Dispatch from Bolotnaya Square

May 8, 2013

MOSCOW — The terrible accident on May 6 — a 25-year old worker was killed when part of the stage for the Bolotnaya protest collapsed on him — was a human tragedy and gave all of us an awful feeling. Twitter erupted in accusations against the organizers and it was unclear for a number of hours if the event will happen at all. The anniversary protest that was preceded by a whole month devoted to the people prosecuted for the May 6, 2012 events, with each day of the month devoted to one person, was at risk of being ruined.

The scene of the protest on Bolotnaya Square, just like a year ago after the brutal clash between protesters and police, once again became the scene of an investigation. Organizers made a quick decision to mount a make-shift stage on the opposite side of the square.

Arriving later than usual, I stood in a long line of uncommonly calm and patient people to pass through the metal detectors. Once I did, a policeman on the other side wished me a pleasant evening. Even though he was probably simply being nice, a thought occurred to me: Are they plotting something?  Being in the Russian opposition means hoping for the best but preparing with all seriousness for the very worst.

The turnout was truly impressive, although we no longer give any predictions about who’ll turn up at our events. Represented were left and right, and even a few rainbow flags could be seen waving in the cool air. Soon, however, the flags were brought down in respect of the man who died building the stage earlier that day.

Because of the last minute change of plans, the sound was pretty bad and the stage — the open-side of a truck — did not allow for good visibility of the speakers. But that didn’t matter.  Tens of thousands of people showed up to express their solidarity with political prisoners and once again vote against Putin’s regime with their feet. Slogans came off the stage and rolled through the crowd. “Freedom,” “Free political prisoners,” and the main slogan of all protests of the past 18 months, “Russia without Putin,” could be heard for a good few miles.

Politically motivated criminal cases have become commonplace in Russia over the past ten years, but the “Bolotnaya case,” as all the indictments handed down from last year’s rally are collectively known, is the first where protesters in serious numbers  are being accused of participating in an organized riot and attacking police. A recent independent investigation showed that a planned provocation most likely came from the law enforcements and not the other way round, but this will not affect the verdicts which people who will soon stand trial will receive. And that is up to eight years in prison on each charge.

The rhetoric used by the speakers was harsher than usual. With their extremely sharp statements, and knowing very well that every word could result in a criminal case, members of the opposition were almost saying, “we have nothing left to lose.” Many are being prosecuted on various charges already and no one wants to show fear.

Putin’s regime is consistent in it’s desire to disable the Russian opposition. It is determined to lock up the leaders and scare people off the street. The major turn out on May 6 showed that they have not succeeded in that yet. The Investigative Committee no doubt sees this simply as work in progress. But, we have not surrendered. Nor will we. Ever.