Big-Name Writers Lead Protest Rally of 10,000
Published: May 16, 2012 (Issue # 1708)
MISHA JAPARIDZE / AP
Writer Boris Akunin (c) attends a protest march in downtown Moscow on Sunday. 10,000 are believed to have participated.
MOSCOW — A week after bloody clashes between radical youths and riot police tarnished the first major protest rally in months, the moderate middle-class opposition appeared to re-assert itself Sunday with an unexpectedly large march of thousands in Moscow led by some of Russia’s most prominent writers.
Organizers said about 10,000 marched peacefully from Pushkin Square to Chistiye Prudy, where they merged with a four-day-old open-air camp that had become the headquarters of the fledgling street movement to oust President Vladimir Putin. Police put the number of marchers at 2,000.
Unlike the May 6 rally, police presence was minimal, and there were no reports of violence or detentions.
Prominent opposition-minded writers, including Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Dmitry Bykov, Lev Rubinshtein and crime novelist Grigory Chkhartishvili, who writes under the pseudonym Boris Akunin, took center stage at Sunday’s unsanctioned Test March, which doubled as a book-signing event for many.
“It’s great that the protest movement is taking various forms and genres, that it’s changing and mutating but isn’t dying down,” said Rubinshtein, a poet. “The fact that so many people showed up is also evidence that literature still carries some weight in our society.”
The event was called the Test March to see whether anti-Kremlin activists could walk around freely. Last week, people were detained for just wearing white ribbons — the symbol of the protesters, or for no clear reason at all. “We are now fighting for our right to walk where we want to,” satirist Viktor Shenderovich said.
As the crowds walked on Rozhdestvensky Bulvar, which slopes down a hill, cheers began whenever a new group reached the top of the hill. The mass of people on the street was a striking contrast to the empty city on the day of Putin’s inauguration.
Mathematician Fyodor, 63, held up an electronic reader with the words, “If you come up against a lie, use it,” a quote he attributed to Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century Scottish writer.
Under a statue of 19th-century poet Alexander Griboyedov, poet Dmitry Bykov recited Griboyedov’s verse and collected manuscripts from aspiring authors in a plastic bag.
Marchers said they were appalled by the violence at the May 6 rally and welcomed the authors’ march. “It was scary. It seemed like a completely different group from the one that had been going to the rallies,” said Ksenia Velembovskaya, 60, editor of an academic journal. “Today, I feel great. These are our people.”
Unlike the mass police presence last week, the peaceful march was epitomized by a policeman who stood near the Pushkin Square cinema and shouted at the crowd, “Careful, there are steps ahead!”
Dozens of protesters at the opposition base camp at Chistiye Prudy braved chilly weather and rain on Saturday night, wrapping themselves in blankets under plastic sheets and umbrellas, thereby ensuring the continuation of the nonstop protest that began early last week.
Opposition activists say the government has initiated a propaganda campaign to portray the camp as an unsanitary nuisance, perhaps to build public support for a potentially bloody operation to clear it. On Friday, Channel One broadcast complaints by an elderly “local” who accused the protesters of, among other things, defecating “wherever and however they want.”
Protesters denied the charges, and bloggers say they’ve unmasked the woman, Nina Toporova, as a United Russia loyalist who doesn’t live on Chistiye Prudy. Socialite and opposition supporter Ksenia Sobchak raised the possibility of filing libel charges.
Protest leaders also appear to be coming under increasing pressure from the authorities. The authorities are preparing to jail opposition leaders Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny for two years, Sobchak tweeted on Saturday night, citing a source close to the Kremlin. She wrote that she hoped the allegation was just a rumor. Both men are currently serving a 15-day prison sentence for disobeying police orders during an opposition rally Tuesday. On Saturday, the Presnensky District Court upheld Navalny’s sentence.
Separately, the Investigative Committee opened a preliminary inquiry into allegations that they called for mass riots. Charges, if filed, would carry a punishment of up to three years in prison.
A Moscow court ordered the opposition camp closed Tuesday after complaints from local residents.