unMarch of Millions

There had been another “March of Millions” planned for December 15–two actions, actually: one organized by the ‘citizen activist’ opposition, and another by a coalition of leftist groups. The city government went back and forth with organizers of both about permission for the rallies, and by Friday the news had gotten around that neither one had achieved official permission.

Not being into arrest, especially as a visiting foreign national, I had been planning to go to whichever event turned out to be sanctioned. What to do? Luckily the local activists were way ahead of me: there would be no march. But if concerned citizens happened to decide to go for a walk around Lubyanka Square on Saturday, say around 3pm, they’d be well within their rights under the law. Nothing wrong with going for a walk on a brisk weekend afternoon!

I am the egg man.

“The egg-man doesn’t go to unsanctioned meetings. The egg-man is just walking.”

Various sources estimated the totally coincidental crowd of weekend strollers in the low thousands. A bare handful had explicitly political messages–a few activists here and there handed out leaflets, a couple of people held up hand-lettered posters. Many were carrying flowers, which they’d brought to lay on the monument at the center of Lubyanka Square: a small stone honoring the victims of the Gulag. (The monument had been placed by the rights organization Memorial, which incidentally had its office defaced a few weeks ago with anti-Western graffiti.)

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Those I talked to at the square and later on all agreed that the mood was very different from that of the mass protests of last winter. I saw the usual abundant police presence, but they didn’t bother anyone I could see while I there, even the ones passing out political materials or holding signs. But according to reports I read later, when the ‘leaders’ (well-known figures like Navalny and Sobchak who media outlets have treated as representatives of the opposition) arrived, it didn’t take long for them to be arrested.

At this (non)event, I found myself sympathizing with those who criticize the ‘citizen activist’ movement for its explicitly apolitical agenda. It’s fine enough to call for ‘freedom for political prisoners’ and ‘fair elections.’ But I have the sense that by now those demands have become so inwardly focused that nobody outside the movement cares. The event seemed almost entirely self-referential: having a rally to demand the right to assemble, an rally for freedom for those arrested for participating in rallies. These causes seem unlikely to ever gain mass support.

12/12/12

Today is Constitution Day in Russia. The constitution is kind of a cool document, guaranteeing things like human dignity, privacy, and even the equality of men and women. Like many other constitutions, including the (amended) constitution of the United States, Russia’s promises rights of free speech, political expression, and peaceable assembly. It also goes further, protecting citizens against capital punishment and forced participation in medical experiments, promising a right to use of one’s native language, and even the right to an education. It’s the kind of document that immediately gets you thinking about what experiences and circumstances caused the authors to explicate all those specific rights and protections.

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Earlier tonight, I attended an event that was part of a “Worldwide Reading in Support of Pussy Riot”. Similar events were hosted in several major cities around the world–many European countries, the US, Turkey, Australia. Women donned colorful balaclavas and read from the final court statements of the three members of Pussy Riot who earlier this year were convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.’ Supporters of the group, as well as a lot of Western observers, have viewed this as (among other things) a free speech issue. As I’ve heard many people argue: perhaps trespassing and performing without permission in the cathedral earned them an administrative fine, maybe even a couple of days in jail. But the disproportionate harshness of the punishment makes it clear that the suit was politically-motivated repression of ideas that appeared threatening to those in power.

Given the themes the case raises, it seemed somehow fitting to listen to this performance today in particular, in a cafe just a few minutes’ walk from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where the (in)famous performance happened.