Julia Reed in Moscow
May 16, 2012
It’s Moscow’s answer to Wall Street’s Zuccotti park: Muscovites are camping out at Chisti Prudy park in what they are calling "Occupy Abai", the latest stage in the standoff between the Kremlin and the nascent protest movement.
There are no drum circles, but life in the small park is noisy at times and some inhabitants are a bit smelly, especially in the mornings. With free food, blankets and warm clothes, free publicity, and a welcoming attitude, the venue has also attracted some homeless who also congregate around the camp wearing the white ribbons that symbolise the opposition movement.
The camp appeared on the evening of May 7, the day of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration and the day after the so-called "Million’s March", a civil protest which turned into violent clashes with the police.
Like the "Occupy Wall Street" protestors in Zuccotti park, the protestors at Chisti Prudy have set up a small, leaderless, self-governing community. Some of them have not left the site since the first day; others drop in for a chat, take part in the campers’ assembly, bring food and go home at night.
The camp was named after the statue of famous Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbaev that stands at the head of the park and is the focal point of the community. Around a thousand people congregate daily at the statue, bringing notes and flowers, and the monument has become another symbol of the rebellion. The camp would resemble a students’ cooperative on a university campus if it weren’t for the 24-hour police presence.
People come here to listen to lectures about the history of global civil protest, to pick up a free brochure about what to do when faced with the police, to read an opposition paper or to watch a free play; to listen to political satire or to sing along to the guitar in the company of people they have never met before. There is an eclectic mix of people: nationalists with anarchists and Marxists, gay and lesbian activists with animal rights and environmental protesters. The average age is about 20-30.
Vera, 37, is a paediatrician and a gay and lesbian activist. She has a husband of 20 years and a female partner of 17 years. She wants equal rights for gays and lesbians. Sasha, 23, a student of economics, and Aslan, 25, a student of history, are young Marxists. They belong to the left movement and take part in all opposition activities. Seva, 18, is a member of the Russian Solidarity movement. He became politically active in December 2012, following the Duma elections. Elena, 31, owns a small HR company, but describes herself as just “an angry citizen”. She is unhappy with the elections, the inability of the government to act in crisis, and the inadequate state healthcare system.
There is a strict code of conduct enforced by the nationalists who act as self-appointed guards and patrol the crowd: alcohol has been banned (even beer, which most Russians regard as a soft drink) and the residents are not allowed to making noise after 11:00 pm. There are even recycling boxes for cans and plastic, and vegetarian food stands. And there are boxes for donations. Just on May 13 alone, the camp collected RUB470,000 ($15,666) in cash and money transfers for its food needs.
One camper relates how he got his new warm fleece. A businessman stopped by the camp and asked its members about their needs. They wrote down a list: blankets, warm clothes, and sleeping bags. The price came to RUB70,000 ($2,333). "Is that all?" the man was surprised. He came back two hours later with everything that was requested. “Food donations are welcome, but please, no sweet things,” says a note on the desk of the information centre.
The Russian government has used both real and fake residents of the area to attempt to oust the campers. A pensioner claiming to be a local resident appeared on TV at the weekend demanding the occupiers leave, but was quickly exposed as a stooge for the ruling United Russia party from an entirely different part of the city, setting the blogosphere alight with condemnation and sarcastic comments.
But there is a tension running through the camp as the local court is due to consider a complaint by 50 local residents about the smell and noise of the camp. Everyday, the occupiers talk about possible eviction and where to go when it happens.
The debate is carried on at the feet of the Kazakh poet. Speakers shout their opinions to a crowd of over 500 listeners. As there is a ban on loudspeakers, with smiles and giggles, every sentence is repeated by the members of the crowd as if in a giant game of Chinese Whispers, so that the audience at the back can hear. A vote is taken. The decision has been made not to announce the new venue so as not to warn the police. The atmosphere is that of a party. People just walk up and talk to each other. Every one has one common line: “Do you live on the camp? How often do you come here?”
What seems peculiar is that the members of the camp act as if they are there to stay. Despite frequent rain and uncomfortable living conditions, the campers clearly enjoy the experience of a fair, self-governing community where all have responsibilities and a voice.
I went to Abai in search of the leaders of the opposition and I found none. Nobody could even name a leader who inspires him or her and who they actually follow. So the 15-day arrest of prominent opposition figures Navalny and Udaltsov on May 9 for "violating legal requests of the police" have made little difference to the passion of the protest movement.
In the world of internet accounts, Russia follows the global trend. The discontent does not need a leader because it can feed off itself. The usual figures of the opposition, like Ilya Yashin or Kseniya Sobchak, appear at camp like ordinary members taking part in daily chores. But they are merely media figures and attract little real interest from the residents of the camp.
These politically diverse people have found unity in their protest, but there are no unified goals. Everyone wants fair elections and freedom of speech, but there is no agreement on how to get them or extend the governing principals of the camp into the greater Russia.
It won’t be long before the police will evict the Occupy Abai protestors on some pretext. Yet this smallish rebellion is a social revolution. It is a lesson for the new Russian civil society on how it can act together. Street protests have been off limits to Russians since 1993. Passive until recently, a growing number of people no longer expect the government to solve their problems. There is a growing interest in social initiatives organised, supported and conducted by the ordinary people. It is a revolution of nobodies.
As bne went to press the local courts ruled to evict the protestors
for "littering and destroying the greenery in the area" that has caused $650,000 worth of damage, the court said. The protestors are packing up and getting ready to move to a new location.