Attacked in the metro

Many participants in the march covered their faces, presumably to hide their identities in photos like this one. Photo via RIA Novosti. Photograph by Ilya Pitalev.

This is an unpleasant story, but I wanted to share it because of what it shows about the current political climate in Moscow.

Since 2005, November 4 has been the Day of National Unity in Russia. Part of the new holiday tradition [1] is a massive “Russian March” in which nationalists and other far-right groups gather and air their views, including among other things xenophobia, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT sentiment. Reports of this year’s march included word that some participants had even waved around Nazi-style swastika flags. Some of the activists I’ve been in contact with had organized an anti-fascism rally to show that was an alternative to the ideology expressed by the Russian March. I’d gotten word the day before that we would meet up in the center of the metro station at 3:30 for the 4:00 rally. This is typical; for rallies and marches participants often gather in a nearby station beforehand to check in, adjust plans, and make sure everyone gets to the right location together.

I hadn’t been to this station before, so when I arrived a few minutes early I walked around, admiring it. The hall itself was all hard surfaces, gleaming polished stone. A series of wide pillars separated the center of the hall from the train platforms. I photographed the beautiful black-and-gray marble mosaics of Dostoyevsky’s most famous works. The station was nearly empty with less than a dozen people milling around waiting to meet friends. At the time I wasn’t paying attention, but afterward it would seem unusual that there were no police in the station. They’re almost always on patrol in stations near the center, especially on days when big marches are planned.

By 3:30 I had spotted a few familiar faces and walked over to join the small group gathering, about a dozen activists in the various leftist and opposition groups that had coordinated to hold the anti-fascist rally. We chatted quietly, introducing ourselves and catching up on everyone’s latest news. One had been given a court date for illegal postering—he had been putting up signs along the Russian March route advertising against nationalist extremism when security guards at one of the embassies caught him. He joked that he’d warned everyone else to be careful, and then gotten caught himself. A few more participants trickled into the station as trains arrived every few minutes.

An angry roaring noise filled the hall. We all looked toward the noise. Suddenly a mob of some 30 young men in dark clothes swarmed down the stairs into the station, hooded and disguised with bandanas and powder-blue surgical masks. Reflexively following the person closest to me, I turned and ran. But we had nowhere to go: the station had only one entrance and exit. A few of us ducked around pillars, perhaps hoping to hide on the platform side. The masked men ran through, flowing past me toward the far end of the station. I couldn’t make out what they were shouting, but the message—rage, hatred, violence—was perfectly clear.

Aleksey Navalny, a leading figure in the recent opposition protest movement, has been involved with the march in some previous years. Photo via Lenta.ru. Photographer: Ilya Varlamov

Nobody, it seemed, knew what to do. A few people near me peered futilely down the hall, where the mob seemed to have disappeared. I stood petrified, wanting to help somehow, not knowing what to do. Vague, threatening echoes floated in the air, then coalesced into a chant as the faceless men collected back into a single mass, then ran back up the stairs and out of sight. It sounded very much like, “Kill, kill, kill.”

Those of us who remained shuffled back into the center of the hall and began accounting for one another. A young man, hands cradling his face, slowly walked up from the far end of the hall. As he came closer, I made out traces of red on his fingers. His face was already swelling underneath the blood. A few drops fell, bright red on the marble floor. Feeling worse than useless, I rooted through my bag and found some tissues to hand him. Someone walked up and asked what had happened, reassuring us that he was an anti-fascist and could be trusted. Nobody seemed to respond. Unsure myself of what I had witnessed, I mumbled something about men coming through, an attack. The newcomer started phoning for an ambulance and gently walked the injured man out of the station. A woman called after them—Be careful! That’s where the fascists went!

Several minutes later, I watched as a second victim was helped up through the hall and toward the stairs to an ambulance. Later I heard news that a third had been pushed onto the tracks, but luckily had been rescued before a train came. By now more activists had arrived for the rally, and word was going around about what had happened. A few of my contacts thoughtfully asked me how I was doing. I answered that I was all right, I hadn’t been touched. I felt traces of the jittery, queasy feeling of adrenaline; it would still be there hours later.

And then the police appeared, first a pair, and soon a dozen. They seemed to be interrogating the activists more than taking witness testimony. A statement released later claimed that “a conflict occurred between two groups of people: two people from one side and three from the other. The conflict escalated into a brawl as a result of which one person was injured.” When the rally had ended, many of the activists made note—seeming utterly unsurprised—of the fact that on our return through the station, the entire station and entryway was filled with police in full riot gear. They stopped and searched many of the activists.

But now there was still a rally to get on, and so we gathered together and walked in a large group up to street level and over to the square prepared for the event.

(to be continued)

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