Apparent fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections has unleashed an unprecedented display of anger against Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party. Many Russians who had been happy to go along with the political status quo finally decided that they had had enough. Last Monday, Alexandra Krylenkova attended a protest for the first time, and found inspiration and release in her subsequent arrest.
A story from Russia’s recent past in four parts
Part 1: Motivations
The most-asked question of the past few days has been ‘Why?’, so I will devote the first part of my story to explaining the motivations for last week’s protests.
At last week’s elections, a new type of opposition movement emerged. You could call it a movement of observers.
Many of my friends, acquaintances and family members looked at what was going on at these elections and discussed what they saw. We always knew that election fraud took place, that ballots were stuffed and that the outcome of our elections never really represented the voice of the people. But this time we had evidence. We had seen what was going on.
We had witnessed how the usual thugs would arrive with a wad of ballot papers and we saw how these ‘votes’ would end up in the ballot boxes. We heard how the electoral commission would then ascribe these ballots to students from the military academy.
Our worst suspicions of electoral fraud had now been confirmed.
I experienced the same kind of revelation with regard to public demonstrations. I heard that people were arrested at demonstrations; I had read about it in the social media and I had seen the footage. I also heard that educated, successful people were now attending these demonstrations and that protests were no longer the preserve of society’s fringe groups (not that I have anything against fringe groups). People were going out to demonstrate because they had simply had enough. I read that it was not only the banner-waving, slogan-shouting protesters who were arrested, but silent bystanders were also detained.
Now I know that all of this is true, because I am a witness to these events.
Part 2: an eyewitness account
I was late arriving at Gostiny Dvor (on St Petersburg’s main street, Nevsky Prospekt). I got there at about a quarter past seven in the evening. I’m not sure how many people were there, because people were spread over a very wide area, but it seemed like a large crowd had gathered. People were just milling around outside the metro stations, meeting up with their friends and discussing the elections. Even though there were a lot of protesters, they were clearly outnumbered by the police and member of the anti-riot squad, with their empty buses on standby.
The anti-riot squad assembled facing the square in helmets with darkened visors. A man in winter fatigues paced through the crowd with a megaphone, announcing that we were all breaking the law. I heard someone giving an interview and I saw someone else handing out flyers. These signs of activism were quickly extinguished, but the crowd remained standing.
About every half hour, a section of the anti-riot squad would herd-in a group of protesters in a circle formation. They would then handcuff all of the gathered protesters and lead them off, one by one, to the waiting police buses. Anyone who resisted was forcibly carried off.
It was impossible to keep track of all of this police activity at the beginning, but I was able to escape arrest three times by stepping out of the way just in time. People did raise a commotion when protesters were dragged away and some people shouted ‘shame!’
But the real provocation started at around half past eight.
Demonstrators were getting cold and a little bored and around 100 people had already been arrested. The remainder of the crowd stretched out around the edges of the square and people began to talk about going home. But there were still 2 buses to be filled and they were hardly going to go home without passengers.
‘The rank and file police men and women were pretty decently behaved (as one of my friends says, ‘they were decent enough for cops’). But then the colonel came along. We could see that all of his staff were shaking in their boots when he appeared.’
Then an old woman, decked out in communist paraphernalia, stood out from the crowd, waving a little flag and shouting in a feeble voice, ‘give us our votes back! We voted for the Communist Party, but our votes weren’t counted!’
A strapping, bleary-eyed man stepped up towards the woman and began to push the crowd around her towards the entrance of the Metro station to the strains of police warnings blaring through a megaphone ‘do not disrupt the entrance for train passengers!’ This guy was a real professional at people-herding and some of the crowd even applauded him.
I wanted to photograph this act of provocation, but I hesitated and found myself inside an encircled group of protesters. I had lost my shot of the big man seconds before that.
The police started to load us into buses. Anyone who didn't resist arrest was treated quite well. The heads of police were all standing around the buses and they seemed to be managing operations from there. There were people between the ages of 14 and 50 in our circle of arrested citizens. They released the old Communist woman immediately.
There were 22 people in our bus. Four minors and six females (three of whom were minors). The three girls seemed to have found themselves in the bus completely by accident. They had landed into in our circle just as they were exiting the Metro station.
Our journey took a long time. They took us to police station number 82, which is at the very end of the Leningrad Prospekt, in the north of the city. They dropped off half of our group at this station all of the minors, women and four young men included.
The rank and file police men and women were pretty decently behaved (as one of my friends says, ‘they were decent enough for cops’). But then the colonel came along. We could see that all of his staff were shaking in their boots when he appeared.
He started with the youngsters. He looked them straight in the eye and listened to their protestations while some of them wailed with distress. They explained how they were returning from school and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and, found themselves in the circle of protesters totally by accident. He told them that they should call their parents and then, calmly and with formidable authority, he said ‘you lot are 15—17 years old and I am 50 years old and you have the nerve to try to hoodwink me? You kids won't be going to school any more, you'll stay right here in the children's' room of the police station’. He went on threatening them like this and he left one poor little girl in complete hysterics.
Then he turned to the adults and questioned us one by one.
‘How did you get here?’
‘By accident, I was on my way home’
‘Are you a student? Do you work?’
‘I'm a student’
‘Not for long you aren't!’
Moving on to the next guy...
‘How did you get here?’
‘What do you do?’
‘I'm a college student’
‘You are a former student!’
‘And you, how did you get here?’
‘I was on my way home from work’
‘Where do you work?’
‘In a pharmacy’
‘A homeopathic pharmacy...’
Moving on to me, he asked:
‘You, How old are you?’
‘So why do you look so young?’
(I’m afraid this question really stumped me...)
Part 3: a few anthropological observations (mainly about the police)
It is pretty strange that most of the police seem to genuinely believe that we are paid to attend demonstrations. They have no idea who might pay for such a service, but they are pretty sure that nobody would go on a march for nothing.
I prepared a stock answer for the police officers at the station, which I delivered each time I was asked how much I was paid: ‘I have my own business. I earn plenty of money to live on without having to supplement my income by going on marches. There are easier ways to earn a buck!’ They could certainly see the logic in that reply.
I overheard the following comment from a female officer at the police station:
‘I think that all demonstrations should be allowed, because then fewer people would march’.
And this is what another officer said after I had convinced him that I had not been paid to protest:
‘You know that a lot of us think like you, but what can we do? What can I do to make things different? Who needs a retired, old cop anyway?’
They took all the girls to use the toilet in the small courtroom building nearby and they brought all the men out to do their business behind the garage. There were 5 or 6 police men hanging around out there and I heard the following dialogue between them:
‘Yeah we worked on the elections. At our polling station, they dumped 300 votes.’
‘One of our guys caught someone in the act of throwing out a bunch of ballots, but a guy in black came up to him and told him to keep his mouth shut.’
These wise words came from another policeman from the convoy:
‘I reckon that if prostitution and recreational drugs were legalised, life would be lot easier.’
‘It's not really that frightening. We don't have to be afraid because we are in the right. We need to tell the authorities that we are here to demonstrate. We don't need to tell them that we are innocent bystanders.’
One policeman, involved in our arrest came out with the following:
‘I don't want to vote. We are the police force. We are only agents of the authorities. We carry out orders with respect to the law. Who writes the laws? The Duma does. That's right! Who elects the Duma? You do! So then you're to blame for what's going on. We're just carrying out orders.’
And here are a few snippets of conversation from the protesters:
‘I was just walking past. They seem to always arrest me for doing nothing.’
‘Wow, there are people delivering food - I should really find myself something worthy like that to do...’
I overheard the following conversation between one of the youngsters and a police colonel:
‘Are you a student?’
‘Yes, I'm studying law’
‘You could have a promising future’
‘And I will! I firmly believe I will, which means it will happen. And you too, sir, should believe that everything will be okay, because it will!’
And finally, Part 4: Grand conclusions
When I attended my first protest I was really scared. My head was spinning with fear. But now I'm not afraid.
It's not really that frightening. We don't have to be afraid because we are in the right. We need to tell the authorities that we are here to demonstrate. We don't need to tell them that we are innocent bystanders. That will only make us weaker. We need to show them that we are strong, confident people. When we lie, they have more of a sense of their own righteousness and power, but the truth makes them loose their nerve.
We shouldn't call them puppets and beat our heads against the wall with frustration. We need to keep a firm grip of our self-worth and remain confident that we are right in our actions. They are the ones who should be afraid! They need to realise that we are the ones who are right!
If I ever discouraged anyone from attending a meeting before, I take it all back. Of course it all takes up a lot of time, but then think of the wasted time spent on going to vote in elections that mean nothing! Think of all the time spent on exhausting conversations - endless journeys down dead-end roads! Think of the time we spend on supervising our loved-ones in hospitals, making sure that they are not neglected or even killed off.
We have put up with it for long enough. Now is the time to act!