Bolotnaya: that spark in their eyes

For many people, the Moscow protests of 2012 were about falling in love – with the promise of freedom, and with each other. But how do you go on living when instead of the government, the barricades fall, and your hopes along with them? Русский

Daria Bashkirova
15 March 2017

The author tells her story at Teatr.doc’s play “24+”. Photo (c): teatr.doc. All rights reserved.

It was the summer of 2011, I was nineteen and had just finished my second year at journalism school. I think it was through Afisha magazine that I discovered a blog, written by two random guys using pseudonyms. It was a political blog, but it wasn’t boring. As the authors put it, it was “for hipsters,” i.e. young, smart, and educated people who could influence what was happening in Russia, their home country – but decided against it.

One of the authors used dry language, but the other – let’s call him Anton – was very passionate and, it seemed, well-read. Anton quoted Fukuyama and Lovecraft, spoke about books I hadn’t heard of, and, most importantly, he was completely sure that we could influence government if we demonstrated in the streets. Demonstrations, he wrote, weren’t just for weirdos and violent riot police, but for cool people – and if more cool people, including the authors and the blog audience, came out, the faster the government would listen and change would occur. Of course I immediately wanted to be with the cool ones. 

Most of my closest friends didn’t support the government, but were incapable of anything besides grumbling in the background

When it came to politics, I didn’t have a high opinion of myself. Most of my closest friends did not support the government, but were incapable of anything besides grumbling in the background. Just once, all the way back in 2007, a soon-to-be boyfriend went to the “March of Dissenters,” and was detained with his friends even before he got there. That was his whole protest. I knew some activists, but wasn’t close to them. I got the sense that were awesome and had the right to speak, but I was just a neophyte who needed to keep my mouth shut. I also didn’t have a job, and that seemed to matter – i.e. if you don’t work, then stay quiet, you ingrate. So when Anton followed me on Twitter, I was so happy – because just look at who he was, and look at who I was in comparison!

I always liked people with a spark in their eyes, and if they were smart as well, it was a total jackpot. “Stop being apolitical, come out of your comfort zone, and understand, that something terrifying is happening to the country,” Anton would write, and I was certain that it was the truth. I thought that this man I had never met had the same worldview as I did – if you’re uniting “for all that is good, against all that is bad,” of course you’re going to match up. 

Love, as per usual, demanded sacrifice. I was always on Twitter and checked out all the girls who wrote to him – especially those who replied to him. I tweeted while constantly being aware that he would see me in his feed. I knew that he lived somewhere by the Universitet metro station and went for runs in the park by the Pioneers’ Palace – I went running there in order to run into him. And one day, on the 31st of the month, I went to Triumfalnaya Square to protest. 

It was my first protest, and I went alone. There was a small, tightly packed crowd – everyone was pushed back into the underpass and under the arch, people left, came back, yelled slogans, some were detained. I’d never felt so out of place before. The “cool people” were indeed there, but it seemed they knew what they were doing, while I didn’t. As if we were all at a party, and they were listening to one kind of music, and I was listening to something different. Instead of thinking that this wasn’t my scene, though, I decided that I needed to understand better. I looked for Anton that day, but didn’t meet him. I kept running, tweeting, and feeling sad. 

It was my first protest, and I went alone. I’d never felt so out of place

The next time around wasn’t all that great too – except I finally saw Anton and fell for him completely. Before 31 October, Anton invited all the readers of his blog to come out for a Strategy 31 protest together. I knew it was my chance, and though I thought that there would be plenty of others, no one else showed. It was the three of us: Me, Anton, and his co-author. I was struck by Anton’s smile – childlike in its sincerity. All men I fall in love with seem very handsome to me, and he was no exception. By the time we reached Trimufalnaya, Anton was already my ideal man. But I could not stay close to him, the crowd pushed us apart, and we didn’t find each other. I stood in the rain for two hours and then went on with my day.


Does love unite or divide us? A scene from “24+”. Photo (c): Teatr.doc. All rights reserved.

That day we didn’t win the right to assemble freely all the time and everywhere – but we started seeing each other all the time and everywhere instead. We wrote to each other, had coffee together, and I was certain that I finally found a person whom I could trust completely – this was nothing like my relationship with the guy I was actually seeing at the time, and who wasn’t passionate about any ideas.

Then the first protest at Bolotnaya Square rolled around. Anton was one of the people in charge of the Facebook and VKontakte events, and wanted everyone to join the sanctioned Bolotnaya protest, instead of going to Revolutsii Square to be confronted by riot police What did I do? Well, he was for Bolotnaya, so I was for it too. The day before the protest I helped him purge the event groups of bots and those who wanted to go to Revolutsii Square. I really wanted to be useful to the person I loved. Some women make soup, I was cleaning up social media. But we never saw each other at the protest – Anton was an organiser and stayed backstage, while I was away from the stage. He never came out to the stage either. But I didn’t need him to. I was content to feel that we had the same goal – us and all the other cool people there.

That day we didn’t win the right to assemble freely all the time and everywhere – but we started seeing each other all the time and everywhere instead

Ultimately, Anton and I never became close. The last time we saw each other was on December 31, 2011. He didn’t seem thrilled to see me. I gave him a hat, but it was too small. He gave me a peculiar kiss and we parted ways.

Soon we stopped writing to each other. When I tried writing again, he would never answer. It hurt and surprised me – weren’t we adults? Shouldn’t adults tell each other, bluntly, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to hang out again”? Why the silence? He was cool with protesting, but apparently not brave enough to maturely break it off with me. Screaming “Go away!” at Putin was easier than simply asking me to do the same. Then he posted an Instagram photo with another woman and I realised that he was with her now – and I had nothing left to hope for. 

The worst part was that I didn’t understand what was wrong with me – didn’t I do everything right? I listened to him with my mouth hanging open in wonder, I was in school, I worked, I got rid of my boyfriend, I wanted to make myself useful – what more did he want?

One day, I went to a concert by a really bad band – naturally because Anton had said it was a really good band – and met a guy there, and we began something like a relationship. Wanting to be honest, I told him my story about Anton, and he made fun of it, because, it turned out, naïve guys with a spark in their eyes weren’t taken very seriously by journalists or people close to the so-called “real protest.” Now it was Anton who was the neophyte. My main takeaway from that story was that nobody really knows what they’re doing, or where it will take them.

Five years have gone by. For me, the story of the 2011-2012 protests was a story of thwarted love – for freedom, for sincerity, for each other. I didn’t go to protests because I desperately wanted a man. No, like most of the other people who went, I was sincere in my belief that you could change something by waving white ribbons and flowers. I didn’t need love to protest for fair elections or to go to Triumfalnaya and demand freedom of assembly all the time and everywhere. But I also suspect that some went to these protests because they loved someone there. 


One of Moscow’s “Control Walk” protests, 13 May 2012. Photo (c): Mikhail Kaluzhsky. All rights reserved.

Then, when Putin won the 2012 election, when the 6 May protest descended into violence, and we realised that the protest could no longer be joyful, when the arrests began and terrifying laws cropped up – that was when I realised I was depressed. I was lying there at home watching some show, when it hit me.

I had already spent a month just lying there. I wound up spending almost an entire year – and nearly got kicked out of college. I thought it was all due to my dashed romantic dreams, but then it turned out that almost everyone I had met while going to protests had some symptoms of depression. We were together for a short moment – and we felt it all together, the euphoria, the anxiety, the emptiness. Euphoria always goes away quickly – first our own arguments then the cruelty of the authorities sobered everyone up. The love for freedom and our love for each other went away, and we were alone again. 

I suspect that some people went to these protests because they loved somebody there. My main takeaway from this story was that nobody really knows what they’re doing, or where it will take them

My own sad love story became part of the 24+ theatre production at Teatr.doc. When I first began telling it on stage, I became embarrassed and sad – but now I see it as very funny. 

In fact, I think being public about such stories is important. It’s like therapy. The more you talk about your broken heart, the easier it is to get over the pain. Also, such stories unite us. We don’t just need them as storytellers, we need them as audience members. We’ve all been loved, we’ve all suffered from unrequited love, and we are all brave fools in love.

We’re not used to speaking about it, because it’s demonstrating some “failed” aspect of oneself – while we want everyone around to think we’re successful and happy. But when we hear such stories, we know that we are not alone. Every time I take to the stage, it’s as if I’m there again, at the protests – this feeling of unity I had then comes back to me in the theatre hall. I know I’m making it easier not just for me, but for those who listen.

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