I’m reading a book called Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, detailing the astonishingly ad hoc transfer of power, nuclear suitcase included, from Gorbachev to Yeltsin. Eight years after that shambolic, historic event, on December 31, 1999, I was home sick with the Sydney A flu watching Yeltsin transfer power to his then-Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who had arrived at that position out of nowhere months earlier and been hailed as, no exaggeration, a Russian Messiah.

So no surprise, really, that the end of this year is again providing news out of Russia. In one of his regular rambling, long-form press conferences, still-president Putin announced that the two jailed members of Pussy Riot would be released under an amnesty and he would sign a pardon for Mikhail Khodorkovsky. (It’s not yet clear, to be sure, that Khodorkovsky will agree to being pardoned.) This is, likely, too little, too late to turn the tide of very negative sentiment around the Sochi Olympics — and nothing in today’s press conference addressed concerns about gay rights or the power play in Ukraine. It is, though, a big development, one that hints again at the weakening of the Putin regime, and the potential for the re-entry, someday, of democracy — or something closer to it — in Russia.

That weakening accelerated at the beginning of 2012, with the first large-scale demonstrations in Russia in 20 years, in desperately cold temperatures, against election fraud. Violent arrests were made, protestors and supporters faced searches and seizures and trumped-up charges. Two steps back. At one of the rallies in February 2012, Yuri Shevchuk, lead singer of one of the longest-standing and most important Russian rock groups, DDT, sang their early 1990s song “Rodina” — Homeland — with some very strong lyrics about the Soviet police state. At a rally at the same square a few months later, in May, 2012, 400-500 people were detained, some arrested and tried, damping down the appetite for protest in the country and bringing home the fact that Putin’s Russia, awash in oil wealth and international brands, ridden with corruption, is a consumer version of the regime DDT wrote about 20 years ago:

God, how much truth is there in the eyes of the government whores,
God, how much faith is there in the hands of the fired executioners.
Please, don’t let them roll up their sleeves again
Please, don’t let them roll up the sleeves
Of eventful nights.

Black headlights in the neighboring yard,
Hatchways, handcuffs, a torn mouth.
How many times did my head rolled off the overflowing guillotine
And flew here, where is