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Moscow protests: Groundhog Day in Triumfalnaya Square

Tanya Lokshina, Russia researcher for Human Rights Watch, attended a recent demonstration in her professional capacity and was detained by the police three times in thirty minutes. She gives a graphic description of the evening’s events.

It has recently become a tradition in Moscow that on the 31st of every month with 31 days the opposition organizes a protest to support the right to peaceful assembly. This is to give the opposition, and anyone else, the opportunity to express freely their civic protest on any subject. And not just in the outskirts of the city, where the protest will go unnoticed, but in its very centre. The 31st is an understandable choice, as freedom of assembly is enshrined in article No. 31 of the Russian Constitution. Initially the protests were organised by “Other Russia” (also known as “Another Russia”), a political opposition group well known for its protest marches, and some individual human rights activists joined in. As with all “Other Russia” events, there was no possibility of getting the authorities to agree to let them hold their event. Somehow, it always just so happened that in that very place and at that very moment people were giving blood or there was a public festival, or something else. All pure coincidence, surely…

Militia at Moscow demo Jan. 31.01

At every Moscow democratic meeting police outnumber demonstrators

The opposition protestors come to the square and the police, who considerably outnumber them, disperse the crowd and detain them. It’s turned into a routine. But on 31December last year, when the opposition had once more failed to obtain permission from the authorities, the decision was taken to hold not a protest, but a New Year carnival – in defence of the freedom of assembly. Lyudmila Alexeeva, who quite justifiably calls herself the grandmother of the Russian human rights movement, also took part in the carnival, dressed as the Snow Maiden. But neither her costume nor her advanced age could save her from the watchful law enforcement officers –they virtually knocked over the 82-year-old snow maiden with a walking stick and shoved her on to a bus along with other detainees. This New Year party turned out to be a great success.

As the drama was unfolding, I was expecting guests and frantically trying to prepare a spread for 12 people. When the first reports appeared of the Snow Maiden’s adventures in Triumfalnaya – formerly Mayakovskaya – Square, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at such an absurd conclusion to a year that had been revolting to the point of absurdity. And then, just before midnight and the chime of bells from the Kremlin, I was standing in the kitchen with my mobile phone to my ear, mixing something in a bowl or the frying pan with one hand, while the other hand typed the tales of Alexeeva and a dozen witnesses on my computer. The guests didn’t even protest – they too were dazed by the turn of events.

One way or another the incident was so astounding that at the beginning of January the New York Times published an article about it on the front page, with a photograph of the main actress in this theatre of the absurd in her carnival costume. Soon the opposition applied for permission for another protest – quite predictably, on 31 January. Once more permission was denied, because somehow it happened that on this evening, some mysterious “winter entertainment” had been planned in Triumfalnaya Square by the city authorities. Then, several leading Russian human rights organizations decided to support the protestors officially and to join them: they were completely fed up with the situation.  I thought I should be present personally at this event, so that Human Rights Watch could cover it at first hand.

Well, I’m not going to launch into an abstract discussion about freedom of assembly and why it is important. This is a very personal story:  I went to the protest on 31January 2010 and, just in case the police tried to detain me, I took my press ID, and the respectable red card of a member of the Russian Federation Human Rights Ombudsman’s advisory council. I was going there in a professional capacity, i.e. not to defend the freedom of assembly, but rather to see how others defend it, and write about how they are prevented from doing so. In this situation, the last thing I needed was to end up at a police station before the ball was over.

The evening of 31January was cold, very cold indeed. I put on a winter jacket over my sweater, and cursing my difficult lot, I went to Triumfalnaya, reaching the spot 10 minutes or so before the banned demonstration was supposed to begin. The “winter entertainment” was in full swing: the square was surrounded by iron fencing and there was a line of policemen around the perimeter. There were over two dozen buses and trucks with police in them, and hundreds of officers were already forming lines. It was impossible to get into the square. A policeman was shouting into a microphone that the meeting was banned, and that the “citizens” should “disperse”. I stood with an impressive crowd of journalists, and the few protestors who had arrived beforehand, next to the police bus with my back to Tverskaya, waiting for events to unfold. They soon did.

People who had come to the demonstration were being blocked on the approaches to the square, so dense human traffic jams were beginning to form. Many protestors had badges saying “31st Article of the Constitution of the Russian Federation,” tricoloured like the Russian flag.  When they realised that the police wouldn’t let them through, the protestors began to chant, with growing enthusiasm, slogans about the supremacy of freedom and respect for the constitution.  Some cheerfully shouted “Russia without Putin!” Others, “Shame! Shame!” Yet others raised posters, and the police went on the attack. There were probably a few hundred protestors, but even more policemen. Initially they grabbed young people holding posters and shouting slogans and dragged them into special buses parked in the centre of the square, inside the blocked-off area. Then, getting into the spirit of things, they started going after whomever they could. I knew from a reliable source that this time the police had been given an order not to touch journalists and wasn’t concerned about any possible infringement of my own freedom or physical security– I was simply trying to protect my camera from being smashed in the crush.

Fifteen minutes later the lines of police began to divide the crowd into groups, leaving a small space between them. I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath and a few steps forward in the hope of finding some higher point where I could take photographs. But suddenly, from behind the metal fences from the side of the square, two young policemen appeared. Grabbing my arms, they said: “Come with us!” – “Where to?” I asked with genuine surprise. “Why are you detaining me? I don’t have any posters, I’m behaving quietly and I’m not even part of the protest. I’m from the press. I can show you my press card…” But they were already marching me past the iron fences to the buses in the centre of the square. To my cries of indignation my “gallant escorts” only mumbled, “We’ll see about that”, so it seemed pointless to put up any resistance.

The bus that I was pushed into a minute later was equipped with a large cage behind an iron grill. There were about fifteen young people in it, who looked as though they were a bunch of National Bolsheviks (a group led by Eduard Limonov, which is very active in the informal political opposition).  Some twitchy police officers made me stand by the grill on the outside of the cage and demanded to see my documents. I showed them my press card rather than my passport and began explaining about the right of the press to cover the freedom of assembly, or rather the lack of it. I also showed them the human rights commissioner’s card and explained that, as a member of his council, I would request his personal intervention if I was detained. The officers looked upset at this, and began turning my press card over in their hands.  They exchanged glances and finally gave me back the card.  I had just started to hope…

…when suddenly there was a hysterical shout from the street and the policemen who had just brought me to the bus started pushing in a dishevelled young girl, who was putting up a desperate resistance, sobbing and screaming for them to take their “dirty paws” off her. The putative National Bolsheviks in the holding cage immediately livened up and, stamping their boots on the floor, shouted “fascists”… and various colourful expletives. The officers in the bus pushed me into the corner.  They opened the door of the cage and began to manhandle the resisting girl into it. She spread out her arms so she hung in the doorway, and the energetic “detainees” from inside tried to push her back out again. The iron door valve hit the wall right next to my head and I squeezed into the corner.

Arresting people at Moscow meetings, Jan 31, 2010

A young policeman, offended at being called a fascist and other unpleasant words, began swearing furiously and pushed the girl, who flew into the cage like a cork into a bottle. A tiny woman in police uniform wearing a helmet pushed forward on to her forehead had jumped into the corner with me.  She murmured sadly: “This is what our job’s like…” I nodded, not without sympathy. During the struggle, somehow the bolt on the door to the cage had been bent, so the door could no longer be locked properly. The officers could only keep it shut with their backs. The “detainees” charged the door… I took this opportunity to shout over the deafening noise that they had already looked at my press card, and there was nowhere to hold me anyway, given that the lock was broken. One of the senior officers, shuddering from the blows to the door behind his back, shouted: “You got your card back? Then get out of here, quickly!” I squeezed my way to the door, jumped down on to the ground, and took a few steps…

“Hey, young lady?” I turned round. A young, round-faced police lieutenant approached me, with a dazzling smile. “Young lady! Well, so they let you go? That’s great. I saw you being brought here and I thought they’d probably got the wrong person. You’re a journalist, aren’t you? But the main thing is that they let you go. I can escort you to the fence, just in case…” I shrugged, and we walked across the square. The guy didn’t draw breath.  “You know something, I’ll tell you personally, just between you and me. I’m so sick of all this! Standing here, wasting time, detaining people… Why detain them? There’s so much crime going on everywhere! Me and the other guys, we all listen to the news about people being evicted from their homes in Rechnik, right here in Moscow, and it makes our hair stand on end! It’s completely out of control! I’m on your side, we’re on your side, honestly, well, not on your side exactly, you’re from the press, but generally, on the side of people, with the people… And what do we have to do? We’re forced to throw people into these buses! There’s so much crime in the city and we’re taken away from our posts – we have to drop everything and go to break up demonstrations. We’re so fed up…”

We had reached the iron fences some time ago. I lit a cigarette, and leant against them. The guy was gesticulating animatedly, talking quickly and cursing his superiors. I wanted to say something comforting to him.  I was about to open my mouth, when suddenly from the left another two policemen ran up to me with the cry, “You just come with us” and grabbed my arms. The talkative policeman’s jaw dropped in amazement.  I was also at a loss for words for a second, but soon recovered: “What are you doing? I’ve just been released by your colleagues. They checked my press card! I was talking to one of your colleagues! Where are you taking me? Have you lost your minds?” The lieutenant chimed in hurriedly: “Really, guys, what are you doing? She’s just been released, she’s a journalist, her documents are in order, and I’ve just escorted her to the fence…” But the officers were already dragging me to another bus with the words “We’ll see about that”. My feet barely touched the pavement. I looked back, and saw the lieutenant throwing up his hands in disbelief…

The second bus didn’t have a cage, and the “arrested” people in it were older and calmer than in the first one. Seeing someone in authority, I started shouting that repeated arbitrary detention within the space of 15 minutes was a complete cock-up, a lack of professionalism and preventing the press from doing its job. I took out my long-suffering press card, shook it in front of the officer and mentioned the recent photo correspondent scandal.  This was a journalist who was detained by the police and, in the ensuing flood of grotesque events, even sentenced for taking part in an unsanctioned protest, though his “participation” consisted of filming this protest for RIA-Novosti, which was eloquently proved by his photographs that were distributed by this extremely respectable news agency. I threatened that if they took me to the station, there would be even more problems… The officers thought this over and finally let me go. I leapt down the stairs of the bus once more and hurried to the fences.

Ludmila Alexeeva at Moscow demo, Jan. 31, 2010

Ludmila Alexeeva is the icon of the Russian human rights movement

In the middle of the square I saw Lyudmila Alexeeva in a warm headscarf. The police had dragged her out of the crowd and brought her into the cordoned-off zone, evidently afraid that the elderly lady might be accidentally injured in the crowd, which would certainly mean a huge scandal. She was shouting something into her mobile phone, trying to secure someone’s release… I received a call on my mobile from Oleg Orlov of Memorial.  He said he was in bus 398, which would soon be leaving for a police station… I explained that I had already been detained twice, but that I had been released when I showed my press card, and asked him if he needed anything. Orlov laughed and assured me that he didn’t.

I finally got past the fences and was trying to find someone from Memorial to exchange information, when a harassed-looking young woman suddenly rushed up to me and said that she was a correspondent from Sobesednik newspaper and that we had met before.  She said she had seen me being detained and was glad I’d been released, but her photographer had been detained, and could I help to get him released as well… I thought this over for a while and, seeing the talkative lieutenant I had met not far from the fence, I waved at him. He smiled and came over to the fence: “You got out again, young lady! Thank God for that!” I explained that a photographer had been detained “by accident”, pointed to the correspondent and asked him to call on a senior officer. He was glad to help. The correspondent began to explain the situation, and I stood nearby, in case more powerful arguments were required.

After this, everything went according to the established scenario. Two men in police uniform ran up to the fence, moved the barrier, took hold me under the arms and dragged me back to the square. I felt like the main character in “Groundhog Day” and chortled out loud. Especially as in my case – unlike the long-suffering hero in the film – I didn’t have to live through an entire tedious day again, but only 10 minutes.

In the third bus there was a grumpy man in civilian dress, ordering the police around. While I told him that “detaining someone three times is against the regulations”, especially three times in half an hour, he looked at my press card, studied it for a long time from all sides, and finally asked to see my “work travel authorisation”. I laughed even louder: “Why does a Muscovite need a travel authorisation? Was my office supposed to send me on a business trip to Triumfalnaya square?”  Then the man in civilian clothing asked to see my “permission to film”. I said that I hadn’t done any filming. “My superiors will sort you out,” he grunted crossly and took me, escorted by two policemen who were white with cold, to the centre of the square. There, not far from the “grandmother of the human rights movement” who was still talking on the telephone, I saw a tall colonel in a sheepskin hat and serious-looking glasses.

Press at the Moscow demo, Jan. 31.01

A press card was no guarantee of immunity from arrest

“Here, colonel! She has a journalist card, but no authorisation.” “Press?” the colonel asked. “Yes, press and this is the third time I’ve been detained in half an hour. Don’t you think that’s going a bit far?”   “If she’s a journalist with identification, then she is free to go. Off you go, doll, and do your job!”   The colonel slapped me on the shoulder in a patronizing way and at that my professional patience finally snapped.  “Why are you being so familiar with me? Are we on such friendly terms?” – “What did you say? Go on, off you go!” I really did have to do some work and, refraining from saying what was on the tip of my tongue, that the number of stars on one’s uniform was no justification for the absence of good manners, but rather the contrary, I once more set off for the exit from the square.

For the next quarter of an hour I stood on the corner, not far from the metro, and watched the police marshalling the remaining demonstrators in that direction.  From time to time they dragged someone out of the crowd and took them to the buses, which were still standing there. Young guys tried to resist, and they were carried away. Older people walked calmly, and many smiled at the cameras… My arms and legs were turning to ice and I was longing to get into somewhere warm. Someone tapped my shoulder: “Pardon me, but what’s going on here? I’ve just come out of the Tchaikovsky concert hall and landed up in this crowd. There are so many policemen. Why are they handling that young man away so roughly?” I looked around to see an elderly man in a black coat; his face and manners clearly marked him as a member of the proverbial Russian intelligentsia. I briefly explained the conflict surrounding the regime, the opposition and freedom of assembly. He nodded appreciatively and stood for another five minutes in silence observing the last people being detained: “What a mess… It’s disgusting to watch. You know, if things continue like this, something very bad will happen in this country…” He shrugged and disappeared into the dispersing crowd.

Police arrest Moscow meeting participants, Jan. 31.01

Post Scriptum

I comfort myself with the hope that this article will be noticed by the compilers of the Guinness World Records, and that they will include me in their annals. Pride is a sin, of course, but I personally have never heard of anybody being detained three times in the course of half an hour… Although who knows?  I’m quite possibly not the only person who experienced Groundhog Day – or rather Evening – at Triumfalnaya square on 31January. Over 100 people were detained in total. They include important figures from the human rights movement like Oleg Orlov, Yura Dzhibladze and Lev Ponomarev. And many people who no one knows at all, including at least one person who had absolutely nothing to do with the protest, didn’t even know about it and was simply on his way home from work. He was walking towards Mayakovskaya metro station, when suddenly people in uniform appeared, grabbed him by the arms and pushed him into a bus, took him to the station and drew up a report on his participation in a prohibited demonstration, holding posters and chanting slogans. In order to be detained these days, you don’t even have to go out deliberately into the square.

About the author

Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch.

Read On

Russian Dissident’s Passion Endures Despite Tests, by Ellen Barry, New York Times, Jan. 11, 2010

The Other Russia – opposition group website

Solidarnost’ – democratic movement’s website (in Russian)

Moscow Helsinki Group, website

Forever Putin?, by Amy Knight,  New York Review of Books, Volume 57, Number 2 · February 11, 2010


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