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!
“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.)
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.
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.
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.
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  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.
On Saturday I stopped by a rally in a small square near the Kievskij train station being held by opponents of a plan to expand the highway and transit system through their neighborhoods.
Moscow, like many expanding urban centers, has major problems with housing and traffic. In short, the affordable housing is all being built around the ever-expanding edge of the city. More and more people commute in using a mix of transit options–the subway and electric trains are packed every rush hour, and millions go by car. Which means millions spend hours every week sitting in stopped traffic. City planners struggle to find a way to accommodate all these people in a city choked by traffic jams. Continue reading
Parking is kind of a mess in Moscow. Car ownership has skyrocketed in recent decades, but those extra millions of cars are squeezing into a city center that was designed for… well, not for cars, anyway. (I’ll try to add a post later about how Moscow is not as pedestrian-friendly as you’d expect for a dense, pedestrian-packed city, either).
So in my neighborhood, for example, what at first glance appear to be wide asphalt-paved sidewalks lining the streets…
…double as parking spaces for the people who live and work in the area, with certain consequences for both walkers and drivers. Continue reading
Right now the Russian Duma is working on legislation to develop a juvenile justice system. Some Russians, including but not limited to groups on the conservative and Orthodox end of the activist spectrum, are concerned about the possibility that juvenile justice will give the state new reach into families. The creation of new “rights” for children, they fear, may be just an excuse for government to snatch children out of their families.
Today several individuals were picketing the Duma with signs asking legislators to protect families and the institution of parenthood by voting against the legislation. (Pickets of more than one person require a permit, while individuals are officially allowed to demonstrate freely.) I spent some time talking to one older woman (not pictured) who was asking passers-by to write to Putin himself to demand that he oppose the law. Occasionally she saw a lawyer or legislator she recognized walking past us, and called out for them to vote against the law. This law will destroy families, she told me, then asked if I had children. I answered no, not yet. Imagine you do, she continued–this law will allow the government to come at any moment and just take them away, and you won’t even know where they are.
Today the various pieces of the opposition gathered in Moscow and many other cities for another big demonstration. Here are some photos from the March of Millions today.