The G20 finance ministers and central bankers had quite a show to kick off their meeting in Moscow this past week.
After a hiatus of about a year, several thousand Muscovites – and Russians in several cities across Russia – turned out on the streets on Thursday to protest actions taken by their government.
The catalyst this time was the sentencing of anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny (alongside his former colleague, businessman Peter Ofitserov – who is seen in the photo holding a copy of Kafka’s The Trial) to a five year prison sentence after a long, drawn-out, on again-off again trial on what are, by wide accounts, trumped-up embezzlement charges.
Thursday morning in Kirov, Leninskii District Court Judge Sergei Blinov read out the lengthy sentence in a rushed manner that resembled a bored priest reading a liturgy. Most observers had expected a probationary sentence; as soon as it became clear that Navalny was being sentenced to real prison time, the calls began in Moscow for Navalny supporters to turn out at 7pm on Manezh Square, the plaza that lies adjacent to Red Square at the opposite end from St. Basil’s Cathedral, and on which the State Duma (parliament) building faces.
But hours in advance of the appointed time, strange activity began to kick up on Manezh Square. About a dozen large orange construction trucks drove onto the square; part of them started unloading metal barricades, while another part of them hauled away stacks of brand new bricks and paving stones that had been laid out for the purpose of doing renovations (on Twitter, there were jokes about how convenient these would have been for ammunition during the protest). Television vans showed up and parked in a row along the edge of the square, and reporters with their camera operators paced about the square waiting for news to happen.
Then ranks of OMON (Russian riot police) showed up and, after arranging the metal barricades to fence off the square, they began to slowly herd people out of it, offering the lackluster explanation that renovations were to be done (even though all the renovation materials had just been hauled away). There was some confusion as people emerging from Okhotnyi Riad, the shopping mall that lies under the square, found themselves face to face with OMON soldiers, and mass transit commuters tried to cross the square to get to their preferred Moscow Metro stations. In one video, a delegate to the G20 meeting, apparently French, tries to enter the barricaded area to get to the Manezh, where her meeting is to be held. She futilely holds up her G20 nametag to the OMON on guard, and can be heard to say, “I have to get to the Manezh … I don’t speak Russian … But I’m G20!”
The spirit of civil disobedience was evident quite apart from any connection to Navalny. As they were herded from the Manezh Square by OMON, Muscovites moved slowly, in a lackadaisical manner, taking photos and videos of the scene, smiling, laughing, and generally not taking the OMON soldiers seriously. Those who found themselves on the outside of the barricades leaned up against them, draped their arms over them, watched the OMON who were watching them with expressions a placid interest. There appears to be no animosity on either side, so sense of fear, and no particular show of respect or disrespect – just humans curiously regarding other humans in a studiously non-reactionary way.
The clearing of Manezh Square was accomplished before 7pm; meanwhile, people started arriving in the area with the intent of joining the demonstration. There was confusion as people poured out of the Okhotnyi Riad metro station to find themselves hemmed in by barricades. Slowly it became apparent that thousands of people had managed to flow into the area and, when they could not get onto the square, had simply lined the sidewalks at the T-intersection of Tverskaya and Mokhovaya streets, adjacent to Manezh square. OMON soldiers arranged themselves in the street facing them, with the Moscow traffic continuing to flow past in the street behind them.
For a while no one seemed to know what else to do; unlike previous demonstrations, this one had no agenda, no procession route, no stage where opposition leaders would make speeches. People took pictures and videos of the OMON soldiers and one another, and seemed to be waiting for something to happen; they craned their necks to look this way and that as if expecting that somewhere just down the street there might be action to emulate. Then it seems their own playful creativity took hold: they simply began to applaud; then passing cars honked in support and they applauded those; then they began to hoist one another up onto the window ledges of the Duma building; then in a few places they made daring dashes to take over the street and stop traffic. Small, improvised protest flyers began to be flashed, almost coyly in most cases. Then the distinctive, round Navalny campaign stickers began to show up – first in people’s hands, then on street signs, on buildings, on the front door of the Duma, even on the police vans themselves.
Some protesters began to be hauled away by OMON and put into police vans, mostly with smiles on their faces (although Rustem Adagamov captured the scene inside one police van in which a man is seen being punched in the face by a soldier); one video captured the moment when, as OMON were pushing protesters into the front door of a van, a bystander opened the back door and allowed a dozen protesters to dash for freedom amid applause and laughter and triumphant cheering. It was later reported that all of the protesters who were detained we released.
The peak of the protest lasted three hours; police estimate the crowd at 2500 people; opposition leaders estimated it at 10,000; judging from the photos and videos, I’d put it closer to the latter estimate – and that does not include the hundreds of cars that drove through the intersection honking their horns and/or sporting pro-Navalny messages on their windows. The pricey quality of these protesting cars gave the clearest indication of the demographic of this demonstration, as of most Muscovite demonstrations: very much the genteel, middle class of Moscow. Chalk this up as another manifestation of what The Atlantic recently called “the revolt of the global middle class”.
Incidentally, the G20 finance ministers were apparently being housed in the National Hotel on the corner of Mokhovaya and Tverskaya, right in the heart of the protest. Given that the first event – a press conference of the Ministers of Finance of Russia, Germany, France, UK and the Secretary General of the OECD Angel Gurria – was scheduled for 12pm on the 19th in the Manezh, it seems likely that some of the finance ministers could have been watching from their hotel windows as the protests swirled about below them.
As dusk began to fall, the crowd slowly thinned, and the OMON took advantage of the reduced numbers to perform a squeezing maneuover and push people up Tverskaya Street, away from Manezh Square. But a contingent of several hundred mostly younger protesters stayed on the street until the wee hours of the morning, regrouping around the monument to the Heroes of Pleven in the Kitai-Gorod (China Town) area on the other side of Red Square, some gathering in a group around a guitar player to sing popular songs. Commentators wistfully (perhaps hopefully) likened it to the “Occupy Abai” movement that briefly took hold in Moscow in the summer of 2012.
What the protesters did not know was that, even before the 7pm protest had gotten fully underway, the very prosecutor – Bogdanov – who had requested that Navalny be locked up immediately following the verdict, suddenly reversed himself and announced that he would file a challenge to the Kirov court for improperly jailing Navalny prior to the hearing of appeals. By all accounts this was an entirely unprecedented move. A hearing was set for 10am Friday, and as a result, Navalny and Ofitserov, after an emotional parting the day before, found themselves once again free and in the arms of their wives.
When Navalny emerged from the Kirov courthouse on Friday and stood on the steps to face the sea of cameras that awaited him, someone brought him a plate stacked high with pancakes – what in Russian are called bliny, which happens to be essentially the name of the judge that sentence him (Sergei Blinov – which could be interpreted as “Sergei of the Pancakes”). Laughing giddily, Navalny grabbed one of bliny and stuffed it in his mouth, munching it as he answered reporter’s questions.
After Navalny was freed, most commentators on Twitter mused that the main motivation behind the release was the Moscow mayoral race coming up in September, in which Navalny has declared himself a candidate. The logic goes that incumbent Mayor Sobyanin, who is running for reelection, wants Navalny in the election campaign to make his own campaign look legitimate. The turn of events is widely being cited as evidence of the way the Russian justice system is used to serve narrow and short-term political ends.
Navalny and his wife Yulia, along with their entourage, took the first train back to Moscow on Friday, which arrived Saturday morning at Yaroslavskii station – the same station where Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner arrived from their exile in Gorky. To be sure, this parallel was pointed out in the Twitter commentary upon Navalny’s arrival – rather inflationary, given that Navalny had not (yet) been exiled, but it shows the mood of Navalny observers. Joking comparisons were also made to Lenin’s arrival at Finland Station in St. Petersburg after revolution broke out in 1917.
OMON were on the scene in advance of the train’s arrival, pretending that a bomb threat required them to clear the station; Navalny supporters ignored them and got as close to the platform as they could, and eventually the OMONovtsy helped clear a path for Navalny’s entourage to walk through the crowd, which media reports estimated at over 1000 people. Navalny paused to address the crowd, using a megaphone that had apparently been provided by a policemen. Today Navalny changed his Facebook cover photo to an image of this moment.
Navalny remains for the most part unknown among the Russian public – not because he isn’t interesting, but because he has been blacklisted from all the mainstream Russian news outlets. Some Western critics undermine Navalny’s significance by focusing on his sometimes unsavory comments on immigrants, painting him as a worrisome nationalist and racist. I think these critics are reading far too much into these manifestations of Navalny’s imperfection, in a missing-the-forest-for-the-trees fashion; they fail to appreciate Navalny’s lack of political correctness as a refreshing sign of his fundamental candidness. Miriam Elder, the soon-to-be-former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, put things in perspective nicely in a tweet she posted after Navalny’s sentencing: “Navalny is far from perfect politically, very far. But he is smart, funny, young and good and it is very, very hard to see him go to jail.”
Many thousands of Muscovites seem to agree. Let’s see if there are enough of them to give Navalny a run for the mayor’s seat – and then let’s see if the election system would allow him to defeat Sobyanin. And if it won’t: I would predict we should expect another season of protest, perhaps the biggest ever, come September.