For everyone who is not in Moscow, you probably have heard headlines over the past few days about the protests taking place here. Last Sunday, Duma (Parliamentarian) elections were held. United Russia, the ruling party that has been in power for the past decade lost a large number of seats, but there were also dozens of allegations of unfair voting practices throughout the country. Among other stories were accounts of people being paid pork and vodka to vote or being driven around to multiple voting stations to vote more than once (Chicago style). Starting on Monday, people began to protest electoral fraud. Some of these protests resulted in arrests, with the leader of one of the opposition groups ending up in jail with a 15-day sentence.
However, on Saturday a permit was given for a 30,000 people rally. It was the first time since the early 90’s that a rally of this size was permitted. Leading up to the rally there were fears of mass arrests. According to the New York Times,
“the authorities have granted permission for a demonstration of up to 30,000 people on Saturday, a decision that by all accounts is unparalleled in Mr. Putin’s 12-year reign. But they are also taking measures meant to discourage attendance. In one such attempt, Russia’s chief public health official, Gennady Onishchenko, warned on Friday that protesters risked getting sick. ‘Given the heightened rate of illness now observed, mass gatherings of people on the street could promote the transmission of respiratory infections,’ he said, according to the Ria Novosti news agency. An anonymous law enforcement source also told the Interfax news agency that officers would be looking for draft dodgers at the protest. Moscow’s department of education sent out a directive on Friday requiring students in grades 9 through 11 to report for a mandatory Russian exam on Saturday during the time of the protest. After the test, ‘headmasters will conduct an extra class with students about the rules of safe behavior in the city,’ said the directive, which was published by several Russian news agencies.”
Michael and I were hesitant to go see what was going on for a few reasons. First and foremost, we are not citizens of Russia and wanted to only observe what was going on. Second, 50,000 police officers were deployed and there were concerns about violence. The rally was sponsored by a conglomeration of groups ranging from left-leaning political parties to right-wing nationalists. The nationalists have provoked racial violence in the past. Lastly, as mentioned before, a rally of this size has not taken place in over 20 years in Russia. No one knew what to expect or if mass arrests would take place.
We decided to walk close and observe the scene. The rally was a 25 minute walk from our apartment and it was snowing most of the day. As we were on the other side of the river walking over, we could start to hear chants. They seemed to be anti-Putin chants. We also saw people walking away with white flowers and white ribbons, which have become a symbol of the protest. As we got close and passed through metal detectors, we saw it was a friendly, positive crowd. It was hard to see how many people were there, even from a bridge with a high view. Media estimates range from 35,000-100,000 participants. The crowd was composed of people mostly in their 20’s and 30’s. Everyone was very well behaved and you could feel the energy in the crowd. There were lots of flags of different political parties and home-made signs with statements about the current government or the perceived unfair elections. The sponsors of the protest have very little in common politically, except for their call for new elections. We were very far from the stage and it was very hard to make out any of the speeches, plus my Russian isn’t that great anyway!
I left feeling hopeful for Russians. Living here I have been struck by the lack of advocacy by the population on any issue. In America, there are lobbying organizations from foreign policy to animals. It is weird to live in a country where people don’t feel that they have a platform for their voice to be heard. However, on Saturday, there were tens of thousands of people who were out in good spirits hopeful for a better future for their country. It is still too early to see if anything will change, however, there is an atmosphere of change in the air.
You can see some pictures below of the crowds and some of the signs that people were holding.
From Russia with Love,