After Year of Protests, Some Russians Question Rallies as Little Has Changed

PHOTO: Demonstrators take part in a mass anti-Putin rally, Dec. 24, 2011 in Moscow, Russia.PlayAlexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images
WATCH Vladimir Putin Faces Protest in Moscow

Alyona Bykova still remembers the excitement she felt attending one of the first massive opposition rallies in Moscow last December.

"There was a very happy feeling because there were really nice people all around with funny slogans and we had a feeling that something is changing right now. We had a feeling that history was happening right before our eyes," she recalled.

But now, as organizers prepare for another rally on Saturday to mark a year of unprecedented protests against President Vladimir Putin and the corrupt system that surrounds him, Bykova's optimism has waned. In fact, she says she does not even plan to attend the rally.

"I don't really see what could change," she said in nearly flawless British-accented English. "Then I had a feeling that probably this could change something. However, now I'm not really sure that keeping to this protest street movement is something for me."

What changed?

Bykova does not think the situation in Russia has improved. In fact, she believes things are getting worse. She is disillusioned with the repeated protests that she says have accomplished little over the past year. She sees little chance they'll work now.

"We can work on this downstairs level," she says, referring to local campaigns that she still remains involved in. "But upstairs is untouchable. There's nothing we can do. To make Putin go away, there's nothing we can do."

The protests, she lamented, "have been marginalized."

ABC News first met Bykova in late February, just a few weeks before the Russian presidential election. She was attending an evening class to learn how to be an election monitor, part of a new wave of young Russians who were determined not to allow another election to be stolen. At the time she was hopeful that change was coming to her country.

"The whole society is getting mature. People didn't care about politics, about real social life for years, for decades," she said at the time. "Now they have this yearning for more."

Today, she still feels that Russia is on the cusp of change, but thinks it may be farther down the road than she had hoped.

"I would say we will see see some huge changes soon. Probably in the next three to five years. But right now it seems like things are getting worse just to get to the next step. I really hope that this is the case," she said. "Its still going on, but not that fast."

Bykova is one of the young, educated office workers (who Putin dismissed as "office plankton") that drove the protest movement over the past year. Her frustration lies both with the entrenched political system that has shown little willingness to accommodate protester demands as well as with the protest movement itself.

"I'm frustrated with the methods it is using," she said. "I don't really see that we are learning something."

"Now it seems like there are radicals on both sides," she added. "I don't really see the point of going out."

Bykova is also worried about recent steps taken by authorities that many see as efforts to intimidate the opposition and keep demonstrators off the streets. She points to new laws, enacted since Putin's inauguration, that restrict how people can gather in public, as well as charges that have been brought against protestors accused of violence during a rally on May 6, when riot police clashed with several in the crowd. Over a dozen people were later identified as perpetrators and were arrested.

Enthusiasm Wanes Year After Big Russian Protest

"You could not only be beaten, but your face could be spotted in the crowd and you could have problems then," Bykova says.

Recently, as his poll numbers show signs of slipping popularity, Putin has begun a public campaign to weed out corruption. He fired his defense minister amid allegations that he was tied to a massive fraud scheme, though no charges have been brought against him.

Bykova, however, is among those not convinced that Putin is genuinely interested in cleaning up his government.

"He feels he is losing his popularity and that he needs to take some steps, but I don't think people will be fooled. It is so obviously phony," she said.

Bykova's husband and some of her friends say they still plan to attend Saturday's rally, if nothing else but to show those in power that the issues they care about have not gone away.

As for Bykova, she says she has better plans for Saturday. She's going to take a class on conflict mediation.