The cosmonauts have landed: tales from an occupied Moscow

Russia has a newly inaugurated president, but its capital has been shaken by two days of unexpected violence and arrests. Writer Lev Rubinstein was drinking coffee in a downtown Moscow cafe popular with the city’s intelligentsia when riot police arrived, cleared the building, and arrested a number of the customers. This is hardly the behaviour of a confident and legitimate government, he contends.

I begin this piece with my own story, or rather the moment that I, alongside many friends and strangers, found myself being jostled along the pavement of Nikitsky Boulevard by ‘cosmonauts’ in police riot gear. The officers were were shouting “keep moving!”, “don’t stop!”, in the manner of a Soviet war film. That’s exactly what it felt like: either such a movie, or an equally disturbing dream. 

At one point, one of the cosmonauts — apparently quite senior in rank — pointed at me. He didn’t say anything, but his signal was enough for another, apparently more junior cosmonaut to come and grab me just above the elbow, again without conversation, and drag me towards a waiting police van. By coincidence, all this took place in front this in front of a group of journalists who recognised me. All of which meant that three short minutes later — we had not yet reached the wagon — my phone began to ring continuously. 

OMON riot police clear the tables of cafe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is popular among many opposition activists in Moscow. Lev Rubinstein was one of several customers unlawfully detained by police. Photo http://www.freetowns.ru/

To his credit, the officer doing the dragging — a middle-aged guy - wasn’t completely savage. Along the way he managed to ask me: ‘so you’re, well, some kind of writer?’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘you've got the right guy’. ‘And what do you write?’ ‘Books’. ‘Ah, books, nice’, he replied, not entirely convincingly. ‘It’s a good thing that you aren’t resisting’, he said. ‘I’ve got a broken arm, you see, broken by your lot yesterday’. ‘Our lot is whose lot?’, I asked. ‘You, the protestors’. ‘Perhaps, just perhaps, it wasn’t necessary to break up a peaceful demonstration?’ ‘We have our orders, and we carry them out.’ 

In truth, the officer was quite amicable; I also tried my best. As we finished our almost-pleasant conversation we reached the end-point of our short mission, but just as they were about to load me onto the van, I remembered I had a press ID card in my pocket. ‘Here’, I said, ‘My press card. I would quite like to know why I’m being detained.’ My companion said nothing, but instead vaguely waved an arm, released me from the other, and turned his back to me, somewhat impolitely. With that, I realised I was free. 

The anxious tones of my mobile phone continued meanwhile, and I just about managed to get across to people that I was OK. News of my detention had already been broadcast on a number of radio channels and internet publications, some of which had decided to embellish the story somewhat by reporting that I had been severely beaten. Fortunately, there was no time for such reports to reach my nearest and dearest at home. But I did feet like the Chekhov character who fell under a horse and, for a short while, became what we might now today describe as a 'newsmaker'. 

‘These ‘cosmonauts’ were truly like zombies. Their eyes were empty and ruthless; their movements entirely robotic, programmed with only two actions: grabbing and pulling away.’

I’m OK, and thank god for that. But a very many others — accosted and bundled into police vans with quite indecent rudeness, cruelty and ferocity — were not so OK. There were people of all ages and sexes dragged and pulled into those vans, and without any sense of why they were being taken there. 

These ‘cosmonauts’ were truly like zombies. Their eyes were empty and ruthless; their movements entirely robotic, programmed with only two actions: grabbing and pulling away. 

Once again, unequivocally and with the utmost clarity, the experience of Bolotnaya Square on Saturday, and that of Nikitsky Boulevard yesterday showed Russians and the rest of the world what has, actually, been pretty obvious for some time. That is that they, the authorities, recognise their own illegitimacy. No legitimate government would behave in such a cowardly, cruel and cynical way towards law-abiding citizens. 

While people, whose only crime was to sense personal responsibility for the fate of their own country, were being detained on squares and pavements; while those same people were being packed into police vans, and ever so delicately hit in the ribs with truncheons, our criminal extremist friends were busy crowning their most disgraceful chieftain. But we must never forget that he, like all of them, is not only above the law but also no authority in the law either. They are not even common theives; they are simply sons of bitches. In all senses of the phrase, apart from the literal, for I personally very much respect dogs of either sex.

Looking at these unreal scenes, so reminiscent of the newsreels depicting Warsaw in 1939 or Paris in 1940 or Prague in 1968, I felt an urge to cry from the sense of historical hopelessness. That’s how it is. On the other hand, looking at the wonderful young and not-so-young faces that surround me, and observing their complete absence of fear or desire to step back when truncheons are being waved, I’m won over by another feeling. A sense of certainty even: this is only the beginning. 

Original version in Russian