The protests, which began on Dec 14, rapidly took on a political hue and Mr Putin, who is intolerant of dissent, ordered the Kremlin's top officials in the far east to use force next time. But senior adminstrators refused to intervene and a week later the government was forced to send a special detachment of riot police from Moscow to break up a second protest in Valdivostok.It seems that Vladimir Putin has two choices. He can back off and let democracy (such as it actually exists in Russia) run its course, or he can drop the mask, exposing himself as the totalitarian that he is and drop all pretenses of democracy.
Furious that he had again been disobeyed, Mr Putin directed Vladislav Surkov, his top ideologue, to sack the newly appointed head of internal affairs in Primorye, the region surrounding Vladivostok.
But the official, Maj Gen Andrei Nikolayev, flatly refused to leave his post. Sources say he threatened to expose corruption linked to the Kremln in the Russian far east if Mr Putin pressed ahead.
Such a gesture of defiance is almost unheard of in Russia. Gen Nikolayev was supposed to be the man entrusted by the Kremlin to keep regional officials under control.
Any bets against the latter?