Changing the points

The shunting yards

One Russian idiom that comes up a lot in conversations about politics is переводить стрелки, “changing the points,” [1] which originated (if I’m not mistaken) as a railroad term for changing the tracks to shunt a train onto a different set of rails. In politics, “shunting” refers to redirecting blame or guilt. It strikes me as a curious metaphor, as if blame for a given mistake or problem is as unstoppable as a train hurtling down the tracks. All one can do (if one is a shifty politician) is redirect it.

When I read the NYTimes’ coverage over the weekend of the “Bolotnaya Case” trials, “shunting” came to mind again. If you’re not familiar with the issue, about a dozen participants in last years’ 6 May rally–which had been registered with and okayed by city officials–had been arrested and held, some for over a year. The rally devolved into “clashes with police,” as the media habitually term such things, declining to comment on responsibility for the “clashing.”

That’s what caught my eye in the Times article, in any case:

Most defendants are charged with participating in riots and assaulting police officers.

The article goes on to note, correctly, that evidence for these charges is slim to nonexistent or even directly contradicts the accusations and that the officers providing testimony have often changed their testimony. This is all par for the course, as I found in my interviews over the past year. In particular, it brought to mind the charges brought up after the 8 March Women’s Day rally: immediately after the rally, one woman was accused of assaulting a police officer. After she got a lawyer, collected video evidence, and publicly pushed back against the charges, the police suddenly realized that she hadn’t done a thing, and actually a different woman had committed the alleged assault. A crime in search of a perpetrator.

So one form of shunting is this move, where someone in the security apparatus has determined that a crime occurred and goes looking for possible criminals. Here the practice of mass detentions comes in handy, so that for any given “crime” at a political event, the police already have a collection of names on hand to select from.

But another form of shunting becomes immediately obvious if you’ve witnessed arrests, watched videos of the 6 May rally, or talked to anyone who’s been arrested. Violence is  committed in these events, but it’s often committed by the police. So charges of violence against the police often have a fun-house mirror quality to them: somehow in the passage from the public space of the rally, through the semi-hidden spaces of the paddy wagons and the jails, to the public view of the courtroom, the victim of the violence has been transformed into its agent.

[1] At least a quick review of Wikipedia suggests this is the corresponding phrase in English. Railroad experts are invited to correct me here!


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