So, Occupy Abai, Moscow’s latest social/political novelty, is no more. In the wee hours of May 16, six hours before the deadline set by Basmanny court, the last remaining members of the camp were removed by the police, forced to leave their paltry possessions behind.
By noon, a team of orange-clad cleaners scrubbed the square of any trace of the protest camp. The protesters scattered around Moscow, and it’s unlikely that the Abai gathering will soon reemerge like a chattering, guitar-strumming Phoenix.
Though quite short-lived – it only lasted a week – Occupy Abai is a very interesting phenomenon. Though its name is rather counterintuitive and random (the protesters were chased to a square featuring the statue of the 19th century Kazakh poet in central Moscow’s historic area), it’s also strangely befitting. When transliterated into Russian, the word “occupy” bears the imperative suffix -ай, making it a peculiar Russian-English portmanteau – and also rhymes with “Abai.”
In the course of the three days following the “occupation” Abai Kunanbayev, the bearded Asian sage with his Buddha-like tranquil gaze, ascended from “some Kazakh dude” (a phrase uttered by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most popular blogger and de-facto leader of the protest movement, on his Twitter feed) to become Moscow’s most popular poet, his enlightening and rather liberal verse inspiring protesters.
His image appeared on thousands of pamphlets, T-shirts and stickers in the style of Shepard Fairey’s OBEY imagery and his iconic Obama campaign poster. And in the English version of Abai’s “Book of Words” the word “occupy” occurs twice on page one. Talk about coincidences.
On the face of it Occupy Abai looked exactly like any other Occupy camp: makeshift tents and sleeping bags, guitars, posters, rather chaotic assemblies, lectures and political debates, impromptu concerts and celebrity visits, games of Mafia and word associations – with a political twist. Despite the allegations of littering and disturbance suffered by Chistiye Prudy’s residents, the camp’s inhabitants bent over backwards to minimize the stress to the area.
They brought their own crowd-funded portapotties, organized security to keep out anyone violent or drunk (strict dry law was one of the first policies adopted by the camp) and cleaned the square so meticulously that a cigarette-butt wouldn’t survive a minute of the floor. I happened to witness the St. Paul Occupy camp in London in 2011 and can positively assert that Occupy Abai was much better maintained.
What made Occupy Abai entirely different from its Western counterparts, however, was its social dynamics. New York and London’s Occupy demographics were quite homogenous: white, middle-class young people plus the usual portion of dreadlocked frequenters of anything remotely protest-like. Abai’s clientele, on the other hand, sported an astonishingly diverse bunch: Moscow’s old school intelligentsia, urban hipsters, students – sitting law exams with their professors – punks, anarchists, white collar workers, families et cetera, et cetera.
One of the most amazing examples of Abai’s melting pot was the cooperation between sworn enemies: far left and far right radicals, their blood feud being quite literal: there have been dozens of casualties in clashes between Russian neo-Nazis and antifascists over the years. But after a few initial scuffles, the rivals quickly learned to coexist and cooperate, distributing roles between themselves in running the camp. To put this into proper context: imagine members of the English Defence League and United Against Fascism doing chores together in the St. Paul camp.
And although Occupy Abai failed to achieve any of its - rather vague and unrealistic goals, just like their Western brethren – it wasn’t quite about the result. The process itself was inspiring enough: people meeting other people, with antipodean political views or no views whatsoever, exchanging ideas, voicing their gripes, educating themselves and helping each other.
The euphoria in the air was almost palpable. After the mid-2000s gorged depression, apathy and cynicism it felt like a very refreshing sensation.
Alexey Kovalev is editor-in-chief of www.inoSMI.ru. This comment first appeared in The Moscow News.