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Deeper Than Oil: Moscow protest fatigue

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
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After seven days of protests, counter rallies, more protests, wild speculation and yet more counter rallies here in Moscow, I finally came down today with demonstration fatigue.

After seven days of protests, counter rallies, more protests, wild speculation and yet more counter rallies here in Moscow, I finally came down today with demonstration fatigue. I’m all in favor of this week’s unprecedented show of dissent against the rule of Vladimir Putin, of course, but I need a break. Unrest is tiring.

Still, it’s been exciting. A real shot of adrenalin that has only finally just started to wear off. Even though I missed Monday night’s demonstration in Moscow, in which some 5,000 people gathered to protest alleged (I have to write alleged) fraud at the December 4 parliamentary elections, I could feel the energy riding toward me in waves from across town.

I made it to the next night’s rally, though, and watched as around 1,000 protesters tried to break though to Triumfalnaya Square, where a counter-demonstration by the pro-Kremlin movement Nashi was taking place. The demonstrators weren’t having much luck getting past rows of Omon riot officers and sullen Nashi security. The massive billboard above the square for Tom Cruise’s new Mission Impossible film seemed to sum it all up.

Things were pretty tense though, especially when the cops starting to rush protesters to clear the area around the square. “Russia without Putin!” the crowd shouted back. And, frequently, “Shame! Shame!”

“Meet force with force!” one – I presume – hardened opposition activist shouted as the crowd scattered in the face of the Omon. “Don’t just shout shame!”

The cops might have been rough on the demonstrators, but they were pretty polite – in most cases – to journalists. Well, they were to me. Not sure about the ones they detained. When I had had enough of watching people getting busted, I tried to make my way back home through a courtyard whose entrance the cops were blocking off.

“Closed, go back,” one of them said.

“I’m from the press,” I said, flashing my press card. “And I lost my pen over there.”

The cop frowned as he gazed in the direction of my vague gestures.

“Any chance of going to look for it?”

The cop shrugged, and let me through.

*

The run-up to Saturday’s rally in Moscow saw the Internet burst with frenzied speculation. ‘A crack division of Chechen army officers has been drafted into the city.’ ‘Tanks are being deployed’ ‘American snipers will take out demonstrators from rooftops in a bid to further destabilize the situation.’

Some 50,000 people had pledged on social network sites that they would turn up at 2pm to voice their anger at the poll fraud and Moscow crackled with excitement on the eve of the rally. Helicopters circled ahead and there was a heavy security presence on the streets. Western media outlets were full of stories about the approaching Slavic Spring and the beginning of the end for Putin. The authorities, unexpectedly, gave permission for a mass rally. But would the F***book dissidents show up? Or would the protests turn out to be the flop of the year?

In the end, at least 50,000 people (the police said 25,000 – but who believes the cops?) braved driving sleet to stream into central Moscow, with more rallies all across Russia. The first indication of how the day would turn out came at Revolution Square, where some members of the opposition, led by radical writer and political activist Eduard Limonov, staged an illegal rally. The cops didn’t touch them, and Limonov – mildly insulted perhaps they he hadn’t deemed worthy of arrest – stormed off in a huff.

The cops had obviously been told to treat the protesters with kid gloves on this occasion. It was a pretty clever move – mass disorder in the centre of Moscow could easily have sparked the flames of a simmering popular revolt.

“Can I please get past?” a tooled-up cop asked me as I walked across a downtown Moscow bridge.

“Why, of course,” I replied, stunned by his politeness. Cops usually grunt here, in place of words.

“Thank you,” the cop said, and went on his way.

The main rally continued just as peacefully, unless you count the pretty angry chants of “Swindler and thieves” – as United Russia are known here. There were speeches, more cries of “Putin out!” some more speeches and then it was all over.

But nothing really needed to happen at the rally itself. The main thing was that so many people came out to show that they would quite like to live in a country where corruption isn’t woven into the fabric of daily life, where the cops don’t torture with impunity, where the country’s oil dollars don’t mysteriously disappea, and where the authorities occasionally stop to consider what the people think. And not in a country where the people, as an opposition banner I saw a year or so ago put it, “just get in the Kremlin’s way.”

Back home, state-run TV had decided to break its no long-standing dissent rule and show the protests. The top-rated Channel One even led with the Moscow rally. But it was an odd sort of coverage – anyone hearing about the unrest for the first time would have been hard-pressed to figure out exactly what everyone was so annoyed about. There were no anti-Putin chants aired and the only placards or banners shown were so vague as to be meaningless. “Love each other!” read one. “Listen to us!” read another. Soundbites were just as hazy. “I came here today to see who else would come. Turns out I’m not alone. Great!” said one middle-aged man.

The demonstrations were for “fair elections,” Russians were told. And who could argue with that? As one blogger put it, “90% of the report was about how well the rallies were organized.” It was all, as a Muscovite friend commented, portrayed as a “kind of Soviet-type rally in support of something, rather than against something.”

I’d had enough though by this time and went to sleep. The next mass protest is set for December 24. That’s right – Christmas Eve (they celebrate the birth of Christ here on January 7). Will I choose mince pies or Moscow protests? (Mince pies, for our American readers, are traditional English festive delicacies.) Stay tuned…

 

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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*

From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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