Ribbons and provocations

A white ribbon and an orange-and-black striped ribbon

Which ribbon to wear?

Yesterday around 1:30 I went to Red Square to see what was to be seen. Remember, last week the entire square was closed to prevent a planned opposition protest? This week, it was open to all and sundry, even though another opposition “flash mob” was planned for 2:00. Again, the event is called “White Square”, the idea being to mob the square with white ribbons, taking over the public space to demonstrate the strength (or perhaps just existence) of the opposition.

Preparations had clearly been made to close everything down, perhaps just awaiting a final order, perhaps in case things got out of hand. Which is to say, these gates aren’t there every day:

An entrance to Red Square

But the police didn’t seem to be stopping anyone, checking documents, or looking through people’s bags. (At least, I didn’t observe any of this.) You’ll note in the background of the above photo an open gate which was closed last week. The other entrances onto the square are more open, but were also fenced off in the same manner.

Once on the square, everything seemed back to normal with the usual crowd of tourists strolling around, children playing, people enjoying the relatively nice day. (Cold, but no precipitation!)

Tourists on Red Square

Red Square is also a great place for photo-ops.

Tourists take photos on Red Square

In short, a typical Sunday on Red Square.

When I arrived, there were already a handful of people wearing white ribbons on their coats. Over the next two hours, their numbers grew. I talked to several, asking why there were there, whether they were worried about being arrested. The mood overall was cheerful. Everyone seemed pleased that there were so many, counting the event a big success. A few said of course they were a bit scared of arrest, but they needed to be here to demonstrate to those in power, and to the public, that there was still an opposition. They wouldn’t stop until legitimate elections were held–though nobody seemed to expect that to happen soon.

Members of the opposition pose for a photo

This event is explicitly not a demonstration, protest, or meeting–which would have to be approved in advance and would require permits. Thus, as was explained to me, nobody was giving speeches, waving party flags, or starting chants. This was simply a lot of people wearing white ribbons, who all happened to come to Red Square at the same time. People are allowed to wear ribbons, aren’t they?

One man I talked to, who had gone to the rallies in December and volunteered as an election monitor in March, had come to White Square for the first time today–like me, to see what it was like. He suggested the purpose of these public flash mobs was something like “trolling”, as when commenters on websites deliberately say offensive or rude things in order to provoke a reaction. In this case, the opposition was provoking those in power.

Opposition members with a balloon

Several people I talked to noted that attendance at the rallies and meetings had been shrinking since the elections were over. So another reason to hold events like this was simply to show that the opposition still exists. This is especially important because the media, with the exception of the internet, are tightly controlled by the government, meaning that the opposition has to find other ways to reach the general public. Thus White Square–held in one of the most public spaces of the country–makes the opposition visible. It also gives them an opportunity to meet with one another, share information about future events, pass out flyers to observers, and perhaps to show themselves that they’re really part of a movement.

A man offers an officer a white ribbon

A few even tried to get the police to join in. This man offered the officer a white ribbon. He refused, smiling and saying he’s already got several. Those around laughed. The man offered a few more times, also smiling. As he walked away, he leaned over to me and said, “Well, we’re making progress!”

So in this instance, the provocation wasn’t happening between the police and the white ribboners. Instead, it turned out that another group had come to do a little trolling of their own: Young Russia, something of a nationalist youth organization. I hadn’t run into this particular group before, so I have some research to do, but it was immediately apparent that something interesting was going on when a group of a dozen young men and women in WWII-era army uniforms walked by the mass of opposition members toward St. Basil’s Cathedral. They were all wearing ribbons of a different color: orange and black striped, a pattern associated with military honors in both “Great Fatherland” Wars. It’s been adopted more recently as a sign of anti-fascism, and of Russian identity and pride. In short, a symbol whose meanings are a bit contested right now. (I sometimes wear one at home as a souvenir, and also, who’s going to argue with an anti-fascist stance?)

Young woman in the Young Russia demonstration

I talked a bit with this young woman, who said they were just patriots, there to celebrate a military holiday. She wanted to honor her grandfather, who died in WWII, and also express her pride in all of Russia’s victories. Given the snappy uniform, which included a red star on her hat, I had to ask: were they Communists? Oh no, she said–we’re patriots. There ensued a bit of an argument when a white-ribbon protester walked over and asked (a bit aggressively) what they were doing there; while her compatriot argued with the guy, this woman intently reassured me that these were just people with different opinions, just talking about their different opinions. Around, the two groups eyed each other, tried to hand out their various ribbons and pamphlets, and remained two distinct groups. (Later, I saw on Twitter that many people were posting about this–claiming that these youth were provocateurs and not to take their ribbons!)

Later on, though, I noticed a few people I’d seen earlier wearing white ribbons had gone ahead and taken the Grigorevskij ribbons. One of these included Sergej Udaltsov, one of the opposition leaders.

Sergej Udaltsov gives an interview

The reporter interviewing him (on the right, in a red jacket reminiscent of Michael Jackson) asked what the deal was with this other ribbon. Udaltsov explained: this other group had come, perhaps just as a provocation, offering their own ribbons. He had taken one and told others to go ahead–he’s happy to wear one. Everyone has the right to be here. [I’ll try to replace my rough paraphrase when I have a chance to review my recording. I do not apparently work on a journalist timeline!]

So which ribbon? For now, I’m not wearing either one–first, because as a foreigner I’d just rather not attract any attention; second, because as a researcher I hesitate to visibly align myself with one movement or another. I don’t pretend to be neutral: once I’m in a conversation with someone and they ask my opinion, I’m happy to say that I agree Russians should be able to practice the rights their Constitution supposedly guarantees. That I, too, am concerned about the structure of political power here. And that I take a strong stand against fascism. (A controversial position, that one.) But for now, my ribbons are going in the souvenir pile.

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