March of Dissent

A young Moscowite shares his views on Russia’s main internal political issue

, by Andrey Rybalov

March of Dissent

After the ‘March of Dissent’ which took place on the 14th April in Moscow, European media were full of comments on the cruelty of Russian authorities and brave citizens demanding democratic changes. Here is a testimony of a young, politically councious man, who prefers sunbathing and visiting art exhibitions to marching. Why is that?

I am Russian, was born in the USSR, have two diplomas (one of them is French), am politically active since my school years and I more or less speak three EU languages. In general, my views are quite pro-European and liberal. Since I live five minutes’ walk away from the place where the March of Dissent was starting, why do you think I was having coffee and talking to my Dutch flatmate and friends from London visiting me instead of joining the march? Why did we yesterday in similar style in St. Petersburg during the March prefer to enjoy sunbathing instead of marching and tomorrow upon return to Moscow we plan to visit an art exhibition when others will be marching again? I shall try to explain.

Putin’s regime is undoubtedly totalitarian, but it is a contemporary type of soft totalitarianism. People can travel to and from Russia. Visa barrier do exist, but 99% of applicants obtain Russian visas. This percentage, of course, is not the same in the case of Russian applicants for US and EU visas. Every year EU visa procedures become tougher for Russians, but the door to ‘totalitarian’ Russia is still wide open.

Freedom of the Russian press

Often the freedom of the Russian press is criticised from the West. Indeed, the government controls major TV channels, but there are also private ones, which discuss very sharp issues quite freely. There are newspapers that defer to the Kremlin, but keep writing very critically on the current situation and the regime in general. Western media often cites ‘Novaya Gazeta’, the newspaper for which Anna Politkovskaya worked before she was assassinated earlier this year, as an example of independent media. Personally, I do not read it because for my taste it is too extreme in its Putinophobia. I prefer another Moscow-based newspaper, ‘Kommersant’, for its overall quality and positions. It is strictly anti-Kremlin, and used to be owned by Boris Berezovsky, an exiled oligarch who once announced his ongoing sponsorship of an anti-Putin coup-d’êtat. Since last year it is owned by another oligarch, Usmanov, who is close to the oil giant Gazprom. And such a newspaper continues to work in totalitarian Russia. Change of the owner didn’t change its style. I would not claim that Russian media is free, but together with a good choice of internet media sources I have no problems finding information or Op-Eds I would like to read. International TV and press are accessible as well. Maybe access isn’t so easy for people in a remote Siberian village, but in most of cities and towns it’s like that. It is a free choice to read these sources or to enjoy state-controlled press.

Political Movements

‘Other Russia’, the political movement which organised the March of Dissent, organises its congresses in Moscow and St. Petersburg without any problems, just like many other movements and groups. Political discussions take place all over the country. Maybe not in Chechnya, but that is a different issue. The case is similar with street activities. If the police are fast and performance looks suspicious, flash mobs may attract some attention, but usually the police are not fast enough. In the past few years any kind of ‘marching’ activities have been resented by authorities, who always insist on ‘standing’ activities, preferably not in the central streets and squares. Which is understandable when you know about traffic jams which last 16-18 hours per day in central Moscow. Of course, pro-Putin youth movements, which appeared as a counter-orange force after the Kyiv revolution, receive permissions easily. Opposition movements (left, right, liberal, xenophobic, Orthodox, Islamic) normally receive permissions, but not as smoothly and sometimes at the last minute.

What happened on April 14?

The March of Dissent on 14th April was allowed by the Moscow city authorities, but moved from Pushkin Sq. to Turgenev Sq., from the square named after the greatest Russian poet to the square named after the greatest Russian writer. But the distance to the Kremlin is the same, access to the transport infrastructure is the same, and the same Boulevard ring passes by. So why did organisers of the march start from the Pushkin sq. previously given to a pro-Putin movement’s street activities? Why did they openly conflict with the authorities? Why did they provoke riot police to act against them?

Obviously, they did it for the international audience! Foreign media got a perfect chance to see and show how cruel Russian riot police is and how totalitarian Putin’s regime is. Sitting in Berlin, Paris, London or Washington it’s easy to believe, but from my spot in Russia I see that despite its impressive media-coverage, the ‘Other Russia’ movement is very small and weak. The March of Dissent united no more then 500 people.

Diverse Opposition

The biggest faction is from the National Bolshevik Party, which was prohibited by court ruling. It is famous for its radical left views, red flags with hammer and sickle, for admiring Stalin and the gulags, for capturing federal government buildings and for its straight-out street activities. Other fractions are scanty liberal organisations, better to say well-sponsored political groups, who have not managed to unite for the past decade. Two other big factions are led by the former chess-champion Kasparov, which has minimal support in Russia and is negatively perceived by Russian society, and by the former prime minister Kasyanov, who is one of the symbols of Putin-time corruption aka ‘Misha 2%’ (the nickname comes from a very famous rumour about Kasyanov’s normal charge for the support of any business project while he was a high ranked bureaucrat). Maybe National-Bolsheviks are ready for impressive actions, maybe Kasparov is well known in the West and is reminiscent of Yushchenko, maybe Kasparov can predict the development of the situation as a chess ace and has a good command of English to give interviews, but altogether they look weird. A recent National-Bolshevik idea to unite the coalition under the black-yellow-white flag of Russian empire is even weirder. Yesterdays march was requesting democracy under this flag, which is normally used by nationalistic, imperialistic and monarchical movements, in St. Petersburg, tomorrow they plan on coming to Moscow.

For me the March of Dissent is a well-executed way to torch the Kremlin, which continues to think KGB style, cannot react to the new challenges - such as new demands from the opposition and constantly worsening relations with the neighbouring countries and the EU - and beat up demonstrators. The enormous forces authorities used in the attempt to scare the opposition did not have any effect. However, Kremlin showed progress by allowing a march in front of the international economic forum guests yesterday and letting it happen peacefully and even boring (the idea that it was boring comes from the leaders’ speeches on the meeting after the march). The foreign guests of the forum as earlier guests of the EU-Russia council summit and wider West are the true audience of the march. That is the show for you, folks!

Yeltsin’s funeral - the real protest

Soon after the so-called March of Dissent, on the 23rd April Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, died. Maybe you saw news footage of him standing on the tank in August 1991 and actually starting the Velvet Revolution in Soviet Union, which led to the prohibition of the Communist party in the Soviet Union and to the break-up of the Soviet Union itself. This gave the Russian people a chance for democracy, a chance we did not use and the value of which has probably only been recognised in recent years. He was a very controversial politician, but many Russians remember that fantastic moment in August 1991 and I hope if we would be given another chance we won’t miss it.

Yeltsin’s funeral was the first Orthodox state funeral in Russia in 113 years. Many people, more than I expected, went to the biggest Moscow Cathedral to pay the first president of Russia their last respects. Thousands and thousands of Russian people were queuing for two-three hours day and night to bring flowers to Yeltsin. That was the real protest against Putin’s soft totalitarianism; they are the possible force of the future in progressing toward democracy even if they do not fight with riot police in front of the cameras.

That was the really important march of dissident by the citizens of Russia. My Dutch flatmate, other of our friends and myself went to the Cathedral and queued for two hours in order to pay our last respects to Yeltsin, to see thousands of people who think and feel the same. But next time we will not go to the March of Dissent again. The Opposition plans many of them, about 4-5 per month in many Russian cities… Western media will have a lot of work, but, please, don’t pay too much attention to it and have a nice summer vacations.

Further reading:

- “March of Dissent” in Moscow Ended in Battle (Photo), source: http://www.charter97.org/eng/news/2....

- March of Dissent - Intro, source: http://lexlibertas.com/2007/04/13/m...

- Authorities sanction March of Dissent in downtown St. Petersburg, source: http://www.interfax.com/3/279005/ne...

- Yabloko refuses to join March of Dissent, calls for no violence, source:http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/2...

- Riot police crush anti-Putin rally, source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/russia/ar...

Image: RUSSIA-OPPOSITION-PROTEST; source:Flickr

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Your comments

  • On 12 June 2007 at 21:23, by ? Replying to: March of Dissent

    soft? is it really soft? or isn’t this kind of totalitarianism the most scary one? and do you think it is enough just to wait for another chance for democracy in Russia? while sunbathing? strange article...

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