MOSCOW, RUSSIA 12/26/2011 --
For many in Russia, it's a case of deja vu. The discontent today mirrors the unhappiness of two decades ago. That's when public protests over three days br
The flag was lowered, it marked the sudden end of an empire that had seemed invincible.
20 years ago a small crowd watched from Red Square as the flag of the Soviet Union was removed from the Kremlin - and replaced with Russia's own colors.
Inside the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev spoke about the free society he thought he was leaving behind as he announced his resignation.
"A breakthrough has been affected on the road of democratic change. Free elections have become a reality. Free Press. Freedom of worship. Representative legislatures and a multiparty system have become a reality."
But two decades later, that same list of political freedoms is being fought for again.
So what went wrong?
It's a question that haunts Boris Dubrovin. He remembers rallying for greater political rights in the 1980s. By the time the USSR broke up he thought the fight had been won. "Back then we couldn't imagine that we would see this lawlessness and corruption come to power," he says.
People in this crowd agree that when Gorbachev declared democracy to be the new standard, he was right.
They say it largely stayed that way through the 90s. But then something changed.
"In Russia over the past ten years we had problems about public expression. We had problems with press freedom. We had problems with political rights and freedom of assembly," said Maria Lipman from the Carnegie Center, Moscow
"I think we society traded our liberties for prosperous life. For comfort, for better quality of life, that was a mistake," added Elena Pamfilova of Transparency International.
If the Russian people thought it was a mistake, most put up with it until just a few months ago.
Two events are credited with sparking this renewed civil rage.
First Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced his intention to swap out Dmitri Medvedev and return to the presidency next year.
Then came widespread allegations of cheating by Putin's own party in recent parliamentary elections.
"Once people realized that the authorities were not even pretending that they mattered, that their opinion mattered, they actually woke up and they became ready to come to the streets and protest," said Tatiana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch.
The strength of this reaction surprises even those who are a part of it.. and they believe it's surprising the country's leaders too.
That actually makes them more hopeful about their future than they were just a month ago.
"I can't express how happy I am,"Boris Dubrovin says. "I'm so happy about what's happening now.
"The last Soviet President may have been premature in declaring this society free and democratic. But because of recent events in this country, the feeling among many of the people here is that achieving that goal is now closer than it ever has been before.