Julia Reed in Moscow
June 15, 2012
On June 12, the "Day of Russia", I walked the boulevards of Moscow in the company of unknown people. This was the 7th anti-government protest I've attended since December 2011.
On my way to the rally, the metro was suspiciously empty. It seemed as if everyone went to the datcha for the long holiday weekend. On the station leading to the entrance to the rally, there were just hordes of police in white holiday uniforms. There were more police at the stations than there were protesters. Going through the metal detector was an easy and smooth procedure. The police didn’t mind me bringing in water for which I was grateful.
I walked through Strastnoi Boulevard quickly. It had just been raining and the sun started heating oppressively. People were moving about freely as if it were a picnic. Some were sitting on benches, others wondering around picking up leaflets about different (mostly unknown) political parties. I noticed a greater number of older people than I recall from previous rallies, all with white ribbons, a lot of whom were couples. Everyone seemed to be engaged in their own discussion.
At the beginning of Petrovksi Boulevard, I suddenly ran into the back of a huge crowd. I couldn’t tell how many people were there, but every inch of space was taken. The crowd was moving very slowly, starting and stopping all the time. We were standing in the heat, but nobody was complaining or pushing ahead. People occupied any piece of tarmac they could put their feet on and, surprisingly, virtually nobody stepped on the grass. I was wondering if this was due to the new high fines for damage to property (up to $10,000) at public gatherings that have just been approved by President Vladimir Putin or it had more to do with the type of people who come to such protests.
The crowd waited patiently for their turn to walk, yet at times such close proximity to so many people in the heat felt claustrophobic. I admired the courage of those in the crowd least able to walk: a man on a wheelchair, families with prams and carrying very small children on their shoulders, old people with walking sticks, and a person with dwarfism who could barely see anything. Should anyone faint from standing in the heat with so little air, being tightly squeezed between two sides of a narrow boulevard, there would have been no space to fall. Yet the mood of the crowd was far from aggressive. It was cheery, as if they had come to a Queen’s Jubilee party. People smiled, made way for each other to pass, joked and made spontaneous comments. They acknowledged each other with a nod as if to show that by being there they already shared similar values.
Fewer than before carried slogans, most of which were self-made. "Russia without Putin", "Russia will be free" and "New elections" were the most common slogans. A couple of slogans looked so worn out they could have been carried to rallies for a while. Those who didn’t make their slogans, just brought in copies of popular magazines that commonly carry stories on the life of the protest movement such as The New Times and Bolshoi Gorod and held them up.
It is always a surprise to see just how many different parties there are on the Russian political scene, which survive with little or no mention from the mass media. The crowd flared up with flags from nationalists of all types (from monarchists to neo-Nazis), leftists and Marxists, social democrats, gay and lesbian, green parties to more recognisable parties such as Yabloko, Parnas, Solidarnost and Soyuz Pravikh Sil. There was a group of young men wearing t-shirts with portraits of Stalin. The nationalists had a very noisy presence with loud chanting and a lot of flags. Their arrival was whistled at by the crowd shouting: "Shame!" and "No to fascism!" The unusually tanned faces of the nationalists suggested that they spend a lot of time outdoors at similar gatherings. They ignored the whistles and stayed together in their tight group. Interestingly, the other parties also did not interact much with each other either.
The majority of people in the demonstration were not civil activists nor affiliated with any party. They were just individuals, students, intelligentsia, office workers outraged with changes made to the Constitution to extend the presidential term to six years, unhappy with fraud at the Duma and presidential elections, angry with soaring communal tariffs, discontent with education reform, appalled by the lawlessness of judges, brutality of the police, corruption, unequal rights and discrimination on all levels.
Million man march
Having reached a high point on one of the boulevards on the way to Sakharov square, an older woman turned around to look at the crowd behind her and almost jumped with joy: "Yes, we won! There are so many of us!" And this is what everyone felt: there are lots of us.
The crowd clapped and chanted slogans. The direction of the protest shifted from a call for fair elections to more direct and angry anti-Putin and anti-Duma rhetoric. The slogans stayed political and did not become economic, since all that unites these dramatically different parties is the dislike of the current regime and a call for change.
At the entrance to Sakharov Square, I found a tight spot on the edge of the road for a brief rest. Behind me stood a young news reporter in the middle of his broadcast. "Live coverage from the so-called 'Million's March', the police reports that the rally gathered 18,000 people…" As she heard these words, a young woman in the crowd jumped as if bitten by a wasp and shouted: "You lie! You all lie!". Everyone around frowned sceptically. It was such an obvious lie, hardly deserving comment, except for maybe a moralistic one: "You are so young, why do you start your life with lies?" I turned around to see the name of the TV network. I examined the crew and the equipment and the t-shirts of the cameramen. Nothing revealed the name, and this was telling in itself. They are obviously so afraid of the public outrage, like the March protest outside the NTV headquarters, that they prefer not to show their company logo. A newly developed software for measuring numbers at gatherings developed by Anatolii Katz indicated that 54,000 came to the rally.
The political outcome was a survey given to each protester with a list of questions they think are important to be asked at the proposed Moscow city referendum. 20,000 returned the forms, and the initiator, the League of Voters, will continue the survey through the internet. The proposed questions include whether there should be re-elections for the Moscow City Duma and the Moscow mayor. The resolution of the rally was a call for early presidential and Duma elections, political reform and freedom to all political prisoners. In addition to rallies, the organizers called for other means of pressuring the authorities such as general strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Yet nobody knows how to achieve changes through peaceful means in the atmosphere of general attack on all civic freedoms.
The day before the rally, the homes of the most prominent opposition members were raided by police. Following confiscation of their money and all electronic devices, Alexey Navalny, Solidarity Leader Ilya Yashin, Left Front Coordinator Sergey Udaltsov, Boris Nemtsov and TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak were summoned to the investigation committee as witnesses in the criminal case on the May 6 violent riots with the police. The opposition sees the searches as an act of repression aimed at intimidation and creating obstacles to their further fighting the regime. Given that most of leaders couldn't attend the rally because of their summons', they're probably right.