Devoted Opposition Remains at St. Isaac’s
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
May 16, 2012
“Occupy St. Isaac’s” — St. Petersburg’s response to continuing protests in Moscow, dubbed after the square in the city center — entered its second week Tuesday, as anti-Putin protesters continued to gather on St. Isaac’s Square, holding debates, lectures, poetry readings and concerts.
The protesters’ main demands are dissolving the “illegitimate” State Duma and dismissing the “illegitimate” president while organizing new elections. Contrary to expectations, neither the camp on St. Isaac’s Square nor the “Occupy Abai” protest near the monument to Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev on Chistiye Prudy in Moscow were immediately shut down by the authorities.
The protesters have banned posters and placards out of fear that it would give the authorities grounds to disperse the protest, although one man stood Monday with a sign reading “We demand new honest elections” at the opposite end of the small garden. The white ribbons and white balloons that symbolize the demand for honest elections are, however, widely in evidence.
There are people of diverse political views — from left-wing to liberal to nationalist — at the site, but they have been making decisions by democratic vote and conflicts are being avoided or dealt with peacefully.
“The authorities have demonstrated that they are not going to take people’s opinions into consideration,” said social activist Filipp Kostenko, who describes his views as anarchist.
“That’s why there’s a need for an efficient alternative to this system, and grassroots self-organization can be such an alternative. This gathering on St. Isaac’s Square is an attempt at such grassroots organization and people’s interaction, regardless of the authorities and against the authorities.”
The St. Isaac’s camp emerged spontaneously when the police shut down a small local demo on May 7, the day of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president, when The Other Russia oppositional party urged residents to show solidarity with the St. Petersburg protesters arrested in Moscow on May 6 and 7.
The police arrested about eight people at the May 7 demo, but some of those who came did not leave, remaining to stand, talk or sit on benches, some playing chess.
Since then, from 50 to 300 people have been present at the site at different times of the day, with up to 20 staying overnight to keep the camp running around the clock.
The location was chosen because it is next to the Legislative Assembly and the City Elections Committee. On March 5, several thousand came there to protest electoral fraud, only to be dispersed by OMON riot police, who arrested more than 500.
Participants and supporters provide a constant supply of food and drinks, except alcohol, which is forbidden. The protesters have been keeping the site clean, packing trash in large plastic bags and taking it away.
On Tuesday, the camp launched its own website, www.uznay.org.
The police have been keeping watch on the protest from one or two vans parked nearby, sometimes harassing protesters with ID checks or petty demands, such as to park baby carriages in a different way or remove a table brought by some activists.
“The police decided to check the IDs of everybody who was here at four or five in the morning,” Kostenko said Monday.
“A group of about six policemen approached those who were here — about 15 protesters — and they started checking IDs, citing an alleged complaint from local residents that terrorists were gathering here. When asked to produce an all-points bulletin (APB), they retreated. But they had time to copy the ID information of five people or so.
“The other incident was when a policeman came and disassembled a plastic table, saying, ‘If everybody sets up a table, what will we have here — a canteen?”
Unlike Moscow, where best-selling author Boris Akunin and the veteran rock band Mashina Vremeni’s frontman Andrei Makarevich took part in protests, no local celebrities have come out to support protesters in St. Petersburg.
Locally based stadium rocker Yury Shevchuk, who enjoys a reputation as a politically conscious singer-songwriter and who protesters had hoped would join the campaign, declined to come.
“I have no time to stroll on St. Isaac’s Square,” Shevchuk was reported as saying when promoting his band DDT’s Friday concert on a local music radio Tuesday. “I am tired. Every concert is a battle in itself!”
Local club band SP Babai’s frontman Mikhail Novitsky, who also leads the Green Wave preservationist group, has been a frequent sight at the protest site.
It was there that Novitsky premiered a song called “Putin Is Afraid of Everybody” inspired by hundreds of arrests in the streets of Moscow on May 6 and 7 and the May 7 TV footage of Putin’s cavalcade silently speeding to the Kremlin for the inauguration through a deserted Moscow, emptied of people by the police and security services.
“No dogs, no cats, no bird will chirp; everyone has been arrested, because Putin is afraid of everybody,” the song goes.
Novitsky said he was shocked by the footage.
“There was some scary, sinister lie in this silence, so I tried to make a joke out of it and cheer people up,” he said.
“I think people realized that you should laugh at it rather than despair.”
According to Novitsky, who plans to give two lectures on ecology to protesters, the importance of the St. Isaac’s protest was in uniting people.
“If you do something regularly, quantity turns into quality,” he said Monday.
“The situation ripens, connections are forged between people, and all this will explode at a certain moment. There are about 100 people now, but the total number of people who have been here is more than several thousand.”
The Other Russia chose not to participate in the protest on St. Isaac’s Square, but concentrate on the next Strategy 31 rally for freedom of assembly due on May 31, according to the party’s local leader Andrei Dmitriyev.
“We support any forms of protest activity, but it doesn’t look very serious,” Dmitriyev said this week.
“People come, sit there for a while and then what? There are no slogans, no posters. They don’t appear to be ready for resistance, for confrontation with the police, for more or less decisive action. Perhaps that’s why they are left alone — because they don’t pose any threat to the authorities.
“We’re preparing the next Strategy 31 rally and inviting them to join us, because it’s a totally different degree of confrontation with the system.”
Photos by Sergey Chernov. Check out his LiveJournal blog for more photos from Occupy St. Isaac’s.