Photo: Eugene Feldman
I got to the protest ahead of time to find this one girl who was intending to buy 5 thousand roubles worth of carnations and hand them out to the crowd. But finding anyone in this huge crowd of people was impossible. I never came across the girl I was looking for, although I did stumble upon several girls handing out white silk ribbons. I crossed Lavrushinsky Alley onto the riverside street and ended up in a dense crowd that, as if pulled by a suction cup, slowly moved through the entrance and police cordon. Having inched slower toward the entrance gate, I saw that the tables around them were covered in coins: people were shaking their coins out of their pockets and, drawn in by the flow of the crowd, didn’t take them back.
People flooded the Luzhkov Bridge. A banner in large red, hand-written letters was hung on the bridge’s cast-iron rails that read “Swindlers and Thieves, Give the Elections Back!” The line stretched along the canal from Bolotnaya Square to the Balchug side. Flags were waving over the people’s heads. Numerous orange flags of the Solidarnost movement flapped in the wind by the stage, then the Communist Party’s flags joined the silhouette, followed by a plethora of colours: the white and green of Yabloko, the yellow of A Just Russia, the black of the Pirate Party, the red and white for the Civil Union, the white and eagle of the Libertarian Party, the tricolour of the Cause Party with a hard-working black and yellow bee. Large white, yellow and black panels representing the nationalists were stretched out and read, “Be Born in Russia, Live in Russia, Die for Russia.”
A helicopter and an unmanned aircraft with a camera built in circled above the people and flags. The aircraft looked like a spider and would either freeze in a certain point in the sky or race in quick, sudden bursts.
There was a considerable number of speakers, and they took turns speaking, one after the other. They all belonged to various parties and movements: Gudkov from A Just Russia, Mitrokhin from Yabloko, Rizhkov from PARNAS, Chirikova from Ekooborona, and all the way through the repertoire of Russian politics. I’m not going to tell their speeches again, and cannot anyway: together this was one big, passionate, drawn-out four-hour speech about how the people, who had their votes stolen during the State Duma elections, feel. It was an amazing feeling to hear how all the words were sincere, and how the politicians’ words, as they should, finally expressed what the people feel and think. And within the wave of the heated speeches, often yelled with both excitement and anger, something very simple that was repeated, but that I don’t even know how to express. Not because it’s difficult, but because it is was simpler than anything else these past years.
The microphones were acting up: the weak speakers were unable to break through the air over the crowd. I didn’t hear anything that Oksana Dmitriyeva, whom I interviewed before the elections, said. Other people around me also didn’t hear. People started to yell, “Louder! Louder!” This powerful chant drowned her right out. I was able to hear Nastya Udaltsova better. I talked with her husband, Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of The Left Front, a few months ago for a long time amidst the noise and fuss of a Moscow café, and I realise that he will fight to the end. Yesterday, after being tortured non-stop by arrests and a hunger strike, he was forcibly put into the emergency room at Botkinskaya hospital. He got out of there today and was headed for Bolotnaya Square, when just five minutes after leaving the hospital, operatives detained him and he yet again disappeared .
His was the first name of a political prisoner pronounced at the protest: Sergei Udaltsov! Nastya organised the meeting in place of him. Standing their in the crowd, I had the feeling that something was tugging at my heart when I imaged how it must be for her to know that her husband again has disappeared, and to imagine what his kidnappers could do to him, and, nonetheless, do what she and Sergei have been doing for their entire lives together. Then the names of other people detained during the other day at Chistiye Prudy and Triumph Square were read off: Navalny, Yashin…
For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union do we have hundreds of political prisoners, and thousands of people, enraged by this, expressed their rage by yelling, chanting and whistling with specially bought red whistles. This one guy next to me was blowing into an old-fashioned horn. I asked him what this thing was, and he proudly showed me the year “1874” carved out on the horn and said that people were using this very horn way back during the 1917 Revolution.
A protest isn’t a way to pass the time. It’s a type of perception. People on Bolotnaya Square, in the raw December air with snow melting beneath their feet and on their faces, were united by some long forgotten human feeling. Was it the warm sensation of solidarity? Was it brotherhood?
I had gotten used to thinking that I live in still a pretty drab and not very friendly city, but here you could see the friendliness on everyone’s faces.
There were many different faces, and they have all been preserved in my memory. I took note of the face of an old man with a snow-white beard crossing over the curb while leaning on his walking stick, and the people that gave him a hand cleared out of his way, even thought it seemed that such a dense crowd wouldn’t be able to get out of the way. I remembered the face of a fair young girl in a round fur Rastafarian cap who climbed up on a ventilation unit to get a better view of the stage, and asked for me to give her a hand. Amidst the December twilight, the small hand of a child with small round fingernails and a thin little metal ringlet on her finger lit up. I am sure that it’s not only me remembering this little girl, but that she will also remember this December day in downtown Moscow, when she, together with thousands of others, chanted “We aren’t slaves” and “Freedom for political prisoners.”
Thousands of hands raised up, and the displays of thousands of cameras flashed in the thickening evening air. These cameras made me understand something about the people around me. Oh, what a gathering this was of the latest and best-looking technology. Apple iPads raised high above peoples heads showed off pictures of the protest to the people around them. Galaxy Tablets were ablaze and gave a delightful show of the colours of this Moscow evening. Canon and Nikon cameras, powerful lenses and all, hung on around the necks and on the chests of young people in ski caps who pushed their way past me toward the stage. A young man sat on a bench with his laptop propped up on his knees – as an old computer technician, my well-trained eye quickly caught sight of the Sony Vayo logo on the back – as he argued loudly with an editor cutting his photographs someplace, maybe in Moscow, Omsk, or even Paris. The mix of rain and snow intensified, and a girl now stood beside the guy on the bench and held a 1x1 piece of plywood over him. It was the improvised roof for a mobile news bureau. I walked up, took a look at the plywood. It was black with “We need fair elections” written on the top.
Hundreds and thousands of posters and hand-written slogans rocked back and forth over the sea of people that stretched off into the distance. Only a person completely torn from reality could get the idea that all these people made these posters and thought up these slogans at the order of their leaders or through a telegram from Hilary Clinton. “Thank you for coming! Now I am not alone,” “Fellas, time to move on over!” (with a colour photo of Putin and Medvedev on top). “The opposition needs a single candidate!” (under the photo of a baby held by both hands by a mother), “Hey Churov, this isn’t Hogwarts!” (with a photograph of Churov and a picture of the castle where Harry Potter studied). “Today a hundred thousand, tomorrow a million!”
I wandered around vast space of Botonaya Square through the tight rows of people, easily joined in on conversations and everywhere felt the same thing: disdain for those who rigged the elections and joyful confidence in freedom and victory. These people knew that there were many of them, and they knew what they want. These weren’t steely radicals who know that they are the doomed minority. This was the flesh of a great city, its vivid water that had awaken in December 2011 and gone on the attack. Moscow suburban cities signalled that they were being represented as well: “Krasnogorsk against election rigging”, “Istra against election rigging.” Girls held signs that read that they had witnessed vote rigging, and struck convincing poses for my age-old camera. There was a lot of good-looking girls at the protest. And the presence of beautiful girls, their laughter, their hair let down, rosy cheeks, and loud voices didn’t let this political protest become an event of suffering and struggle, but rather turned it into a celebration of life.
This was all the free political creativity of the city people, equipped with fantastic high-tech gadgets, who are part of the real world and the virtual world, and who very well understand what a lie and freedom are. A very respectable looking man stood next to me in a long black coat asked his wife to wait for him a little longer in a “Gourmet” while he spent some more time here at the protest.
Suddenly, a field opened up within the dense crowed, and a white balloon with black little eyes and long mouth rolled under my legs along the muddy grass. The balloon tumbled along the grass by itself and laughed. People too suddenly were laughing and said, nodding their heads to the balloon, “MedvePut” (The name given to a picture combing the facial features of Medvedev and Putin to make up the image of one person – translator’s note).
I’ve seen this all once before. I once before, at the end of the 80s and at the beginning of the 90s, saw such happy people whose eyes showed that they had gained freedom. I saw the protests back then that brought in a million people, and I had a feeling of absolute happiness that we are together and freedom is now ours. Since then, however, I have not been too any protest rallies, because I realise how easy it is to deceive the all-powerful and defenceless people, and how easy they can proselytise a great peaceful revolution in the muck. Leaders deceive people by selling us all as a herd or one by one, just as in the 90s. Articulate orators voicing the democratic rhetoric deceive the revolution by blowing alluring fog into our eyes that blinded us for years and caused the public to loose its way. The Oligarchs, who sprang up from God knows where and brazenly tricked us, divided up the people’s property – all in the name of the public good, mind you, for how else could it be? – so that the people were left with nothing but poverty, while the Oligarchs became millionaires, shareholders and the owners of cosy houses in very nice places.
I don’t want the people who voiced such strong words from the stage on December 10 to deceive all the people that I saw at this protest at Bolotnaya Square. I don’t want these people to once again drag us into an idiotic game of their own personal ambitions that has taken up years and rendered decades void. The opposition needs a single leader with a new face.
I walked along the perimeter of the square while looking over the numerous military equipment brought in to block and disperse us if need be. Triple-axle trucks with bars on the windows of closed bodies, armoured cars with gun slots for firing from and buses lined the area. The light of a cigarette could be seen in one of them behind the black glass. The riot police stood in their fighting equipment in gloomy rows, motionless and silent. Some of them had lowered the black, opaque visors on their helmets and turned into dark figures from the possible difficult future. Some of them stood with their visor lifted up and silently looked on at the people, rejoicing in their freedom. Some of them had completely young, childish-like and very nice faces. I chatted with them.
Two girls walked toward me. Both of them happy and laughing, not at something or at someone, but just thanks to the fullness of life. One of them had a chocolate bar in her hand with the foil unwrapped. “Want some chocolate? Help yourself! Have some chocolate!” Darkness had fallen, and they went through the twilight of the Moscow evening and waves of people leaving the protest, all the way offering their tasty chocolate to whomever they passed. I took a small square piece to their exclamations of approval.
 Late Saturday night I found out that Udaltsov had again been put in jail, for yet another 15 days.