About a dozen opposition demonstrators were detained in Moscow today. The participants in an anti-government protest near Red Square this afternoon were bundled into police buses without being informed of the reason for their arrest.
After the city permitted three gigantic rallies protesting Vladimir Putin’s iron grip on Russian political life, protesters are looking for new ways to keep up the momentum before the March 4 presidential election – even if that means pushing the boundaries of the authorities’ restrictive understanding of the freedom of assembly.
Today activists from a new group called Soprotivleniye (Resistance) organized a protest involving a chain of so-called “solitary pickets,” one-person protests that don’t qualify as rallies and don’t require a permit from the authorities. A couple dozen protesters stood at 30-meter intervals between Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB secret police, and the Kremlin. The demonstration along the one-kilometer stretch was intended to highlight Putin’s path to power from KGB agent and FSB chief to president and “national leader” of Russia.
Ten minutes before the start of the demonstration, at 2:50 p.m., I got out of the metro at Revolution Square, halfway between Lubyanka and the Kremlin. Although there is always a heavy police presence around Red Square, I felt it was even more noticeable today. A policeman in a black riot helmet was buying a hotdog at the Star Dogs stand. A couple of cops in their gray-blue faux fur caps ambled by. I counted more than a dozen police buses and trucks parked below the Moskva Hotel.
It’s just a short walk from here to Lubyanka Square, which is dominated by the severe, orange building that has been home to Russia’s secret police for almost a century. Oddly, it faces the equally gargantuan Soviet-era Detsky Mir (Children’s World) toy store. As Detsky Mir is under renovation, the facade is covered by an enormous tarp with photographs of children on it.
A long, dark underpass under Lubyanka Square leads to the FSB building. I looked at my watch, it was 3:00. Would there be some kind of coordinated action? I’d gone through this underpass dozens of times when I lived in Moscow, but for the first time I felt tension. A security guard in a fluorescent yellow vest lurked near one of the staircases.
When I emerged from the exit next to the FSB headquarters, a smiling young man in a black jacket was standing at the top of the stairs holding a sign reading: “Second Citizenship: I’ll help you become a citizen of an honest Russia.” A moment later, a traffic cop was already approaching him.
I walked along the front of the building, past the plaque honoring KGB chief and later Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Andropov was one of the early backers of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose failed reforms of the decrepit communist system led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
At the far corner of the building stood a woman bundled up in a red down coat. Her sign read: “Don’t let yourself be fooled. Become an elections observer.” She asked me if I was an activist from Soprotivleniye. I had to disappoint her.
I retraced my steps. Evidently the traffic cop had convinced the demonstrator at the underpass to leave. Sirens sounded. Two police buses parked near the Polytechnical Museum roared across Lubyanka Square. I’d be seeing them soon enough again.
On the other side of the square, I could still see the woman in the red coat holding her position. More sirens. This time an official black limousine whizzed by with a police escort. If there’s one thing that enrages Moscow motorists even more than the city’s legendary gridlock, it’s bureaucrats with flashing blue lights who are exempt from all traffic rules.
A young man accompanied by a middle-aged policeman walked past me. He was smiling broadly and had a sign around his neck that read: “Conscience, heart, soul… Truth will defeat lies.” Behind him, on the steps to a shopping center stood another young man holding a sign with just four words: “Enough lying and stealing.” A sushi bar I used to frequent with my friends was just around the corner.
I walked up Nikolskaya, an old street that leads directly to Red Square and the Kremlin. On my first visit to Moscow in 1991, I took Russian language classes at the Historical Archives Institute. Today a young woman was standing in front of the institute’s ancient walls with a sign that said: “Development or deterioration? The choice is yours on March 4, 2012.” She had a piece of tape over her mouth with the words written on it: “My voice was stolen.” (In Russian, voice and vote are the same word, golos.)
Traffic was backed up on Nikolskaya. There were several stubby police buses blocking the road. Cops were everywhere. Spotting demonstrators was a bit like looking for Easter eggs.
I heard shouting. There was Maria Baronova, a spokeswomen for the protest movement, holding up a placard while being escorted to one of the buses by a couple of policemen. Her sign said: “This isn’t Athens or Maidan.” Moscow’s middle-class protesters aren’t demonstrating for a social welfare state, as the Greeks are, and disavow any connection to Ukraine’s people-power revolution that played out on Kiev’s Maidan Square in 2004.
“Masha, did the policemen say on what grounds you’re being arrested?” shouted a young man in a black down jacket and black-framed glasses. He was Nikolai Bilyayev, one of the protest organizers.
“Did they identify themselves?”
And with that, Baronova was led into the bus. Before I knew it, Bilyayev had produced a sign of his own and was already getting instructions from a policeman to join Baronova. His sign read: “Fortresses won’t save those who fear the people.”
Bilyayev was escorted to a bus. There were a couple of photographers and a German television crew but otherwise no press. Passing tourists and families squeezed by the commotion.
I continued on toward the Kremlin. There was one more woman, with long fiery hair, who had taken a sign out of a bag. It said: “Your presence in the Kremlin has to be approved by the people.” Even as the German TV journalist interviewed her, the woman was led to one of the buses.
Within 20 minutes, the demonstration was over. I walked the last few meters to Red Square. Everything was normal, except for the inordinate number of cops. A lady in a café drew on a long cigarette and stared absently out the window at the GUM department store.
I turned around and walked back up Nikolskaya to Lubyanka Square. I couldn’t see any demonstrators there either. So I started heading back to the metro station at Revolution Square.
At the Metropol Hotel, just across from the Bolshoi Theater, stood a pretty blond woman in a huge fur cap. She was wearing a sign around her neck that said: “I am standing here and not breaking the law. I’m not paid by the State Department. I just want another president!”
She was Nadezhda Ushakova, 26, a stewardess originally from the Urals town of Izhevsk. It appeared the police had left her alone because her “solitary picket” was nowhere close to anybody else’s and couldn’t be construed as being part of some larger demonstration.
Ushakova said that many passersby had spoken words of support to her. Before the December 4 parliamentary elections, Ushakova said she had been active in helping animal shelters and orphanages. After the elections, which were marred by reports of vote-rigging that set off the protest movement, her activism became political. If Putin wins a six-year term in the March elections, he will prevent a new generation of leaders from coming to power, Ushakova said.
It was cold, and snowflakes swirled around us. A squat man dressed in black was taking photos of Ushakova on his cell phone. Two other toughs were loitering around across the street. I told Ushakova that it was already 3:50; the demonstration was over. She was shivering.
A line of cops approached us from Revolution Square. “Let’s get out of here!” Ushakova finally said, removing the sign from her neck. We descended into the nearby underpass. As she bought cigarettes at a kiosk, about 30 riot policemen trotted past. Her curiosity was piqued – as was mine – so we followed the cops to the other side of the street and back up toward Lubyanka. What was going on?
Back on Lubyanka Square, we bumped into a man in a black beret and spectacles who was also wearing a sign around his neck: “Without lies, without violence, without hate.” More riot policemen trooped past us, then turned around and broke ranks. Apparently a false alarm.
I looked across Lubyanka Square. A statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, had stood in the center of the square before demonstrators tore it down in 1991. Two stray dogs were sitting on the snowy island as the Moscow traffic roared by.
I turned on the radio when I got home. The independent Ekho Moskvy station was reporting that 50 people had been arrested in the center of Moscow after police prevented a mass brawl between Russian nationalists and migrants from the North Caucasus region. Shortly before the Soprotivleniye demonstration, a couple hundred nationalists had rallied to demand justice in the death of Ivan Agafonov. An ethnic Russian, Agafonov, 19, died after being punched outside a nightclub last summer by Rasul Mirzayev, a martial arts champion from the Muslim province of Dagestan.
Meanwhile, news was coming in about demonstrations around the country in support of the government. Pro-Putin rallies had been held in Vladivostok, Irkutsk, St. Petersburg, Smolensk and other cities.
As for the protest I had witnessed, the police were denying that any arrests had been made. At 9:30 I talked to Baronova. She and all the rest of the detained activists had been released. A court hearing is scheduled for March 1.