In the late evening of 8th May some journalist friends and I went for a walk around Patriarch Ponds, a pleasant spot in the centre of Moscow. We were part of the so-called ‘mass stroll‘ announced by Aleksey Navalny, the most popular Russian opposition leader, after a protest rally on Bolotnaya Ploshchad had ended in violent clashes with police. The idea was simple: people should gather in one of Moscow’s squares, go for a stroll - no posters, no chanting of slogans – set up a camp if possible, and move on as soon as police appeared. This is what my friends and I were doing, along with a few hundred other people, when we were suddenly surrounded by riot police, bundled into buses and taken to a police station, where we spent several hours before being released without charge.
Opposition politician Boris Nemstov speaks at a general meeting of the 'Occupy Abay' meeting. The impromtu camp was dispersed earlier today, Wednesday. Photo: RIA Novosti / Vladimir Astapkovich
Afterwards, foreign media colleagues working in Moscow accused us of acting unprofessionally: we should, they said, have shown our press cards and walked through the police cordon. When I replied that we were not there as journalists, but as ordinary citizens, one woman – among the best foreign correspondents currently working in Moscow– accused me of hypocrisy, saying that journalists who take part in protests lose their objectivity. Leaving aside the question of journalistic ethics, I think this issue is key to the understanding of the protests of the last few days.
Putin – from hero to villain
When Vladimir Putin first became president in 2000, his election was welcomed by a majority of Russians, as well as political and business circles: the new young leader promised to replace Boris Yeltsin’s tottering regime with strong-arm rule, while abiding by legal and democratic principles. The illusion was short-lived: Putin fell at his first PR hurdle when in August 2000, a few months into his term, he had no answer for the wives of the sailors who had perished on the Kursk submarine, who asked him why Russia had refused international help. His famous response came on the Larry King show: ‘It sank’.
That was the first group of people he antagonised; in the decade that followed they were followed by many more, from all sections of the population: investors in housing that hadn’t materialised demanded the flats they had paid for; young people protested against police brutality; victims of miscarriages of justice called for an independent judiciary. Pensioners railed against benefit cuts; the leaders and supporters of opposition parties demanded their right to engage in legal, not just ‘street’ politics, and so on. By December 2011, when first Moscow and then every part of Russia saw their largest anti-government protests for twenty years, just about every social group had its own gripe with the Kremlin. Even the middle classes, the backbone of Putin’s support, who for ten years had colluded in an unspoken pact to exchange freedom for prosperity, joined the protesters on the streets.
On 6th May, on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s re-inauguration, all these social groups fused into one variegated but united crowd that walked in procession to Bolotnaya Ploshchad, the scene of two mass rallies during the winter. Here there should have been a rally, instead of which this peaceful demonstration turned into a bloodbath as protesters clashed with riot police. The authorities now claim that it was the demonstrators that started the fighting. The opposition argues in return that the Moscow authorities breached an agreement for the square to be used for a rally, and planted their own agents in the crowd to provoke clashes with the police.
'People were arrested without explanation – for wearing a white ribbon, the symbol of protest, on their jacket, or just for walking though the centre of Moscow.'
Whatever the truth of the matter, it was clear to me as an eyewitness that the authorities could have prevented the violence, had they so wished. But judging by the brutality of the police squads as they arrested and beat up protesters and journalists, it looked, on the contrary, as though their aim was to stage a show of strength. The clashes on Bolotnaya Square lasted for several hours. The next day, when Putin drove to the Kremlin through streets cleared of people, the arrests continued. And the day after that. People were arrested without explanation – for wearing a white ribbon, the symbol of protest, on their jacket, or just for walking though the centre of Moscow. Some were even seized in a café and bundled into police cars. That is how the idea of a ‘mass stroll’ arose: Russia’s constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of movement, and the police were denying that freedom. Nor were the ‘strollers’ carrying banners or chanting slogans. They were just going for a stroll – a stroll for which they could be arrested.
What next – thoughtcrime?
At that point you have a choice. On the one hand, the ethics of journalism require you not to take sides. On the other, you are just going for a stroll. On the third, people are being arrested for just going for a stroll – you feel the next step will be Orwell’s ‘thoughtcrime’. This is the answer to my foreign colleagues and the question of what is really happening in Moscow. You make the choice. You leave your press card in your pocket and get on the police bus, because otherwise you are abandoning your friends who don’t have press accreditation – and in any case, as Aleksey Navalny says, ‘we are just going for a stroll’. And you tell yourself that the constitution guarantees you the right to peaceful protest, let alone taking a stroll around a square. Your journalistic ethics fade into the background – and anyway what have ethics to do with a stroll?
This seems to be the choice before many people in Russia who are unhappy with the status quo. But if in December and February they took to the streets with silly posters and happy faces, now their faces are angry and they don’t disperse when the police arrive. They took a stand four times during the winter, but no one paid any attention, covering themselves by sending in the riot police on the one hand and passing a couple of laws masquerading as democratic reforms on the other.
From ‘angry urbanites’ to enraged citizens
'The protest movement’s chief strength is that the Kremlin’s forces are facing people who suddenly realised in December 2011 that they didn’t want to stand on the sidelines observing any longer.'
Vladislav Surkov, one of the Kremlin’s 'eminences grises’ of the last decade, christened people who took part in demonstrations ‘angry urbanites’. Now they have turned into enraged citizens, firm in their intentions to turn from the passive victims of politics into its active participants. No one, however, knows yet how to make this happen. The protest has reached its inevitable stage of great radicalisation, but its future is still unclear; it has only two real leaders, Aleksey Navalny and Sergey Udaltsov, and both of them will be in prison for at least another week. The ideological base of the protest movement is also shaky: the slogan ‘Russia without Putin’ has brought together people from widely differing parties and tendencies, but all their attempts to form coalitions have led to nothing more than joint protest rallies. Taking to the streets is the only way that the protest movement can possibly achieve its main aim – the holding of fair elections – but it means having to face the Kremlin’s police and internal military forces.
'The latest trend in Moscow is to deliberately ‘check in’ for arrest at a police van or a police station. And attach a photo as proof of ID.'
On the other hand, the protest movement’s chief strength is that the Kremlin’s forces are facing people who in December 2011 suddenly realised that they didn’t want to stand on the sidelines observing any longer. Over the five months since then their fervour has not only not disappeared, but has grown stronger and taken on new, more aggressive forms. These people are apolitical, in the sense that most of them don’t support any of the existing parties or forces, but they want to become a force in themselves and influence Russia’s politics. They trust one another, and at the same time they trust no one. This is a crowd of individualists: there is no one here the Kremlin can negotiate with, all it can do is call out the police. But these people have lost their fear of the police – the appearance of police cars is a signal for applause and laughter. And the latest trend in Moscow is to deliberately ‘check in’ for arrest at a police van or a police station. And attach a photo as proof of ID.
P.S. Last Sunday an impressive number of these individualists, led by prominent literary and cultural figures, some of them among the organisers of the winter protests, turned out for what they called a ‘test stroll’, the idea being to discover whether it was possible to walk through the centre of Moscow without risking arrest. Even though they caused disruption to traffic, they did not encounter a single representative of the forces of law and order. This time the authorities had decided not to let the riot police loose. And from numerous blogs and conversations in the crowd it is clear that this has further increased people’s self confidence. But this ‘soft’ Kremlin response is likely to be an exception to the rule, and no one can tell what will happen next.