When Occupy activists began setting up camps across world capitals last fall, there seemed little prospect of the movement spreading to Russia, where a no-nonsense police force and a weak and divided opposition – not to mention the weather – appeared to present insurmountable obstacles to any form of prolonged, public protest.
But making predictions on Russia is a fool’s game and on Thursday night, some 2,000 anti-Putin activists gathered at a three-day old camp at a square in downtown Moscow’s trendy Chistye Prudy neighborhood, holding impromptu debates, strumming guitars and swapping stories from the protests that have continued in one form or another since the eve of their arch nemesis’s return to the Kremlin on May 7.
“We’re here because we care about the future of Russia and don’t want to see Putin in power for another 12 years,” said student Nikita Belov, as he perched on the low wall of the square’s pond.
Behind him, two young girls with acoustic guitars entertained the crowd with a song from the Soviet-era cartoon “The Bremen Town Musicians,” injecting new relevance into the animated film’s rock-influenced soundtrack, which reportedly infuriated high-ranking officials when it was performed at the Kremlin in the late 1960s.
“We might not achieve our aims, but we have a right to express ourselves,” said Belov, as the crowd clapped their approval of the song, with its refrain of “Freedom.”
But the mood at the camp is festive and largely free of overt political sloganeering, with the ubiquitous white ribbons – the symbol of the protest movement – the only real indication as to the convictions of those present.
It was at Chistye Prudy that the first mass protest against he rule of Vladimir Putin took place after last December’s disputed parliamentary polls, as some 5,000 demonstrators led by anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny attempted to take their discontent to the nearby Kremlin walls. That protest triggered an outpouring of anti-government dissent not seen here since the early 1990s, and much larger anti-Putin rallies followed in the months to come.
But last weekend, the largely peaceful protests suddenly turned violent as demonstrators and police fought pitched battles in Moscow on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a third presidential term. Hundreds of activists then spent the next three days roaming through the capital’s squares and boulevards, before – amid unconfirmed rumors of rank and file police discontent over the mounting arrests – gathering at Chistye Prudy, around a statue of 19th century Kazakh poet-philosopher Abai Kunanbayev.
Police have so far made no move to detain activists, despite Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, vowing on Thursday that security forces would disperse the “illegal” camp. “All such camps share the same fate, all over the world,” he said, as reported by the Afisha website.
“They won’t close down the camp,” opposition leader Boris Nemtsov insisted in an interview with RIA Novosti. “They can’t jail us all after all.” “Putin is afraid of the protests,” he added. “He’s seen how the people reacted to his inauguration.”
With the protest movement’s figureheads – Navalny and fiery Left Front head Sergei Udaltsov – jailed for 15 days earlier this week, formal leadership of the camp has passed to Solidarity activist Ilya Yashin, backed up by socialite turned dissident Ksenia Sobchak and opposition parliamentarian Dmitry Gudkov.
And the sight of the impeccably made-up Sobchak – daughter of Putin’s political mentor, the late mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak – and the suited and clean-cut Gudkov negotiating with workers ordered to remove the square’s portable toilets late on Thursday provided one of the camp’s moments of high comedy.
“I never thought we’d be dragged into politics over our toilets,” a representative of the company that provided the WCs said as activists gathered in front of his truck.
Despite the high-profile roles of Sobchak, Yashin and Gudkov, activists have largely organized themselves, providing food and setting up volunteer teams to clean up the square, as well as security patrols to deal with local drunks.
“We’ve got volunteer teams making sure we keep the place clean,” an enthusiastic young activist said as he handed out free food to protesters. “The city street cleaners who come in the morning have nothing to do.”
But not everyone in Russia’s fractured opposition approves of the camp. Radical veteran activist Eduard Limonov, who was jailed for four years on weapons charges in 2001, has said he welcomes “any form of protest,” but criticizes Chisty Prudy activists for their non-confrontational tactics.
And Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko Party, said in his blog on Thursday that street protests would achieve nothing and advised demonstrators to “create an alternative” in order to “win elections and take power.”
The camp was also criticized by Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov.
“These white ribbons have become the symbol of an attempt at an Orange Revolution in Russia,” Markov told RIA after a visit to the camp on Friday. “And I am against that.” But Markov, a former United Russia parliamentarian, also said that every generation had the right to protest. “We stood out on squares in our time to bring an end to the Communist Party,” he said.
Back at Chisty Prudy, in a typical example of Moscow hipster humor, anti-Putin activists have adopted the previously obscure poet Kunanbayev as the symbol of their protest, reading his works and vying with each other to extract from them the quote most appropriate to their situation.
“What are you all doing here next to our poet’s statue?” asked a bemused Kazakh woman on Thursday afternoon, shaking her head in disbelief as she took in the hundreds of activists sitting and strolling around the monument to Kunanbayev.
“He’s become, well, the unofficial symbol of our anti-Putin movement,” said a middle-aged female activist.
“Do you even know anything about him?” asked the Kazakh woman. “And, besides, what are you all protesting for? Putin won the elections, didn’t he? The people voted for him.”
And while the activist was able to convince the skeptical Kazakh that she was at least reading up on Kunanbayev, she had less success in convincing her that Putin was not the legitimate and only realistic ruler of Russia. The debate neatly summed up the opposition’s main problem right now – its failure to persuade a critical mass of Russians that there is an alternative to Putin.
“If not Putin, then who?” asked the Kazakh woman. “Who do you want to see in charge?”
“Any of these people here could run Russia, no problem,” said another activist, gesturing at those around him. Unfortunately for the activist, at that very moment, one of the few vagrants rejoicing in the chance for a free meal at the camp lurched past. The woman, unconvinced, walked off.
State-run television has so far remained silent on the camp, but that may change this weekend, when a host of cultural figures, including bestselling author Boris Akunin, plan to lead activists on a “Test Stroll” to Chisty Prudy.
“The aim of our experiment is to determine – can Muscovites walk freely around their own city or do they need a special pass?” Akunin wrote in his blog on Wednesday.
Sobchak also planned on Friday to film an episode of her State Department 2 talk show, aired by the popular, online, opposition-minded Dozhd TV channel.
And Yashin said the camp would be soon equipped with electrical generators and WiFi, to the delight of activists who have used online resources to organize and offer a series of wry commentary on events. “Twitter is our leader,” an activist joked, as hipsters all around him stared into the glowing screens of their smart phones and laptops.
“The authorities thought that if they jailed Udaltsov and Navalny, then the people would stop standing up to them,” said Yashin. “But they were wrong. There’s no one person that they can imprison to stop this.”