Angry Russians protest crackdown on protests
There were rock stars and rappers, and there were nurses to take blood donations. Music boomed off the sides of skyscrapers for blocks around.
In between patriotism-tinged performances, earnest announcers climbed onto a stage in a square, under a sign that read “Saving Lives,” and told hundreds of cheering youths about all the good things that would be done with the donated blood.
Monday was Generation Day in Moscow, an event of vague origin, organized by networks of pro-Kremlin youth groups apparently to drown out another event.
Beyond the booming speakers, on the margins of the square, that entirely different drama played out: Demonstrators demanding freedom of assembly tried to mass, only to be set upon by riot police and dragged, bucking and writhing, to waiting buses.
More than 130 activists were arrested in the Russian capital, police said. A similar protest was quashed in St. Petersburg as activists also tried to convene banned rallies to demand the right to protest.
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed in Article 31 of the Russian Constitution but has been a glaring casualty of the rise of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Activists and human rights workers regularly try to stage demonstrations on the 31st day of the month to draw attention to the repression of public dissent by Putin’s government.
Putin caused a minor stir this weekend when, during a meeting with intellectuals in St. Petersburg, he spoke in favor of protest.
“If they are saying something important, specific, pointing out some spots that the authorities should be paying attention to, there is nothing bad in it,” Putin said. “We should say thank you.”
On Monday, his words echoed bitterly among the Moscow demonstrators, who chanted, “Putin is a liar” and “Russia without Putin.”
“He’s lying to us,” said Yuri Sergeyev, 65, a retired railway worker. “Ten years of Putin’s rule made the situation worse in the country. Not a single reform has been carried out.”
There was little space to stand and shout as riot police linked arms and swept into the crowds, roughly pushing protesters and pedestrians along in a jumbled, slightly panicked crowd.
When demonstrators waved copies of the constitution, police snatched them away and tore them up. The pieces fell to the street, where they drifted underfoot, growing smaller and dirtier as the scuffles dragged on.
“This is our city!” the demonstrators yelled, their voices swallowed in the pounding music from the square.
When the concert ended, the crowd of pro-Kremlin youths began to drain away, ambling off toward the subway. Few spared a glance at the clash between police and demonstrators.
“They’re involved in illegal activities,” said Alexei Matyushin, 18, a member of the Young Guard of United Russia, a group attached to Putin’s ruling party. “They should be arrested.”
His girlfriend, who did not give her name, interrupted, saying, “Those people are sick.”
Meanwhile, the concert organizers cranked up recorded music to ear-stabbing levels over the empty square, more than loud enough to drown out the cries of besieged demonstrators on the sidewalk. “We’re under orders,” a stage manager explained with a shrug.
On the sidewalk in front of the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, riot police had managed to split the demonstrators into two packs.
As police grabbed at the people shouting slogans and carried them away, taunts rang out from the other demonstrators. “Shame! Shame!” they yelled at the police. The sun glared down; everybody was sweating, pushing and angry.
It didn’t take police long to clear the last demonstrators from the sidewalk. A few hours, and it was as if nothing had happened at all.