In Russia, nobody can be ‘Charlie’

Je suis charlie - Diogo Baptista - demotix_0.jpg

Russian reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre has been muted, although a massive march in Chechnya defended Islam from the ‘mockers’.

Ksenia Babich
30 January 2015

On the night of 7 January, flowers and candles began to appear outside the French embassy in Moscow. There was as yet no talk of any pickets or protests, but earlier in the day, Russian Orthodox activists had organised a one-person picket ‘against the mockery of Christians’ and Muslims’ feelings’. They stood outside the embassy for several hours, and although they wouldn’t talk to journalists, it was good PR for them because it was all over the media. 

On the morning of 8 January, the first police bus drew up and cordoned off the embassy, and people wanting to leave flowers had to produce ID and have their details recorded. Information and ideas about possible actions in solidarity with the staff at Charlie Hebdo appeared in social media about 24 hours after the atrocity, but deciding when these would take place was more complicated – various things were proposed but then postponed.

Meanwhile, Muscovites came and left flowers, and many people I spoke to said they were not interested in mass demos or marches, but were simply shocked by what had happened and wanted to show their sympathy.

JeSuisCharlie_in_Moscow - Ilya Schurov - Wiki.jpg

The flowers left outside the French embassy in Moscow. Image Ilya Schurov via Wikipedia. All rights reserved.

The Kremlin sympathy show

The news from France of a massive rally and planned march in support of Charlie Hebdo, not to mention the appearance of the international slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’, brought more and more people out in Moscow, and a day later the official news agencies carried reports of a planned, concerted demonstration ‘in support of and solidarity with the people of France, after the tragedy in Paris’.

Russian Orthodox activists organised a picket ‘against the mockery of Christians’ and Muslims’ feelings’

It was only at the demonstration itself that we learned it had been initiated by the Russian government’s official youth organisation Rosmolodyozh. It was planned for 2pm, and, according to the organisers, there would be no speeches, just an opportunity to bring flowers and light candles. And indeed, at precisely ten minutes before the appointed time, about 50 people came out of the metro with candles and flowers; they also held placards reading ‘Journalists must live’; ‘We defend journalists all over the world’, and similar slogans, none of them actually referring to Charlie Hebdo. Ten minutes later, having laid out candles and flowers in the shape of a heart, they pushed the remaining flowers and the placards through the embassy railings and started back to the metro. By 14.15 not a single person remained. It all had the air of a setup by the Rosmolodyozh leadership (the state-owned TV channels all turning out to film it was also a bit of a telltale sign).

Strangely, the participants were unwilling to talk to the press; none of them would make a statement or even stand holding a placard. I managed to speak to the organisation’s head Sergei Pospelov, who gave me his take on the event: ‘I saw not less than 300 people expressing their solidarity with the journalistic community and with the people of France; this is very important. The past year has unfortunately seen many Russian journalists die all over the world, including the Donbas; journalists and peaceful members of the public are being targeted by people who want to scare us and use acts of terrorism to achieve their ends.’  There were, however, no ‘Je suis Charlie’ placards at this demo.

There were, however, no ‘Je suis Charlie’ placards at this demo.

‘Je suis Charlie’

This slogan was, however, to be found at another action, organised on 10 January by some civil rights activists on Manezh Square, right by the Kremlin walls. Two of their number, Mark Galperin and Vladimir Ionov, stood with ‘Je suis Charlie’ placards but were immediately arrested for illegal picketing, and taken to a police station.

They were later released but the next day held another picket outside the French embassy, this time holding the official record of their police interviews from the previous day. According to Mark Galperin, his one-person picket was interrupted by a stranger, an agent provocateur, who insisted on standing next to him, and refused to move away, so provoking a second arrest, since Russian law permits only single-person pickets.

Another demo at the French embassy certainly attracted a lot of people, and the space round the railings gradually filled with flowers, candles, and pencils. And there were ordinary Muscovites standing among the police that surrounded this unsanctioned but sincere event: ‘They aren’t arresting us today’, Mikhail, one of the people taking part in the demo, told me. ‘We are holding an event without permission and have been here for two hours now, showing our solidarity with the people of France! We have our own Islamists and terrorists and we are waging a war of aggression on the territory of a brother nation, so we want to do something to salve our consciences.’ That evening, none of the more than 200 demonstrators were arrested, and it was late in the evening before they dispersed. 

For Moscow, all these demos and pickets were indeed on a very small scale, and the Russian government, in general, tried to distance itself as much as possible from the tragedy. It may be no coincidence that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, heading the Russian delegation at the “republican march” in Paris held in memory of the victims of the shootings, did not walk at the front with other world leaders, and made no statements about these horrific events. Officially, the Kremlin confined itself to publishing a letter supporting France in the global war on terrorism; a wise move since only a few days later there was news of a ‘million-strong’ march in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in defence of the prophet Muhammad.

A different mood in Grozny

I asked Grigory Tumanov, the Kommersant newspaper’s correspondent, who was in Grozny at the time, for more information about the march. ‘Everyone carried identical placards with the message, in Russian and English, that Chechens would not allow anyone to insult the Prophet’, he told me. ‘Now and then someone would shout “Takbir!” and the crowd would answer, “Allahu Akbar!” – traditional chants that both mean “God is Great!”.

By 9am, the whole centre of Grozny was full, and people kept coming in from the surrounding villages, adding to the crowd. There were black plastic bags lying at intervals along all the main streets, and at first I thought they were for rubbish. But then I saw people going up to them and taking something out, and it turned out that on the previous day, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had ordered bags with bread and rolls to be put out so that you could have a snack without leaving the demonstration. The day had also been declared a public holiday, and taxi drivers were forbidden to take fares from people going to, or coming from, the march.’


The rally that took place in Grozny on 19th January. Image Gregor Tumanov (C)

Ramzan Kadyrov had initially promised to bring 500,000 people out on the streets, but then increased the figure to a million – the entire population of Chechnya is only around 1.2 million. The police put the number attending at 800,000.

‘The shooting was a warning, and this march is also a warning’ (demonstrator in Grozny)

‘I spoke to people in the crowd who had come from the surrounding villages’, said Tumanov. ‘And they all told me the same thing: “the villages emptied this morning, and anyone who wasn’t in Grozny by nine got stuck in an enormous traffic jam on the edge of town.” Before the shootings, I doubt if anyone in Chechnya had even seen Charlie Hebdo, or looked at its website. Everyone was nevertheless genuinely shocked, saying that no one had the right to insult the Prophet, especially atheists, amongst whom were included the murdered cartoonists. “You people couldn’t care less about religion, and you have no idea what Muhammad means to us!” said Dzhabrail, a man of about 40 from one of the villages. “You can’t even imagine how much we love the Prophet. Even a Christian can’t understand it. So, if you don’t understand, why do you think you can mock?”

Some medical students I met at the local stadium were still more extreme in their thinking: “the shooting was a warning, and this march is also a warning. If Europe doesn’t understand that, then we need to go to war about it. By whatever means – but we’ll have to do it. And there are enough of us to do it.”’

According to Tumanov, attendance at the march was voluntary-obligatory. As one local put it, ‘people couldn’t give a damn about it, but if you don’t turn up there might be trouble’. Announcements were made in mosques and public sector workplaces a couple of days before, telling people they had to come, and officials phoned round private companies, instructing CEOs, to let staff attend the event at least until midday prayers.

No Russian ‘Charlies’

The Russian media have also presented the tragedy in their own particular light. Tabloid websites described the Paris march in either derisive tones or stilted bureaucratic langauge. The whole story of people coming together, of humanism and shared grief for the victims has been completely absent from both the printed press and TV news channels.

Russia has suffered a number of terrorist acts of its own, the last being in Volgograd in December 2013, when suicide bombers targeted a railway station and a trolleybus on successive days, killing 35 people overall and injuring about 80 others. The attack led to increased security at bus stations throughout the country, but there were no million-strong marches, and it didn’t create any empathy among Russians for people in other countries. 

Meanwhile, a Moscow court has sent Mark Galperin and Vladimir Ionov to jail for 38 days for picketing, and they may also receive a further five-year sentence under a new law on ‘multiple violation of the law on public gatherings’. Meanwhile, the State Duma is planning to remove Russians’ right to take part in demonstrations at all; at present it is debating a ban on attending public gatherings for people who have been previously charged with minor offences at such gatherings, even though this measure would contravene Russia’s Constitution. In Russia, nobody can be ‘Charlie.’

Standfirst image: Je suis Charlie placard. Diogo Baptista via Demotix (C). 

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