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From Moscow Protests, a Story of Cowardice and Hope
tolik_kats
I was in the last group to get out before the mass arrests started. For those just tuning in, after a vigorous Internet campaign against the ruling party, it  managed to rig the elections in its favor. Independent election monitors valiantly defended the event's integrity but ultimately failed in their efforts. So, with the mayor's office' gracious permission, the opposition gathered in the Chistoprudny Blvd Park downtown to protest. When I arrived a few minutes after the appointed time, the park was full of people. There was but one entrance – guarded by the California-headquartered Rapiscan metal detectors and fatigue-clad cops.  Russia being Russia, nobody knew where it was.
I was lucky enough to avoid the worst of Moscow's crowds, but not this time. “Twenty years ago, we lined up for bread,” I joked with the folks tightly squeezed around me in the entrance line. “Now we line up for freedom.”
I only witnessed one political rally in my life, and it wasn't by conscious choice. “Gore gets it”, the erstwhile presidential candidate impressed repeatedly onto a dull crowd gathered in Pittsburgh. So at first I found it mildly amusing to chant “Russia without Putin!” And it got downright weird when we got to “We are Russia,” since I had been out of the country for seventeen years after all. It took  a while for the significance of this to sink in. There were at least 5,000 of us, gathered openly in the middle of Putin's Moscow, loudly criticizing the regime on a crisp sound system! There were men filming us with large cameras. But we were young, and surely we did not know what's good for us, so not one person thought to hide their face.
I don't know their names, and I don't remember much of what they said on stage. They were good up there – I left with a feeling that maybe, just maybe, we'll get to vote Putin out of office in March. The rally was over, and the last speaker encouraged us not to disperse, but instead walk quietly, no slogans, no blocking traffic, to a train station a quarter mile away. Riiight! The riot police blocked our way, and we started chanting: “This is our city! This is our city!” as we headed along another boulevard. I would have maybe liked to duck into a subway and head home, but alas, I did not see one. So off I went onto a prohibited and spontaneous march for free elections. Trouble started shortly after. We passed by a dozen cops, they told us to walk quietly, and after we failed to comply they picked out and arrested a couple of the loudest sloganeers.
I'll offer some advice for rookie protesters that worked for me. Decide ahead of time, how far are you willing to go tonight? Are you OK with getting arrested today? How about getting beaten? Once you have a plan, judging risks to carry it out is quick for the mind, and easy on the conscience. It was my first time, so I decided to play it safe and follow the crowd. Still, I'm not ashamed to admit that when two people were arrested fifty feet away from me, I got a shot of adrenalin allright. But life goes on, and after a few minutes I recovered and continued chanting with the rest of them. We had no leader – somebody would start a chant as we walked down a quiet Moscow alley and the rest would pick it up, hoping whoever lived in those buildings heard us.
And that's when we made our way onto a major thoroughfare. You could feel the joy all around as we beheld our captive but friendly audience of restaurant goers, passerby, and – a Moscow classic – bumper-to-bumper, three lane traffic. We walked on the sidewalk and we walked between the cars, chanting “Down with Putin!”, “Putin's a thief!”, “Ruling party to the bucket!”, shaking our mitten-clad fists in the air. The cars honked in support, and we roared back. I held hands with a strange older man with a row of golden, loosely spaced teeth. There was no stopping us!
Until we were met by a phalanx of riot police. Crap. I followed the crowd onto a side street, but as we started turning, they ran from their old position to block our way there instead. So we turned back—and they also ran back to our taunts. It stopped being funny, as it became clear they planned to corral us in that alley. So those who could, ran. I stuck my hand out to keep the cars still – where did I get the swagger? – as I crossed the busy road with some others, away from the trap.
The crowd was thinner now, and as we passed a train station I had an opportunity to duck for safety. But, I thought... actually I didn't. Crowd mentality. I kept walking with everyone else, as we continued to chant. We were only a small group now, around fifty people. Sure enough, we were met by another row of riot police. I started shaking, as I always do in unfamiliar situations. I knew they weren't going to hurt us, but spending a night in the police station didn't sound like much fun.
And that's when something happened. One of us approached(!) the Man with the Full-Length Plastic Shield, and started chatting with him. We continued with our slogans, and we shouted out to the cops, that hey, we're on the same side. Your children will live in this country too. I watched them as we chanted something about our newfound solidarity. They were young boys, and they smiled awkwardly at us as we continued calling out to them. Yes, they had a job to do, but they understood us, and felt no ill will towards the movement.
At that time, I figured I had enough – I wasn't about to charge them certainly, and since they weren't going to let us through, I figured it's over, and I might as well go home. That is, until I saw hundreds more protesters coming up from behind to join us. After brief deliberations, the reinforcements bravely charged the police line as I tried to get out of their way. But – a miracle! They got through! When I was sure the cops weren't going to club us, I went for the gap, but they closed it before me.  Then I ran to the other side of the police line and made my way out with what remained of us.  What a thrill, I tell you!
Yeah, they played us for fools. Divide and conquer, it's a smart and bloodless riot control strategy. But you know what? We were fools who could almost see Kremlin from the glittering, holiday-decorated, four-lane Teatralny Proezd! We did it! 
Of course it did not last long. They walked towards us. I was still shaking from fear and excitement, so this time I said to myself firmly, that's enough, my conscience is satisfied, and crossed the road away from the protesters. Soon they were surrounded and arrested. There were between 50 and 90 according to an eyewitness, a girl they released on the spot.
I will save an analysis for another day, except for one thing. Hear us, people: there was a peaceful, 5,000-plus-strong march against the government in the middle of Moscow. The police were civil, the protesters were civil, and there were no injuries that I know of. For one night at least, we had a vigorous, civil society. And that's a good sign for the country's future. As for me, I'm a stronger person for having gone. Shaking or not, I overcame some of my fear of the police, and saw them for the regular human beings they are. I don't know if I will go to a similar event again. But everyone who does will push the boundaries of our controlled democracy a little further outwards. It can only get better from here.


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