Police moved in with bulldozers under the cover of darkness early Sunday and razed a tent and shack city set up as a protest by homeless people near the Kremlin, the first concrete sign of a hard-line crackdown, witnesses said.
The three dozen residents of the makeshift community that sprang up in a gesture of disillusionment with Soviet life were rounded up in the early hours by Interior Ministry police before the bulldozers moved in and flattened their plastic and cardboard dwellings in front of the Rossiya Hotel, witnesses said.
Most of the tent city’s full-time residents, including elderly pensioners, war veterans and former mental patients with a variety of grievances, were taken into custody.
A police officer at the scene said that some will be sent to mental hospitals while others will be freed after investigation.
But the Interior Ministry spokesman said that protesters will be given free tickets back to their hometowns.
The Interior Ministry press office said the decision to raze the protest village was made by the Moscow prosecutor based on an order by the City Council’s executive committee.
“One should help these people and not simply oppress them,” he said.
Vadim Shilov, 22, admitted that authorities had previously made offers to many of the tent city regulars to move to hotels while their complaints were investigated, and about half had accepted the offer.
“The tent city was a political protest by the simple people,” said Svetlana Sedykh, who lived for three months in the shantytown to further her bid to emigrate.
“This was the first and the last such protest. There will never be another,” said Sedykh, who narrowly escaped being taken into custody.
“This is (Mikhail) Gorbachev’s New Year’s present,” said Zhana Sedina, a representative of the Pyotr Grigorenko human rights group named after the late dissident, Gen. Grigorenko.
“Gorbachev has now revealed himself to his own people, and he will soon show his true face to the West,” Sedina said.
The tent city, a mecca for the homeless from many cities, had received wide Soviet news coverage since it was established in July. At its height, 300 people with a wide assortment of complaints called it their home.
The unsightly collection of shacks and protest posters was a symbol not only of the social turmoil caused by Gorbachev’s reforms but also of his moves toward democracy that included an unprecedented tolerance of dissent.
In another sign of a hardening of official attitudes, neither the Tass news agency nor Soviet television said a word about the demolition of the protest city.