings at the Mayak café in Moscow, fraternizing with intellectuals and sipping Champagne. (Now, at the coffee shop, she chugs an energy drink.) She didn’t come from a political family—the Baronovas were mostly teachers, photographers, and scientists who stayed aloof from activism. Maria is the first “political criminal” in the family, she says, smirking between puffs of her cigarette. When her single mother, a Moscow physicist, died of breast cancer 10 years ago, Baronova—then a chemistry student at Moscow State University—learned to provide for herself. Her father, she says, was never interested in her existence. Baronova’s own marriage fell apart when her son turned 5; her ex-husband refused to let her take her son abroad, so her dreams of studying at Oxford also died on the vine. The “Russian mental revolution” became her biggest obsession. “The first time police pushed my head against the wall at a protest last December, I told myself, nobody has a right to hurt a young university graduate,” says Baronova.

Fame followed quickly on the heels of her dive into activism, as it did for many of the young street protest leaders. Russian GQ published Baronova’s profile, alongside a sexy photo series. Her lovely face—large, luminous eyes and a strong profile—is set to appear on a calendar of “12 Dissident Women,” part of a new project featuring female opposition politicians. One of the project’s authors, Yulia Galiamina, has been in the opposition for 10 years. To her, Baronova is a victim of today’s political climate: “The state machine represses women—that rarely happened before,” Galiamina says, citing the Pussy Riot case. “But women’s presence in opposition activity gives us hope that the repressions will not escalate to anything uglier.” Galiamina says the calendar shoots have turned into worried coffee klatches for shaken female activists who feel their lives are unraveling. She says these days not a week goes by without Baronova crying.

The stress has indeed started to take its toll, and Baronova finds herself criticizing the opposition these days. “Everybody is mired in intrigues and competition amongst themselves,” says an emotional Baronova. “Most respected figures in the opposition attack me for being friends with pro-Kremlin bloggers,” she says, referencing a recent talk show—called Hysteria—that she launched on along with a pro-Putin woman. “It is not Putin who weakens our opposition!”

Still, even as she expresses her frustration with the opposition, she seems reluctant to leave it entirely. It’s time for her to run and pick up her little boy from day care, but she lingers to express a few more ideas about her new project, a Dec. 5 party. “It might take our mental revolution another 20 years,” she says, getting angry. “But I am not going to quit, no matter how badly the system and angry thugs beat me. This is my own Fight Club.”