March to Smolny

Opposition Declares Dissenters’ March a Success
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
Issue #1650 (12), Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Also called the March to Smolny (City Hall), the march — spearheaded by Moscow-based oppositional politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov — was banned by the authorities, but protesters, whose number was estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000, managed to march most of the 4.5-kilometer route despite the police’s attempts to block them.The Dissenters’ March for the Dismissal of Governor Valentina Matviyenko that took place on Thursday was described by the opposition as one of the biggest and most successful protest events during the past three years, despite arrests and intimidation.

Many protesters were eventually stopped on Mytninskaya Ulitsa, where the most arrests were made. But a handful of marchers managed to reach the final destination near City Hall, and were able to chant some slogans before being surrounded and detained by the police.

According to the organizers, the police detained about 150 people near Gostiny Dvor department store on Nevsky Prospekt and alongside the march’s route, including Nemtsov, Moscow activist Ilya Yashin and the local Solidarity and United Civil Front (OGF) leader Olga Kurnosova. The police confirmed that “more than 100” were detained. More than 90 spent the night in police cells.

The authorities deployed a helicopter to follow the protesters and at one point hover over Nevsky Prospekt, drowning out slogans such as “Russia Will Be Free” and “Dismiss Matviyenko” and sending road dust and dirt into people’s faces.

One policeman was hospitalized, having been hit by a car after “trying to save a resident by pushing him off the road,” the police reported.

But a video made available on the Internet showed that the policeman was in fact hit by a passing car while dragging The Other Russia member Igor Chepkasov with two other policemen across Ligovsky Prospekt to a police bus. Fontanka.ru, which published the police report, later published a correction.

An estimated 500 people who arrived late at the march gathered near Gostiny Dvor, where arrests were also made.

At one point, a man in professional climbing gear descended from the roof of Gostiny Dvor and hung a banner from it that read “Free Khodorkovsky, Imprison Putin.” Oleg Ivashko, who does not belong to any political group, was detained and sentenced to three days in prison.

Four members of the Other Russia party who were detained near Gostiny Dvor — one of them, Maxim Gromov, while attempting to recite a poem — were also sentenced to three days in prison.

While most protesters marched along Nevsky Prospekt’s broad sidewalk, a group of anarchists carrying smoke bombs took to the road after the crowd passed the Anichkov Bridge, and when dispersed, were replaced by a group of The Other Russia activists carrying a banner reading “Dismiss Matviyenko!”

Members of art group Voina, two of whom have been released on bail after spending three months in a St. Petersburg prison for an art stunt that involved overturning police cars, marched with anarchists and carried plastic bottles containing urine to counter the police when attacked.

Speaking on Tuesday, Oleg Vorotnikov said he and other Voina activists were deliberately singled out and beaten, while Kasper, the toddler son of Vorotnikov and fellow Voina member Natalya Sokol, was taken from his parents and eventually sent to hospital with a suspected concussion.

Sokol, who is still breastfeeding her son, spent the night in a police cell but managed to escape when the police were preparing to drive her and other activists to court.

Vorotnikov said they took the bottles filled with urine exclusively for self-defense.

“We agreed to use them only if attacked,” he said.

“And we were attacked, but we didn’t use them until they attacked Kasper. When Kasper was attacked, the anarchists couldn’t stand it anymore and used our rather humble biological weapon — our own urine.”

Vorotnikov, who got Kasper back from the hospital with the help of his lawyer late Thursday, said that he, Sokol and their son had evidence of their injuries documented in a hospital. According to Vorotnikov, who described the police’s behavior as “senseless hysteria,” the activists were beaten both during detentions and at a police precinct.

“I am used to clashes with the police,” Vorotnikov said.

I was beaten on March 3; we have collided with them before. I have spent some time in prison, too, but even I did not expect to face such absurd, ungrounded cruelty on that day.”

City Hall refused to authorize the march organized by the OGF, Solidarity, The Other Russia, Rot Front, Oborona and Mikhail Kasyanov’s People’s Democratic Union (RNDS) on the grounds that building facades were being renovated along all of the five suggested routes. Instead, the authorities suggested the would-be marchers hold a standup meeting on Pionerskaya Ploshchad or a march in the remote Polyustrovo Park.

All photos by Sergey Chernov. They are used here with his permission.

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