The last time opposition demonstrators tried to march in downtown Moscow, Triumfalnaya Square was taken up by pro-Kremlin youth organizations donating blood. On Saturday, it was an auto show, complete with noisy and noxious car races.
Thousands of riot police and interior troops were deployed in and around the square and in all nearby streets. An iron fence and concrete blocks had been erected overnight, and the subway exit into the square was blocked.
It was perhaps not a coincidence that such measures were taken on this particular day: It was the 10th attempt by the opposition to gather in Triumfalnaya Square on the 31st of the month, in a bid to demonstrate their constitutional right to free assembly.
As several hundred demonstrators approached the square wearing badges with the number 31 or holding small posters quoting Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, policemen or plainclothes agents called in detention units.
Groups of five or six riot police officers, breaking through thin crowds of car-show watchers or bystanders, seized the protesters, most of whom offered no resistance and were swiftly carried by sweating and panting officers to waiting police buses as the races went on.
“This is very cynical, the way the authorities go to all these extremes and employ these awkward gimmicks not to let us enjoy our constitutional right,” said Irina Berlyand, 53, a bespectacled philosophy professor wearing a 31 badge prominently on her chest. “They can’t officially prohibit us to rally here, and that is why they come up with this show of absurdity, building this racetrack and all that, bringing all these buses and troops.
“I came here not because my being here will change anything but because there are moments in your life when you need to come to the square against all odds.”