Oleg Kashin on 'Strategy-31' (Full Translation)

The following is my translation of Oleg Kashin’s firsthand account and private ruminations on the May 31, 2010, opposition rally in Triumfal’naia Square in Moscow.

Oleg Kashin

This article was published two days ago in Kommersant’s ‘Vlast’ edition on June 6, 2010. Kashin does an excellent job dissecting the pageantry on all sides of the ‘Strategy-31′ Movement, sparing neither the Moscow police, the press, the pro-Kremlin youth groups, nor, of course, the liberal opposition itself. That said, I find his conclusion to be somewhat unclear: he seems to believe (or is at least willing to entertain the idea) that Medvedev is likely to soon spearhead a “thaw” that will allow the несогласные the right to demonstrate at Triumfal’naia. Kashin apparently considers this a possible consequence of the external, real politics of the Kremlin — and that the decision to allow the marches will have nothing to do with what goes on in the marches themselves. This sounds like a reasonable point, though I don’t entirely understand why Medvedev would bother disrupting the status quo for an irrelevant political force. It seems to me that Medvedev and Putin will either (1) continue to ignore and harass the ‘Strategy-31′ protestors (who appear to rather enjoy their infamy) because the liberals are an unimportant fringe society, or (2) grant them legal access to Triumfal’naia because they’ve been embarrassed too many times by the negative press every crackdown generates.

But read and decide for yourself:

BloodDeclaration [Кровоизъявление], by Oleg Kashin

To see how Moscow’s residents and authorities understood the conversation between Vladimir Putin and Yuri Shevchuk, ‘Vlast’ correspondent Oleg Kashin observed the Triumfal’naia Square rally on May 31st.

Truly and unquestionably pitiful are the teenagers who stand around the Mayakovsky Statue and pretend to demonstrate in support of a blood drive. Truth be told: they were bused in from schools and institutes outside Moscow, and they know nothing about “Strategy-31,” nothing about the conversation between Putin and Shevchuk, and generally nothing about anything. But they still understand that something isn’t right. They understand that ‘donating’ is just make-believe, that no one there is giving any blood, and that before their very eyes their pamphlets about donating are trampled by policemen — policemen who surround them for a purpose other than defending this idiotic rally in support of a blood drive.

They see that the sound-speakers broadcasting their speeches are for some reason facing backwards, so that the sound is directed behind the stage. They see that, behind the stage, a bunch of people and police officers are crowding around, and that the cops are snatching away these people one-by-one, and dragging them off to buses. These teenagers, who one after another come up to the microphone to yell something about donating blood, understand at the very least that this isn’t at all about blood drives. If they know the word “hypocrisy”* — without even knowing the details [of the demonstration] — they are well aware that they’re complicit in a huge hypocrisy of some kind, and, moreover, they’re aware that it’s necessary. Yet as they grow older, if they don’t shake off this “necessity” (of course, only a lucky few actually succeed), they ruin their whole lives, as it’s ultimately not ‘necessary’ at all. Because to be a hypocrite and a lowlife is bad under any circumstances. Hypocrites and lowlifes are never happy and nothing good ever comes of their lives. There aren’t any criminal codes against manipulated youths in hypocritical games, but those who dragged them here and made them the comical counterweight to “Strategy-31″ should be punished somehow.

Yet, if one of the teenagers brought here for this blood drive — an A-student from somewhere outside Moscow — isn’t yet a complete hypocrite and still has his wits about him (and, very importantly, isn’t too weighed down by any 18-year-old-kid political stereotypes) — if he suddenly gets bored by the speeches about blood drives, and leaves his group’s confines, gets around the police line, and reaches me standing on the steps of Tchaikovsky Hall, what would he see and what would he think then?

There are people — a thousand, maybe a thousand-and-a-half people. There are a great number of journalists. They stand on the steps and on the sidewalk. It’s crowded there because the space they occupy is limited by a police cordon. There is a crowd, and across the street from it is the back of the Young Guard’s blood drive stage, and between the stage and the crowd is an empty stretch of road, cordoned off by police. It’s on this piece of road that the police buses are parked. Some police are just standing in the barricade, some are running up in groups to the crowd, snatching away people, and dragging them into buses. (On what principle they do this remains unclear. This teenager standing next to me doesn’t understand, and neither do I, the journalist — and indeed it’s obvious that there isn’t really any principle at all.) Now they’re dragging someone along the asphalt, carrying someone else in their arms, and another person, with police officers close at hand, escorts himself. They detain them and, when they’ve sent everyone off to the various precincts, it seems it was about 150 people altogether — that is, every tenth person who attended. And so, one-out-of-ten are pulled into a bus, and nine-out-of-ten are left on the sidewalk and the steps. They applaud every person dragged off, but if they don’t applaud it’s because their hands are busy working a camera (of which there are many here, and not just in the hands of journalists). It seemed that people from two different dimensions had appeared in one place, neither noticing the other: police drag around detainees, not noticing photographers, and photographers dance around the police, snapping pictures, though the police couldn’t care less. And the people on the steps and on the sidewalk applaud and cry out “Shame!” and “Way to go, Shevchuk!” — at just the moment when the Young Guard’s side starts playing the poet [Viktor] Tsoi. (Now the teenager is probably thinking that the people are yelling about Shevchuk because Shevchuk is the ‘anti-Tsoi’ in the hierarchy of Russian rock musicians).

The process of randomly pulling people into buses lasts about an hour — and clearly that’s how everything was planned, as there are just enough buses to make room for everyone the police have grabbed in the course of an hour. Now the police are coming up the steps, squeezing out the people standing there, where it’s become as crowded as the metro during peak hour, though it’s not hard to get away from this mayhem. If the teenager is at all clever, he might even surmise that the police are ensuring that anyone who can’t tolerate the crowd is able to slip through their barricade and make it back to the metro; ensuring that anyone is able to take the escalator down below and get out of here, so that nobody remains in the square. And so this teen — who knows nothing about the argument between Shevchuk and Putin, and nothing about the 31st article of the Constitution — will also descend into the metro, and ride to the last station, where he’ll head to his home in Vidnoe. When his mother asks him how he spent his day off, a day on which he traveled to Moscow, he’ll probably be unable to tell her anything because the blood drive rally doesn’t deserve retelling and all the rest — well, what had it been really? People stood around for an hour, and, in the course of that hour, the police for some reason detained one of every ten people, and then everyone dispersed. Everything was somehow mysterious and incomprehensible.

Simplest of all, of course, is to call such a teenager a thug and follower of the herd or simply a lamebrain, but in truth he’s neither a lamebrain nor a thug: he finished at a vocational school with good grades, he’s getting married, and one day he’s going to work with us to choose our new deputies and presidents. Because in Russia there are many people like this teenager, but of people like us there are fifteen hundred in this square and a few dozen other poor souls in Russia’s other cities with populations in the millions.

Oh yes, I left out the important part: I went to Triumfal’naia without an editorial assignment, and if the police had grabbed me, I’d like to think well of myself and say that I wouldn’t have brandished my press card. I came to the square not for reportage, but because it seems important to me as a citizen to be here, if the authorities for some reason fear this demonstration and don’t want it to take place. And so I stand on these steps and cannot say that I understand more than the innocent teenager from outside Moscow.

However, I do know more. I know that the people hauled off in buses will be released close to midnight, each of them written up for some stupid jaywalking violation. And the people whom the police don’t take will scatter in all directions. Some will go to a fashionable bohemian pub on Nikitskii Boulevard, where they’ll drink cider and share their impressions on having visited the square with journalists from the Culture Section and members of the “Snob” Club, who are easily identified by the felt pendants with the number “31″ hanging around their necks. These items were made fashionable by the until-now-apolitical designer Dasha Razumikhina, who herself was almost certainly at the square today, though I didn’t see her face. Some will go home, sit in front of the computer, and — if they took any pictures — they’ll upload a few dozen shots of policemen to their blogs, or they’ll search other photo reportage for pictures of themselves, or maybe they’ll just write something like “yeah, shit was rough” or “yeah, Putin didn’t even listen to Shevchuk” or simply “the cops are pigs and the country is cursed.” Someone a little more conscientious will go to stand duty at the gates of the police station, in order to pass out bottles of water to the detained, to pass on the latest news, and — when they’re finally released — to go with them to a bar to drink beer or coffee, though not until too late into the night, as it’s off to work in the morning.

I know this all in advance not because I’m so smart, but because everyone knows this. Everyone — the excited babushka with the number ’31′ written in marker on the palms of her hands, the quiet intellectual with the thick glasses, and the young leftist in the Che Guevara t-shirt. Each understands what they risk, and that — when it comes down to it — nobody risks anything. When the stakes are, one, so clearly defined, and, two, not so high that anyone coming out to the square risks losing his job (or, for that matter, his life, thank God), then everything leads to this: history is not made — indeed politics isn’t even practiced. What takes place instead is nothing more than a show with all the familiar characters: someone gets to stand and yell “Shame!”, someone else gets to be dragged to the bus, another is the photographer, and yet another person later uploads the pictures to the blogs. Admittedly, it’s a play with something of a gamble to it: after all, the odds of landing in a police bus are one-in-ten; that is to say, the roles themselves aren’t completely cast in advance.

The only thing I didn’t anticipate was that Alexander Artem’ev from Gazeta.ru and the Movement “Us” [Мы] (though he came to the square as an activist, not a journalist) would have the same hand** I shook at the beginning of the rally broken by the police when he was in custody — broken in such a way that Artem’ev will need an operation [to fix it]. His broken hand was indeed unpredicted and tragic, though it will hardly launch a wave of change across the country. Artem’ev will get a cast, and with that cast he’ll come again in two months to Triumfal’naia Square. And when Medvedev, suddenly arguing with Putin, orders (or simply, as they like to say, somehow signals) that the next ‘Strategy-31′ rally will be allowed without police barricades or silly blood drives, when this happens, only the very dumbest commentator will be able to say that the thaw came about because someone marched on the square with felt pendants around his neck, or even that it resulted from someone’s arm being broken.

* The Russian word for “hypocrisy” (лицемерие) has a strong connotation of ‘play-acting.’
** Artem’ev broke his
arm, but in Russian “рука” means both hand and arm.

9 Comments

  1. I took his conclusion to be sarcastic and more about how if these marches are ever allowed it will be because of an in-fight “above” rather than any pressure from “below”.

    I personally think that it allowing these meetings would be the worst thing to happen for the liberal opposition. No cops means no press. They’re whole logic is based on getting arrested. Without that they have nothing. I don’t understand why the government doesn’t realize this and learn that ignoring them completely is the best way to diffuse them.

    • You could be completely right about him being sarcastic. Even if he is, though, I wish he’d unpacked his conclusion a little more. The body of the article does such a wonderful job pulling back the curtain on the political theater of ‘Strategy-31,’ but then, in the end, he drops the bomb that it’s all totally irrelevant.

      So why the big show? Why the spectacle? Why doesn’t the Kremlin either shut these activities down for real (“raising the stakes,” as Kashin might put it), or diffuse them by outright ignoring them, as you suggest?

      I don’t know if there’s a single coherent answer to these questions, but it’s too bad that Kashin didn’t do more to address them in his article. Then again, I suppose Kommersant was more interested in his eyewitness reportage than anything else.

  2. Thanks for this translation – it’s a very interesting commentary.

    I agree with Sean that they should just let these rallies happen without interference so we can all see where this goes … but as silly and vain as these protesters are, they appear to believe in their grievances and are out there for more than just the media attention (after all, what has that gotten them so far?).

    • I completely agree that the authorities in Moscow (the police? the Kremlin? Putin himself?) act extremely foolishly when they crackdown or even interfere with protests like the May 31st Triumfal’naia Square rally. I’ve read that the city regularly offers the opposition other (still very central) alternative locations, but the counter-demonstration organized to “rally a blood drive” is a pretty clear indication that we’re dealing with more than an uncooperative group of upstarts.

      I don’t know what’s at the core of the protesters’ beliefs or hearts, but I assume you’re right that many of them are out for more than media attention. Do you think Kashin is unfair in his depiction of the typical Strategy-31er? He seems to be targeting those out to “побазарить” and “попиарить себя,” in Putin’s words. In that respect, I suppose one could accuse him of overlooking the genuine dissidents in the crowd, who are more seriously committed to reform, liberalism, and so on.

      I agree that it’s something of an ad hominem to attack the people of the opposition, rather than their ideology. That said, I imagine it’s hard not to comment on the “types” of people who attend these demonstrations, when obvious patterns emerge.

      • The city often offers them Chistye prudi, which is central. But Triumfal’naia Square has historical meaning. It was the place where poets and other bohemians gathered in the Soviet days.

        On whether the protesters are just there to scream and shout rather than being really committed to politics, I think there is an element of truth to that. You always get these types in protests–at least every protest I’ve been in has had them. However, they are no less political. So I don’t think Kashin is too off base here. The “genuine” dissidents are always outnumbered in these cases.

        That said, I think the protesters themselves need to evaluate the worth of the protest as such. Granted, the 31st action was to call attention to the right to protest. But it seems that the Russian opposition has fallen victim to what many left sects have in the States–protest has become the strategy rather than the tactic. Protesting has diminishing returns for those protesting. It rarely attracts more people to your cause. In fact, it tends to create disillusion in the ranks because the protests indeed become theater. This is why I think that the worst thing that could happen to the opposition is that the cops stop showing up. For movements like this being ignored is worse that being beaten and arrested. The latter makes you a martyr, the former a nobody.

        As for the people vs. their ideology, well I have a hard time pinning down their ideology. Plus, in our pomo times I have a tendency to believe that the ideology is the people. When it comes to the Russian opposition, and this could be said of most fringe groups, there is more identity at work than ideology. This is why I think most of their protestations never go beyond the abstract–democracy, free speech, human rights and targeting Putin, the system etc. The problem is that these abstract notions are difficult to communicate when you don’t share an общий язык with those outside your group. This is why I think the Blue Bucket movement has been so successful and the opposition not. A lot of people have had a personal experience with assholes with sirens. Plus, the blue bucket thing is an anti-elite thing which always goes across well with the narod. The “genuine” dissidents are viewed by most Russians as the elite.

        I tend to be more Gramscian when it comes to political movements’ strategy and tactics.

        That’s my take anyway.

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