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eXile Classic / December 11, 2007

This article first appeared in The eXile in December 2007

OMON outside of Yabloko’s headquarters in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — The morning air was icy and the mood tense as people gathered for Other Russia’s pre-protest press conference outside the Yabloko office. The protest itself was a few miles away and wouldn’t start for another hour, but it was obvious that something was going to go down, and soon.

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A dozen police cars and trucks carrying OMON troops lined the narrow street, Ulitsa Mayakovskovo, as up to 100 people milled around, waiting for the conference to finish. Riot police had blocked off every intersection up and down the street. Across from the building, a police commander in camo paced the pavement with a walkie-talkie, nervously eyeing the small crowd.

“This is not a protest,” yelled an older opposition activist with a beard and a loudspeaker. “All we are doing is peacefully walking down the street. Please, do not shout slogans. I repeat, this is not a protest…”

The press conference had ended and the crowd started moving down the street. He seemed to be addressing the protesters as much as the OMON troops that had started hopping out of their trucks, getting into strike formation.

The procession didn’t make it 30 feet before a couple of kids at the head of the crowd unfurled black hammer-and-sickle NatsBol flags and began shouting “Other Russia! Other Russia!”

That was all the OMON needed to start pouncing.

“This protest is unsanctioned! What you are doing is illegal,” a police officer shouted through a loudspeaker as columns of OMON troops barreled through the narrow sidewalk to head off the crowd. As I ran ahead with them, a few people were already being dragged backwards to the police vans; most of them were young, one was unconscious as they dragged him away by his arms.

The OMONtsi kept pouring out onto the sidewalk, some of them slipping on the icy pavement. People scrambled in all directions and I found myself in a crowd of mostly pensioners and women. We were all jammed up against the side of a building, watching helplessly as the OMONtsi clubbed and dragged people away, including an man who looked old enough to be a veteran of Stalingrad.

Protestors stopping traffic on the Garden Ring road in Moscow

Just a day earlier, I was at Moscow’s protest. There, the police failed to contain a small group of NatsBols who bum-rushed a surprisingly weak police cordon after the sanctioned Other Russia rally came to an end. The young crowd broke through the cops and poured into Moscow’s Ring Road, blocking traffic as they turned into a smaller street towards Red Square, getting as far as a kilometer before the cops cut them off and trapped them. I was at the head of the crowd when it broke through, and felt the rush that comes whenever an ecstatic mob takes over. For a good 15 minutes the cops were powerless to stop it.

The next day in St. Petersburg, the overwhelming show of force was a clear sign that the Kremlin wasn’t going to allow a repeat. The cops were looking for any reason to nip the march in the bud, which the NatsBol kids conveniently provided. There was only one problem: the NatsBols weren’t anywhere near press conference. They were saving their strength for the protest. It looked like a setup, an insider provocation, one of many I was to witness. No one in the crowd was really sure where these alleged NatsBols came from. I noticed that a cop picked up a NatsBol flag that fell to the ground; it may come in handy later.

I was still jammed up against the same building when OMON commanders started shouting orders to grab everyone.

“Vsekh, vskeh!” they yelled.

Other Russia organizers, SPS, and Yabloko figures were targeted first. Then the OMON started detaining people at random.

Despite the huge yellow press pass hanging around my neck, two OMON officers grabbed me from behind and twisted my right hand behind my back.

Davai, let’s go without any struggle,” a voice on my right said as he jammed his palm against the back of my neck. They pushed me forward and towards a waiting a police truck.

OMON running to intercept the fake NatsBols outside of Yabloko’s office

They frog-marched me toward an ordinary Soviet delivery truck, the kind you’d see unloading kolbasaand pelmeni at your local produktovy magazin. But instead of a freezer box, the truck was equipped with a 5×5 ft. steel holding cell with a tiny door, no lights, and no holes for ventilation. It was packed so tightly with protesters that the cop had trouble stuffing me inside. Finally I was able to wedge myself in between two people; immediately the door locked behind me.

Inside, the darkness was total. The air was acidic, reeking of metal, body odor, and blood.

“I’m scared, I’m really scared,” a guy to my right started whimpering. “I have claustrophobia.”

No one responded. People were too busy trying to get into a comfortable position.

Someone flicked on a lighter. Someone else shouted at him to quit wasting valuable air, so I didn’t have time to get a good count. But there seemed to be 10 to 15 people in there.

“Air! Air!” a male voice yelled from the far corner. “We don’t have anything to breathe in here! Open the door, open the door!” The steel box amplified his voice. The soundproofing killed all outside noise. I twisted around to take out my phone and call the friend I was staying with. But a male voice next to me cautioned: “Be careful! They’ll take it away!” It was no use. My friend wasn’t picking up.

I was a little freaked, too. Yabloko’s office was located less than a block away from Rodilny Dom #6, the drab Soviet maternity hospital where I was born 26 years ago. Would this also be the place where it would end for me?

But I lucked out. After what seemed like fifteen minutes, the door suddenly opened. “Are there any journalists inside?” a voice asked.

“Yeah,” I answered.

“What were you doing in there?” a blonde woman in police uniform asked me as I jumped out of the truck. She was some kind of press liaison with the MVD.

“Well, you’re out now, so be happy and don’t complain!” she said when I didn’t respond, and stomped off to the next truck to check for more detained journalists. (Because I was on assignment forMa’ariv, an Israeli paper partially owned by exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, news of my brief detainment made headlines the next day in the Promised Land.)

No more than 30 minutes had passed since the police first moved to break up the press conference outside the Yabloko offices. By now a column of OMON trucks was moving out towards the real protest.

One of the first casualties

A few kilometers away, protestors had begun gathering outside the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg’s main tourist attraction. Other Russia organizers had filed a request with city officials to hold a protest at this spot and then march through the city. Citing traffic concerns, their request was denied. They were, however, granted permission to hold a rally in a less visible part of town. But no one had shown up at that spot. Other Russia organizers had decided to hold an illegal protest at the Hermitage, with or without permission.

The police were ready, and had barricaded the square in front the museum with trucks, snow removal equipment, and a wall of riot cops. With nowhere to go, protestors were forced to congregate on a thin strip of sidewalk at the beginning of Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare that starts at Neva River.

The scene was chaos. Protesters mixed with pedestrians as tourists and journalists scrambled over the icy pavement to take photographs. Press estimates ranged from between 1,000 to 2,000 people present. Many of them were pensioners and the usual crusty 80s intelligentsia types. Young people were few. Even as the number of people swelled, there was never a focal point or any organization.

Edward Limonov and Garry Kasparov were both missing. Kasparov was in jail, and Limonov’s whereabouts were a great mystery. Police had detained most of Other Russia’s organizers that morning and picked up a bunch of NatsBols the night before. With no one leading it, the plan to march through the city fizzled. The protest had failed even before the OMON moved in.

When they finally did pounce, it resulted in even more chaos. It’s not as easy to create a trap in St. Petersburg as in Moscow. Nevsky Prospekt is too wide of a street, with too many escape routes. Protesters simply melted to different sides of the street, mixing in with pedestrians.

Chaos and OMON outside the Hermitage Museum

St. Petersburg’s police force is generally considered more brutal and less professional than their colleagues in Moscow. But after the PR fiasco of their bloody suppression of April’s Other Russia protest, they had obviously been told to refrain from excessive violence, especially against pensioners and women. This time, the OMON contented themselves with the slow, methodical process of splitting up crowds, identifying possible troublemakers, and going in for targeted detainments. As soon as a pocket of resistance appeared–a group of people chanting on one corner, another lighting up flares or unfurling banners on another–the OMON rushed in and arrested everyone in the area, clubbing those who resisted. A large unmarked Ford van with a roof-mounted camera circled the protest area.

Boris Netmsov, the co-founder of SPS, only got in about five minutes of face time before the OMON rushed in. His bodyguards didn’t even try to resist. A few minutes later, Nikita Belykh, the leader of the Union of Right Forces party, freshly released from detention, appeared on the other side of the street. But the OMON quickly nabbed him again, getting to him faster than the waiting journalists managed to.

OMON’s precision-guided smart beatings didn’t always hit their mark. A young “photojournalist” I had seen hanging out with the plainclothes spooks outside of Yabloko’s office was mistakenly grabbed by OMON after he climbed at tree to get a better vantage point for his work. They pulled him down to the ground, only then realizing they’d beaten the wrong guy.

“Get your hands off me, you can’t touch me. Do you know who I am?” he yelled. The OMON officer obviously didn’t give a shit who he was and delivered two truncheon blows–one to the head, the other to the body–before dragging him away. I saw him an hour later wearing his hat low, pulled over the welt on his forehead.

With OMON rushing from one side of the street to the other, it was hard to tell what was going on. But then, other than dozens of arrests, nothing was going on. Although 300 people (about a quarter of all protesters) were detained in St. Petersburg, the protest was a far cry from the Grand Theft Auto experience of the previous day’s mad dash through Moscow. St. Petersburg’s was more like watching the cops play the old manual arcade game whack-a-mole: Boring for the observer and brutal for the mole.

eXile TV: Yasha Levine documents Other Russia protest…

This article was first published in The eXile in December 2007.

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