Today 213 people were detained outside the court where the judgement was being read out for the Bolotnaya case. In a way it seemed strange after following the news in Ukraine to be in a Russian demonstration. This was clearly no Maidan, the situation in Russia seems extremely distant from any Maidan proportions. The Bolotnaya case is, however, a strange moment in post-Soviet history which has been deleted from the consciousness of people both inside and outside Russia. Extremely rarely covered in the international media and of the tens of thousands at the actual march in May 2012, little more than a thousand turned up today. Of that thousand or so over 200 were detained. In many ways watching these detentions had something quite surreal about it. Here were my immediate impressions:
Got back from the demonstration: hard to gauge exactly how many demonstrators there were because they stood in separate areas divided from each other. But maybe not that many more than a thousand. It’s rather hard to explain how a demonstration in Russia actually feels like because it is nothing like one in Europe. If anyone has seen Kossakovsky’s film ‘Demonstration’ -one could say that the choreography of a demonstration in Russia is completely different. Ironically there is not even any kettling procedures carried out by the police as in the UK. It is the riot police who enter inside large groups of people and drag a completely random person often from the back of the crowd. They do this again and again. Choosing their next detainee every minute or so. The crowd usually shouts ‘Shame’ or something of that order. If they detain a woman they may get called ‘fascists’. But the crowd which could easily just surround the police officers and refuse to let them grab their next victim only rarely do so. Perhaps this is understandable given that the Bolotnaya case has shown even showing a very minimum of resistance could get you a long jail sentence.
Today the detentions were happening thick and fast. One moment people were standing near a wall (and it was strange that many of the detentions happened to people at a further distance from everything) the next moment they were being dragged to a prison van (the avtozak). Some came walking and others were dragged or carried by about four or five police. Sometimes the OMON (riot police) decided to aggressively drag someone from the crowd with a fair amount of violence and other times they just marched them away. Hardly any of this was based on how the demonstrator behaved – it was just completely random.
At the beginning there seemed to be the ‘rationale’ of being dragged away if you had a placard. They then dragged off Vladimir Akimenkov for shouting out the names of the prisoners and calling for their release. It soon became more and more random as though the riot police had a strategy of inculcating a certain kind of random fear in those their simply willing to register their presence. In fact it was easy to feel that one would be next and I imagine the police strategy to create this kind of doubt (and some fear) in the demonstrators due to the randomness of their detentions. On the other hand, one felt a kind of will to be dragged off to an avtozak, the atmosphere would have been merrier inside than out. Not being arrested caused a kind of weariness too.
It’s also rather strange that some ‘out of the ordinary’ events tend to happen in an improvised Russian demonstration. So, for example, a very elderly woman, bent over, with a kind of dilapidated trolley bag trundled up to the riot police and started giving them a piece of her mind. Or a woman turned up with her two young children (they probably weren’t more than 4 or 5) with a bunch of red carnations in her hands. With her two children in tow she attempted to give the riot police a carnation each. But they wouldn’t accept them even though she seemed quite insistent. She returned back a few meters and she and her two young children looked at the spectacle of riot police wading in the crowd again detaining a couple more demonstrators.
There was another moment where someone brought along a Russian flag with two ribbons fixed to it: one a white ribbon, symbolizing the protest movement of 2011/2012 and the other an orange and black ribbon commemorating the dead in World War Two. The riot police seemed to be in some difficulty for some time. To arrest someone with a Russian flag and the patriotic ribbon of memory to WW2 victims seemed too much for a while. He stood there sometime waving the flag (and then a small ribbon with the colours of the Ukrainian flag were also affixed). Eventually the riot police grabbed him too to the shouts of ‘shame’ and ‘fascists’.
A banner reading ‘Freedom to the 6th May’ prisoners with a large number of balloons was let off but got stuck by a pylon. Then a bulldozer turned up to remove the banner. White doves were then released to a huge cheer. Afterwards I learnt that a well-known liberal radio commentator, Sergei Parkhomenko, had been arrested and apparently has been accused of biting a policeman’s ear. They never seem to go in for reasonable accusations, Yuz Aleshkovsky’s tales have something of the eternal about them: the Russian state authorities seems to have a penchant for upping the ante when it comes to accusing their opponents so one could almost imagine how the Mamontov’s and Kiselev’s are waiting in the wings hoping their chance will come when they can start accusing Sergei Udaltsov of raping a giraffe. The game of absurdity needs to be fed in ever greater doses.
The strangeness and rather absurd choreography of the demonstration, though, doesn’t extinguish the bitter truth that 8 people (indistinguishable from the people in the crowd outside) look likely to be given large jail sentences of anything up to 6 years for being accused of little more than throwing lemons or pouring kvass over police officers in May 2012. The unreality of this trial and the sickening melange of the grotesque and farcical elements of repression during Putin’s third term is reproduced in these rather strangled and atomized attempts of political resistance. Just as the first arrest of an elderly bearded man was watched by the crowd with a murmur of disapproval, this looks like how Russian society will greet the prison sentences. Weary acceptance. For all the shouts of ‘If you don’t free them, we’ll stage our own Maidan’, there was one slogan missing during this meeting ‘One for all and all for one’. Alas, it would have been too much of a blatant lie in the circumstances. Repression is on the offensive with a vengeance and there still seems little that will stop it for the time being.