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Decency, hope, friendship: the real story from Moscow's race riots

On December 11, a group of 15-year-old schoolboys found themselves in the middle of a several thousand strong race riot in central Moscow. The boys, already badly beaten, were rescued by four unarmed OMON [special police force] officers. In contrast to their assailants, the boys and police officers demonstrated heartwarming values of togetherness and camaraderie. Theirs is the real Russia, argue Andrei Loshak and Svetlana Reiter.

This was not a "Russian" uprising

Andrei Loshak in conversation with two of the schoolboys, Gagik and Sasha

The mob attack on a group of “non-Russian” teenage boys, filmed ever-so-diligently by a dozen TV crews, was in many ways the defining symbol of the December 11th race riots. Some in the media described the event as an ugly manifestation of “popular democracy”, others as an incomplete rout. Shamefully for a reality as hopeless as a pogrom, it was even suggested the the boys had in fact staged their own assault. From whimper to malevolence, the media froth hung an extremely depressing cloud over the entire week. But if you managed to escape the murky electronic torrent for a minute, and based yourself once again in the land of the living, you’d have found there was much to feel warm about. 

The story of six school friends attacked in last month's race riots presented two portraits of humanity. One is made from middle-aged failures, clutching their plastic shopping bags as they swing punches at schoolchildren. The other from the six friends who stuck together till the end, and four unarmed special policemen who bravely defended them against the thugs. The latter is the real Russia. Photo: Ilya Varlamov

The real story of December 11, you see, was one of not racial hatred, nor even the “bloody Putin regime”, but instead a story of camaraderie and friendship. Ironically, it was the army of pogromists who shouted out the Musketeers’ slogan “one for all and all for one”. For them I’d suggest the modification “one for all and all after one” would be more accurate. But there can be no doubting the fraternity that binds the six boys the crowd attacked with their fists, legs, and knives. 

The “Caucasian” schoolboys live and study in one of Moscow’s less prestigious regions in South-East Moscow (of the six teenagers, two had no connection whatsoever with the Caucasus). One of them, Alexei Smirnoff (real name changed, though not by much), turned fifteen that day. Alexei had decided to celebrate his birthday along with his best friends Sasha, Timur, Sandro, Gagik and Ruben. The lads had never imagined friendship along strictly national lines. They kind of paid more attention to other qualities.

Once they had finished school, the friends set off to a bowling alley, after which the leading man invited his friends to a Pizzeria on Manezh Square, near the Kremlin. At that point, no one imagined Alexei was about to become the lead protagonist in another, completely unexpected set of events. As I write this piece, Alexei remains at home, recovering from concussion. His mother does not allow journalists anywhere near him. She is frightened, and you can understand why. 

Gagik, similarly, suffered concussion, serious lacerations and facial haematomas. His parents, having thought about it a bit, decided instead to invite a film crew to their home. It is not as if Gagik’s parents are any less frightened, of course. They just had an arguably naive desire to show the world how wonderful their Gagik is (and how wrong those who beat him were). That desire, in the event, outweighed fear. 

We visit Gagik with Sasha, the second Russian boy in the group. He came off with least injuries of the group, which explains why he has already back in school. Sasha visits his recumbent friends after lessons are over. He has already once visited Timur, who is remains in hospital recovering from knife wounds, has on a few occasions been to see Alexei with his strict mother, and has visited Gagik almost every day. Over the two hours that we spent at Gagik’s home, there was no shortage of guests in the house.  The boy is evidently quite a personality in the area. You’d be forgiven for thinking all the young people “in the ‘hood” — and girls in particular —  had at some point dropped by to offer their support and sympathy. 

“I asked Gagik whether he had had any problems with nationalists before. “No”, he answers, “though you might say they had problems with me”. It's little wonder why the family apartment is full of well-wishers

Remembering the events of that day, the boys say they knew things weren’t looking good when they were still inside the pizzeria. There was already a large crowd of “football fans” in the thorough-way outside the cafe, throwing their provocative fascist salutes. Nonetheless, the friends decided their best bet was to try to attempt to reach the Metro by crossing the street. No sooner had they left the cafe, however, were they surrounded by a crowd of right-wing extremists. “It was as if they were waiting for us”, rues Gagik. The “fans” chanted out various slogans and ran around them, trying to swing kicks at the same time. One of them ran up behind Gagik and struck him on his legs. Gagik’s instinctive reaction was to run after him to return the compliment. When he realised there were not a few, but thousands of aggressors surrounding him, it was already too late. The whole square was full of bloody-minded, drunk people, all after his blood. “We offered to fight one-on-one, but they attacked as a crowd. I watched the video. They were only interested in kicking us. No-one used their fists”.

I ask Gagik whether he had had any problems with nationalists before. “I had no problems”, he answers, before adding with a wry smile: “though you might say they had problems with me”. The kids laugh, and I am starting to understand why Gagik’s apartment is bursting at the seams with well-wishers. 

 

The unarmed OMON officers who defended the "non-Russian" schoolboys from a crowd of thugs quite possibly saved their lives. 

Memory is a funny thing. Gagik says that it was as if it went blank from the moment of the assault onwards. He wants to remember, but can’t. He says he was attacked more than any of the others because his face was the least “Slavic-looking” of the group. Sasha disagrees: the crowd went crazy because Gagik kept fighting. Timur was a boxer, so knew how to protect his face from blows. Gagik, on the other hand, was born into a family of sambo wrestlers (his uncle was a Soviet world-champion). Sambo is a different discipline, and does not place any emphasis on defending the face. This is why on every photograph of the assault, you will see Gagik’s huge, blackened and bloodied eyes, flashing impotent anger at the maddened crowd. 

Sasha likewise has difficulty remembering the perpetrators. “You’re lying there, trying to protect your face from blows. How are you meant to remember individual faces?” I ask Sasha if he didn’t think about scampering. As a blond and hazel-eyed member of the group, no one would have thought about touching him. “Well yeah”, says Sasha. “Me and Alexei could probably have got away, but then our friends would have got it even worse. As it was we could at least divert their attention” 

I ask him what he feels about nationalism. Sasha responds with obvious truths, though you get the impression that hadn’t really thought about it before. Life’s reality forced it on him, so to speak. He tells me how absurd it is to throw fascist salutes when Russians had paid with their lives fighting the nazi threat; that the WWII heroes would break the arms of these people if they found out what they were doing; that nations are all equal and God is the same for everyone, even if he is named in different ways. None of these things require further explanation. They are the default values of every normal, healthy family. 

“Our friendship has always been strong, but now has only got stronger”, says Gagik. “We sure managed to swap blood there, didn’t we? Like blood brothers now. Real close.”

Needless to say, it is obvious language and thoughts of a child reflect in great degree the example of parents. A sign that things are not so healthy in that regard is when you hear children use words like churka [an offensive term that approximates to “chink”, used in relation to Asian and Caucasian non-Russians]. When you hear it coming from a teenager’s lips it is obvious that this is the way adults in the family speak. It is likewise obvious that no such word exists in the lexicon of Sasha’s or Alexei’s parents. In this respect, the suggestion of Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, to bring together the parents of the arrested “fans” for an educative conversation seems to be an entirely fair one. Personally, I would go further and create a mutual support group, a kind of alcoholics’ anonymous, and I’d make attendance by both parents and their neo-nazi offspring compulsory. If after similar sessions people renounce drinking and shooting up, who’s to say that the same can’t happen with extreme rightwing views? 

“I don’t care about religion or nationality”, says Gagik. “I’ve got a lot of Azeri friends, for example, even though we Armenians fought a war with them. Really close mates, mates you can depend on, Like Timur, who’s no longer just a mate, but a brother. Saved my life”. “Gagik was hit more than anyone else”, explains Sasha. “Timur covered with his body as we tried to pull Gagik away.”

The boys are especially grateful to the OMON officers who protected them: if they were not there, they would have been finished. Sasha even went to visit the officers at their station to say “thanks” on behalf of everyone. “Our friendship has only got stronger”, says Gagik, with puffed-up and bruised eyes glinting through. ‘Of course, it was very strong before this. We sure managed to swap blood there, didn’t we Sash? Like blood brothers now. Real close.”

"What gathered in central Moscow on the evening of December 11 was not the Russian nation, but a damaging minority, prepared to blame their own woes on anyone and anything apart from their own laziness and stupidity."

The Russian media space has been poisoned with hatred, and against this backdrop such friendship begins to look like an act of heroism. Yet there is essentially nothing heroic in it at all. It is in fact what should be the norm. In the time we spent at Gagik’s home, group after group of friends, classmates and neighbours passed through his bedroom. Representatives of the titular nationality, “Russians” in the main. I’m convinced that this is the real Russian nation. Alexei and Sasha, who decided not to abandon their “non-Russian” friends. The loud girls — Gagik’s girlfriends — who danced in Santa hats to cheer up their injured friend. The two Russian sambo heroes — Gagik’s comrades in sport — who repeated one and the same phrase throughout the whole evening “A shame we weren’t there with you”. The parents of Gagik’s schoolmates who never ceased ringing with offers to help. The OMON officers who carried out their duties exactly how honest officers should. This is what a nation is all about. 

What gathered in central Moscow on the evening of December 11 was not the Russian nation, but a damaging minority, prepared to blame their own woes on anyone and anything apart from their own laziness and stupidity. A minority “brave” enough to wade into a group of six young teenage boys with fascist salutes and signals. Personally, the image stuck most in my head that of a middle-aged man in a grey jacket, who is captured putting all his strength into right-arm blows to the skulls of the schoolboys. With his left arm, he was clutching onto a plastic bag from a discount supermarket, evidently unprepared to part with his yoghurt and pelmeni dumplings. For me, this man  embodies the shame of our nation. Only a committed Russophobe call such a collection of embittered failures a “Russian uprising”. After all, we did defeat fascism once. And if we need to do it again, we will. I’m sure of it. 

 

"They begged us not to hand them over"


Svetlana Reiter spoke to the four OMON officers on duty that day

“At 9.00 a.m. we were assigned to the back-up beat responsible for the cupola section of Manezhnaya Square. The four of us were supposed to patrol the surrounding area. Our task was to walk around the perimeter of the cupola, making sure nobody was disturbing the peace.

We had information that some sort of a rally might take place, that the Spartak fans were preparing to come here to demonstrate against the death of Yegor Sviridov. We aren't football fans ourselves, but we don't have anything against them and certainly weren't expecting anything unusual from them.

Since we were the back-up officers that day, we stayed on the police bus until 1.00pm, awaiting orders. It was only then that we went out on the beat.  

When we came out, Manezhnaya Square was completely empty — not a soul around. As time went on, we noticed people with scarves and flags with the Spartak insignia visibly growing in numbers. By about 3.00 p.m, a huge crowd had gathered. They were lighting firecrackers and shouting, but there was nothing to be frightened about at that point. Those who had turned up were behaving quite normally to start with. But then, as more more and more arrived... well, we never thought there would be so many of them and that they would be quite so aggressive. We had no idea what would follow. 

They started coming out of the metro in groups of twenty, thirty people. Inconspicuous groups, which turned into a crowd. Closer to four o'clock, we saw the entire crowd running towards the railing around the square. They were all pushing to see something, pointing with their fingers. We ran that way and saw a fight.

We could not see exactly how it all started, nor where exactly the fighting was going on. We just saw a fracas and some scuffling. It was obvious that someone was being beaten up but it was not clear who. We reported back to the station and then took the decision to intervene.  

The 15 year-old Sasha, Alexei, Ruben, Ksandro and Timur were lucky to escape Manezhnaya Square alive. Photo: Ilya Varlamov  

From where we were, we could see through the crowd that someone was lying on the ground no longer offering any resistance. That is, the others were still trying to shield themselves against blows but this one guy was no longer moving or resisting. He was the Armenian boy – Gagik, as we found out later. The kids had come out of a restaurant to find themselves in the middle of a melee. We are all ethnic Russians ourselves — except perhaps for Maksim Maksimov, who has never known his father — but what difference does that make? As it happened, it was not just people from the Caucasus they were beating up: two of those boys were ethnically Russian. But the main thing is they were just children. Their bodies were simply not up to it physically. And the crowd really came down hard on them. 

To put it bluntly, it's lucky that no one was killed.

We ran down the steps. The crowd had gathered on the left and we approached from the right. The people who had been beating up the children first started running away, probably thinking that a large OMON contingent was about to back us up. Part of the crowd was huddled in Okhotny Ryad and the rest around Zhukov’s statue. 

“We are all ethnic Russians ourselves, but what difference does that make? They were just children. Their bodies were simply not up to it physically.” 

The boys' faces were covered in blood. One was lying unconscious on the ground. We took him by the arms and seeing an ambulance parked near Manezh, we decided to drag him there, so we could put him in the car and have him taken to hospital. 

We had not brought our guns. We had just gone on the beat and never expected things to take such a turn. And to go out on the beat with a shield, in a helmet, with a truncheon and a Jetta is to provoke people. Even if we had had guns we would most probably not have used them. The crowd was huge and innocent people could have been hurt. 

We lifted the unconscious boy by the arms. We ran to the ambulance with his friends. When we reached the ambulance we found it locked. Perhaps the crew had been called to give first aid elsewhere. Most of the cars were parked near Zhukov's statue. And only one was near Manezh.  The crowd came after us. There was nowhere else to run: the crowd was pushing from behind, pelting us with bottles and rubbish – basically, with anything they could lay their hands on, or find on the ground.

We did not have time to get frightened. It only got scary later, when the crowd went mad and started grabbing at us and shouting: “Who do you think you are protecting? Hand them over!” 

How could we have done such a thing? They were only kids, boys. If we had let the crowd have them, they would have just torn them to pieces. 

We told the boys to stand next to the ambulance, by the main door. We were positioned a little bit in front, trying to shield them, to stop them from being dragged away and finished off, killed. But the crowd kept pushing at us, kept growing and growing, blows rained down on us from all sides and the four of us found it quite hard to cope. We shouted to the kids to crawl under the car. By then the one who had been unconscious had come to, and they were all on their feet. And that's how we stood our ground until reinforcements arrived. We don't know how long it took. The boys were frightened. They were holding on to us. They were trying to hide. They begged us: “Don't hand us over to them, don't leave us here!” They did not cry but we have never in our lives seen such terrified people.  

People we still trying to strike them, to hit them over our heads. The crowd was getting ever closer, pushing: at first we were surrounded by ten people, then there were dozens of them, it seemed. And they were all pushing and shoving. 

The boys were frightened. They were holding on to us. They were trying to hide. They begged us: “Don't hand us over to them, don't leave us here!”

There were not that many real football fans in this crowd – it was rather nationalists doing everything they could to provoke clashes.  Just because someone is wearing a scarf or a hat with some insignia it does not mean he's a fan. He may never have even been to a match. There were also some people whose faces were masked, so we could have no idea who they were. 

You can understand why people felt the need to protest is understandable. The crime that provoked the unrest — the killing of Yegor Sviridov — needs to be properly punished. His killer must not be able to use his connections to get away. We sympathize with their loss. But all sorts of things happened in the square, and mob rule is no solution. Whatever you say about it, this really has nothing to do with children. 

When reinforcements arrived, the ambulance was still locked. There were no doctors around. They were busy elsewhere and apparently had left the car there. The unit commander took boys to an OMON bus and we continued in a “chain”, driving the crowd back. 

It was at that moment that the crowd began to riot and to dismantle the Christmas tree. First they tore off the decorations, then they started taking the fixtures apart and throwing them at us. They were also throwing flares – one of our comrades got burned in the face, and one of our group of four, Maksim Pilipkov, was hurt, his arm got bruised.   

The boys' parents came to say thank you to us. They said the boys are better now, that they are making a recovery. Still, this is not something they will easily forget: being beaten up for nothing, attacked by a crowd just for the way they looked. And of course, not only them, but their parents are also frightened. They told us they are scared to let their children out of the house. These are all big families with several children and the streets are not yet calm. People have become aggressive, there are clashes everywhere. Just try putting yourselves in these boys' shoes and you'll understand right away. 

The crowd in the square was at first just an ordinary crowd of young people. It was only later you saw masked people started shouting slogans, shooting flare pistols and unleashing a great deal of aggression. When the four of us were standing by the ambulance, we did shout out: “what the hell are you doing?”. They did not seem to hear us.

To be honest, we felt no desire to hit out at the crowd. Those who were pushing us at the front, fans or no fans, they were generally just young people, minors. They were teenagers, and many were visibly under the influence of alcohol.  Should we have hit the older ones? Making them even more aggressive? Our job was to defend those who had been beaten, and to hold our ground somehow. Decisions as to the general tactics to be used, on using guns and deploying reinforcements are taken by our superiors. Very little depends on us personally: when we're standing in a chain, our superiors take all the decisions. 

We would also like to be able to walk the streets without fear. When we get into our civvies to go home the same thing could easily happen to us, just like that, right there on the metro.”

The four officers were: 

Maksim Maksimov aged 25, from Kirov, staff sergeant, 4 years' service in OMON

Maksim Pilipkov, aged 26, from Moscow, staff sergeant, 4 years in OMON

Aleksandr Chernyshov aged 24, from Tver', sergeant, 3 years in OMON

Aleksandr Vdovenko aged 25, from Voronezh Region, rank and file member, 3 years in OMON.

 

Thanks to Bolshoy Gorod where this article first appeared

This article was amended on Wednesday 12 January


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