Photo: Anna Artemeva (The Novaya Gazeta)
Olga Bobrova: “At that moment I realised that I am laying my eyes on the first person in uniform.”
“Dear citizens, the event is going to take place on Bolotnaya Square!” blared a megaphone from a police car. “Make your way to the protest through Lubyanskaya Square and over Kitaigorodsky Passage.”
“Friends! We’re all heading to the protest on Bolotnaya. More than 30 thousand people have gathered there already,” Human Rights Activist Lev Ponomaryov said into a megaphone.
The alternative protest taking place on Revolution Square took up exactly half the barrier railing surrounding the Karl Marx monument; roughly 20 square metres overall. Eduard Limonov and Zakhar Prilepin had already arrived, but people were gradually leaving the area.
“Putin is a crook! Putin is a crook!” the protesters chanted half heartedly.
Journalists caught up to Viktor Biryukov, head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Department in Moscow for Interaction with Civil Society, by the base of the Karl Marx monument. Biryukov was busy trying to deflect a flood of criticism from civil society.
“What did you cover up the truck license plates for?!” a man yelled at Biryukov. “You don’t want people to know that troops have been brought into the city? Do you want to break up our protest, but give us no warning of it?”
Biryukov turned around toward the trucks, which in fact had white pieces of office print paper taped over their license plates. He turned back toward the man, flashed a wide smile and said: “Who’s going to break you guys up? Go ahead and protest.” And headed off toward Bolotnaya Square. At that moment I realised that Biryukov was the first person in a uniform that I saw first hand at the square.
Elena Kostuchenko: “This guy for some reason decided that Putin is Nikolai II and that everyone is going to regret that he was executed.”
A guy in a warm-up jacket approaches each journalist, one by one. “Interview me,” he says.
“I am from Yakutia. I arrived this morning and am leaving this evening. Overall, I have 10 hours here as a tourist here, and riots are going on.” I ask him where he sees these riots. “No, what I mean is, what is your protest a prerequisite for? You well know that history is repeating itself exactly a hundred years later. Would you like to return to 1905? What about 1917? Putin is Nikolai II. Now, we see that Nikolai II has been canonised, and people are expressing regret that he was executed.”
After having completed his lines, he walks over to the television journalists and starts all over again. Limonov arrives at the square and is immediately absorbed by a ring of tall photographers and cameramen.
Dozens of young people in black masks covering their face gather together not too far from the Marx monument. They introduce themselves as representatives of the MosObl patriotic movement. I ask why they came here, and one of them says, “Russia is for Russians.” His friends slap him on the back, one of them saying, “Don’t say it like that, don’t write that.” Another one says, “We are here because we want fair elections, and we are willing to work even with the liberals. What’s most important is that we unite and put an end to the criminal authorities.”
Walking over to Bolotnaya Square gave already experienced protestors a real shot in the arm. It seemed to me that the road to the square was more important to them than the goal. The situation was surreal: three thousand people marching together in downtown Moscow chanting “try Putin’s gang!” An endless number of police forming a huge cordon holds firmly in place and doesn’t touch a soul. The anarchists, socialist and Pirate Party – complete with a banner reading “Power to The Millions, Not The Millionaires” – headed the pack. Behind them in the middle were Smena, Yabloko, Solidarnost, and a few flag-waving communists. Then came the imperial flags. And when the people heading the group started chanting “the state is the main enemy!” then the tail of the group chanted “glory to Russia!” Together they cried out only “Putin is a thief,” and “all for one and one for all.” Amidst all this, there was not a trace of aggression.
Photo: Anna Artemeva (The Novaya Gazeta)
Natalya Chernova: We are in white…
Nerves were already lingering in the air just after one in the afternoon at Polyanka metro station. Nerves, but restraint as well. People met here and walked quickly toward the exit.
After getting to the top of the escalator, the flower stands were running low on white flowers, so people started to buy up all the lilies. Bolotnaya Square was gradually getting more and more crowded, as people arrived to the music of Viktor Tsoi and Yuri Shevchuk. Tsoi’s “My blood type mark is on the sleeve” transformed into a white ribbon on people’s coats, bags and the bobs on their hats.
The police, complete with guard dogs, stood along the perimeter of the square. A stray dog with a white ribbon on its collar suddenly came rushing up to one of the guard dogs.
The crowd was not like your usual crowd. It was so united mentally, that anyone who got caught in the very thick of it could feel the shoulder of a friend, not someone competing for a spot where things were audible. The speakers could not be heard very well, and at times a rumbling of “louder, louder” would pick up from the crowd as the person on stage spoke. The speakers were forced to speak clearer and articulate their words as needed. The crowd helped them with the latter, often feeding certain words with their pulsating chants.
The communists marched along in a separate line under the red banner, blowing whistles. A girl hastily wrote on her knee on a piece of paper in lip stick: “I am for fair elections.”
It was difficult for the spattering of elderly people in the crowd, but an old woman in a worn rabbit-fur hat in front of me toughed it out to the victorious end. A man bearing his torso stood still in his apartment in a building along the canal with his window wide open and somehow didn’t freeze. Seagulls and a robot video camera akin to a red-eyed giant spider flew overhead.
An hour and a half later, some people started to leave, but the line at the entrance still had not evaporated. It seems that this is exactly why the police forming the cordon, when approached by plain-clothes FSB officers, shown a red ID card and asked, “How many people?” replied laconically, “Who the hell knows.”
An elderly woman walked along the parkway with a homemade poster reading, “These kinds of elections are a fig leaf that couldn’t cover up the disgrace.”
A girl in Indian pants sticking out from under her feather-down winter jacket and with a Pavlovian scarf on her gave a porky policeman a huge bear hug and hung on to him. He tried desperately to shake her off, and she cried out, “I am for love!” Having shook her off, he said to her as she was walking away, “Idiot! I’m for love as well!”
The faces most likely were where the protest made its biggest impression. The speakers’ main talking point that the public’s chief resource is the feeling of each and everyone’s own dignity reflected on people’s faces so clearly that the idea of building a Russian civil society did not seem to be an utopia.
Behind me two people were talking back and forth: “I told you that we are going to go to a café now… Are you frozen? Tough, you’ll live… What do you mean ‘nothing is going to change?’ Nothing is going to change tomorrow, but the day after tomorrow it definitely will. Can you just image that forty thousand people got up off their asses to come here today? They could have sat their butts down in some restaurant where it is warmer. Man, this is so cool…”
Zoya Yeroshok: The rules of a good protest: “Smile at people. Say thank you to everyone.”
A friend and I decided to get to Bolotnaya Square on the metro. People were walking in a file from Borovitskaya station over Kammenny Bridge; they were mainly young people, but there were elderly people and even people in wheelchairs as well.
The crowd didn’t look like a crowd. Everyone was very polite and good-spirited. I see behaviour like this every time I am in London: you accidently step on someone’s foot, and that person rushes to say he’s sorry. The only time I witnessed this time of cordiality in Russia amongst a large group of people was in August 1991.
People were holding either white daisies or white roses and had white ribbons pinned to their coats or jackets. Their faces were very amiable, whether acquaintances or strangers, people greeted each other. Akunin, Arabov, Gandlevsky were among them.
A girls was handing out fliers called “Rules for a good protest.” The rules were: “be courteous and attentive to those around you,” “Smile at people,” “Smile at each police officer that’s behaving himself.”
There were a lot of good policemen, like the smiling policewoman by the entrance with metal detectors. Young soldiers stood by the bridge with their heads turning in all directions at the Moscow scenery. “We aren’t from around here,” says one of them. “We were brought here from Siberia.” “Yesterday?” I asked, startled that troops were being brought into Moscow. “Why yesterday?” the solder says with a huff. “We aren’t the riot police, we are just serving in the arming. We’ve been here for six months now.”
A young guy and girl are heading toward the stage, and we follow them. We try not to push anyone and constantly say we are sorry and smile. Everyone smiles back at us, including the police. We had been walking behind the girl and guy for some time in a single file to the point that we had almost become relatives. He says to me, “I was an elections observer for Yabloko at an electoral precinct in Novokosino. United Russia received only 23% of the vote. We monitored everything in a very strict manner; everything was done by the rules. Only one of us was from United Russia, and he wasn’t a jerk and didn’t cause any trouble.” The protest will go on for a while, with tenacious thoughts and unshakable, positive feelings. A good country of people.
Photo: Anna Artemeva (The Novaya Gazeta)
Elena Milashina: “We continued on. He yelled out “Go Russia!” and I yelled out “Go Caucasus!” Nothing came of it. No one got in a fight.”
We walk along, ten people to a row, singing The International (the Russian United Labour Union headed the lines of people, complete with scarlet banners). The words seem to surface from our childhood. The group of people makes their merry way to Lubyanka, makes a turn and heads down toward Kitai-Gorod metro station. Part of the roadway has been fenced off with metal dividers. The police were behind them every ten metres.
A black Mercedes with a siren on top got stuck in between the crowd of people by Kitai-Gorod metro station. People jeered it and would give it a quick kick. I kicked it myself, and the Mercedes didn’t make a peep.
Nationalists from the Movement Against Illegal Immigration caught up at Kitaigorodsky Passage, and it suddenly became noisy. A young man with a megaphone began some typical chants: “Russia is for Russians” and “Go Russia.” Young guys in black masks joined in.
“The Caucasus together with Russia! Go Caucasus!” I really didn’t expect my voice to carry that much.
The kid with the megaphone turned around, looked at me and broke out laughing. “Aren’t you something, Little Red Riding Hood,” he said.
We continued on. He yelled out “Go Russia!” and I yelled out “Go Caucasus!” Nothing came of it. No one got in a fight.
A photographer friend of mine sent me a text message: “This is nonsense, not a protest rally. They even brought in port-o-potties. Man, the only thing left for them to bring in is hot food!”
The anarchists lit flares on the left, and the Nazis broke theirs out on the right. People cry out together: “Put them out!” I keep trying to squeeze my way to the stage. Not a single smooshed feet, even though there were thousands of dirty boots squished right up against each other! The humane nature of this crowd is more amazing than its size. From 2003 to 2009 I covered almost all the protest rallies in Georgia. The only difference is that today I didn’t need to ask anyone to interpret for me.
This protest is in my native language. These people are citizens of my country. This is Moscow, 10 December. A day we’re not ashamed of.