IT’S A BREEZY Moscow night, and Maria Baronova has moved on from tea and tom-yam to prosecco. Sitting on the terrace of a bar overlooking the Moscow River, she fishes around in her messy leather purse and shows me the court document charging her with inciting mass riots. “As you can see, I’m the organizer of an intergalactic revolution,” she scoffs and lights another menthol cigarette. Tomorrow morning, she’ll face a police interrogation, followed by a photo shoot for Russian GQ.
It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment at which the 28-year-old Baronova, a brash, lanky blonde, shed her skin as a pro-Putin patriot to become the unlikely it-girl of the Russian opposition. But she came into her own in the latter role sometime around May 6, the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration. What began as a peaceful demonstration in Moscow by tens of thousands of Russians spun into days of street war between the police and the opposition. Demonstrators clashed with police, who chased them into cafés and subway stations, and hauled them away in paddy wagons. A spontaneous, mobile Occupy movement began moving from city square to city square, barely outrunning the omon riot squads.
Through it all, Baronova, then a little-known former press secretary for leftist Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomarev, seemed to be everywhere—pushing herself around on a child’s scooter, mouthing off to anyone in a uniform. At one sit-in, she popped a wheelie in front of a chain of burly, stone-faced omon officers and then proceeded to loudly read from a paperback copy of the Russian constitution. Before long, she was lost in a throng of photographers. “I’m trying to make a political career,” she told me when I saw her that day.
In the following weeks, though, Baronova became disillusioned. The opposition was quixotic and fractured, and she had little confidence in its powers of persuasion. So she applied for a master’s degree in political science and planned to take a two-year break from activism, starting this fall.
But then, early on the morning of June 11, officers from the Investigative Committee—Russia’s equivalent of the FBI—climbed onto the balcony of her apartment, turned on an electric circular saw, and threatened to cut the door down. Baronova was out, and the only person inside was her terrified nanny—Baronova has a five-year-old son—who let the agents in and watched as investigators turned the apartment inside out, taking Baronova’s computer, books, political materials, and a trove of family photos.
The stated reason for the raid was Baronova’s participation in the May 6 protests. But, although the Investigative Committee searched the homes of about a half-dozen prominent activists, Baronova was the only one who was charged. Overnight, she went from just another angry protester to a central, if incongruous, figure in the opposition’s loose confederation of leading lights—a political naïf with no clear ideology and a knack for absurdist displays of dissent. “Maybe to some more seasoned people, she seems too young and hotheaded,” says Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and a veteran member of the opposition. “But they can’t dispute the fact that she brings with her a new wave of activists. She is the next wave.”
TO THE EXTENT THAT Baronova gave much thought to politics in her early twenties, it was to regard Putin with unabashed pride. She comes from a family of Soviet scientists and was herself a chemist and manager at a chemical supply company. During her twenties, she started making good money, got married, had a child, and generally lived the humdrum existence of Moscow’s white-collar “office plankton.”
For much of this time, Baronova says, “I believed in the greatness of Russia.” She opposed Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which she still considers an “American project.” The first crack in her resolve came in 2004, when Russian security services badly bungled the hostage crisis at an elementary school in Beslan. That’s when she stopped voting for specific candidates and started marking “against all” on her ballot.
Over time, Baronova says she “outgrew” Putin and transferred her hopes to Dmitry Medvedev, the new president and ostensible liberal. When Medvedev announced in September last year that he would not seek a second term and suggested that Putin run again for president, Baronova was stunned. “At that point, I said, ‘Lord, burn this place down, nothing will change here,’” she says, quoting a Russian rap song.
On December 4, Baronova went to vote in the parliamentary election and saw that officials were redirecting people in her precinct to a nonexistent address. The next day, she attended her first rally, at Chistye Prudy in central Moscow, to protest the widespread fraud that occurred during the parliamentary elections. When the billy clubs started flying, Baronova says she tried to avoid the crush of the crowd, but she caught a couple of blows from an omon truncheon and was tossed against an electrical switch box.
Shaken, Baronova wanted to leave the country, but her ex-husband wouldn’t let her emigrate with their son. So she went to the office of Solidarity, an opposition organization, and volunteered to help them—and later Ponomarev—with public relations. She also poured the money she’d saved for her son’s education abroad into the opposition’s activities. “I see this as a cold civil war,” she explains. “The state is using all its resources to fight its own citizens, so we have to use of all of ours.”
Then came the search and the criminal charge. “If that’s not a hint that I should leave the country, then I don’t know what is,” Baronova says. One protester who had been arrested at around the same time reported that he had been savagely beaten as he was detained; another said she had been force-fed psychotropic medications. Two activists have fled the country and applied for political asylum in Europe. Since she was charged, Baronova has repeatedly been called in for questioning about her connections to other opposition leaders. A woman whom Baronova suspects is a government plant has moved into her building and started accusing Baronova of beating her son, even though he has been away all summer; child protective services has threatened to take him away. Meanwhile, pro-Putin youth groups have been entreating her to attend their annual summer camp. “Why are they flirting with me?” she exclaims. “I don’t get it!”
Baronova faces a maximum sentence of two years in prison, although she sees little chance of actually going to jail for that long—“I’m good at p.r.,” she says matter-of-factly. But the experience has left her rattled. “From my point of view, I lost. I didn’t get anything done, I spent a ton of money, and brought harm on myself,” she says. “I want to cross all this out and live the quiet life of a quiet person. But that’s not possible anymore.”
“Now that they’ve done this, now that they’ve upped the ante, I can’t leave this half-finished,” Baronova says, her voice straining with agitation, as it often does. “I don’t want to be one of those émigrés of 1917, sipping wine by the Mediterranean and waiting for Russia to get better so I can come back. I have no choice but to do it myself.”
This article appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.