Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Episode 25: Posters and protests or the political(ish) one

I'm now going to pretend that another reason for the relative silence of this blog over the last weeks is to do with the ongoing political action here in Moscow. Indulge me. 

This has certainly been the case this weekend where I have been out covering the election and the subsequent backlash from the opposition community. No, dear reader, this is not entirely for your benefit - I am in fact working my spare time as an intern for a "well-known, English-language newspaper" here in town so it was equally for them. Let me flash back a second...
Poster from the exhibit

A few weeks ago I went to the press opening of a new exhibition at a gallery near Moscow's premier hipster hangout "Vinzavod" - an old factory complex turned arts' centre. The large exhibition hall was being used to display actual banners used in the last 6 months of protests in Russia. The idea of the exhibition was two-fold, One: to show the artistic, creative and humorous sides of the protests. Two: to preserve the peaceful nature of the demonstrations before any possible rioting when the elections where to take place would sour the image. Dotted throughout this post are photos I took at the event.

So Sunday was the election day and the paper asked everyone of us to check our local polling station for suspicious activities. I went at three points during the day and stood on the freezing streets for half an hour at a time. I'm not going to go into what I did or did not see, or report. Suffice to say. I have my suspicions about something and I let the right people know in a sensible way.

"You don't even represent us anymore"
Monday evening felt very, very strange. Instead of leaving work and heading home for dinner Russians were leaving their places of work and putting on white ribbons for the protest reaction to Putin's victory. A reasonably large crowd gathered on Pushkin Square - an area within a ten minute walk of the Kremlin and the crowd cheered as speeches from key figureheads, including Navalny(a prominant Russian blogger), were read out. "Putin is a thief!" they cried, followed by "We have the power! We have the power!" It was stirring stuff. There was energy and movement all around. The opposition called for all the usual things: solidarity, occupation, freedom, fairness, unity.
More Posters

I decided to make for the Kremlin to see what was happening down there and suddenly came to halt in the street as I turned the corner. Staring me down were 80+ rows of riot police, their metal shields stained and scratched in the streetlights. They were smiling and joking, pushing each other around and using up most of the pavement and left-hand lane of traffic. Boys club.

Also littering the road were countless army trucks, buses and police vehicles. OMON (Russian SWAT) teams were everywhere too, talking on radios, preparing for some kind of pitched battle. It was ridiculous. Despite reports of dissident nationalist groups planning a riot or some kind of bomb threat, this protest was and has always been made up of ordinary, mostly middle-class people. This police reaction while on the surface some kind of "safety net" for the city looked pathetic and overstated in this light. Heavy-fisted and frightening.

I passed the rows and rows of police and made my way down the road to the Kremlin foreground. Putin's crew were having their own shindig. His youth group "Nashi" (meaning 'Ours') were having some bizarre techno-rave with flashing lights and songs about how epic Putin is. It all looked very juvenile in comparison to the sombre and serious protest just ten minutes up the street. From where I stood, this rent-a-crowd of teenagers (who all get paid for their support of his party) looked very small and very uncertain. It was an obvious farce and the mood was uncomfortable especially for those involved who had to pretend to enjoy the dancing. Opposition members who stood next to me shouted much the same at them and took photographs of themselves giving the crowd the finger.

The first of many rows of riot police

After taking a break in a cafe to use the wi-fi to look for news coverage, I heard the news of Navalny's arrest for refusing to leave Pushkin Square. The opposition seemed to dissapate at this point and there were large scale arrests near Mayakovskaya Metro Station. Turning up there about half an hour late the street was empty except for a few opposition members watching the police convoy cart the arrested protesters to the station. The convoy was at least 50 vehicles long and it was so disheartening to see so many ordinary people just being moved aside and carted off into the night. I stood next to the director of a local advertising agency and she kept raising her arm at the truck-loads of captives to show solidarity with her white ribbon.

"Beastly" she said.

If anything, this first night of protest was largely uneventful if for the pointlessly huge numbers of arrests. Russian friends have confided in me their disappointment. "Change doesn't happen overnight" I said, but this is poor consolation to those who feel they have been robbed in daylight. Perhaps occupation will be the solution and if it wasn't for the significant cold-spell that the weather has taken, I'm sure a lot of tents would have been put up around Moscow. This is far from over.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Episode 24: Rob revisits Novgorod, witnesses a graphic, German film and recovers in Starbucks with cake

At 5:30 this morning the Moscow was strangely busy. I had awoken with a start on the train some 40 minutes ago and had a slight headache and sticky hair. I made it back home by about 6:00 and collapsed into my bed not resurfacing until past midday when I felt more human.

I have, of course, just returned from a quick dash to Veliki Novgorod. This time round the city was colder and covered in snow, though just as sleepy and quiet. After having seen the legendary, birch-wood manuscripts again (and done a better job understanding them) I killed time in the Museum of Visual Arts which was far better than Lonely Planet allowed. One of the highlights was an exhibition of a Soviet artist whose medium was pen sketches and subject seemed to be babushkas. She litters her pictures with proverbs and stories and does in depth studies of facial features. It was nice to see something fresh although after about two rooms of black and white old-lady faces you tend to want a little more variety in a gallery.
Statue of Rachmaninoff in the park

The fantastic bakery (Illmen) was undergoing renovation so my friend and I lunched in "Хорошие Люди" - an expensive-by-Novgorod-standards restaurant where we were looked after very well. The food was great but the staff kept trying broken English on us and gave us poorly translated menus as opposed to Russian ones which actually made ordering food much harder. Nevermind eh.

In a strange flashback to my trip here in November we ended up in the cinema watching a film to eat up the awkward hours before our train. We attended a kind of academic showing of a 1960's German-made film of "Faust" which was complete with graphic nudity, blood, guts and awful Russian overdubbing that jarred with the soundtrack beneath. It was a highly confusing affair made worse by the fact I kept nodding off and waking up and the goriest/oddest moments. I really want to watch them film again, albeit in German, as I feel I failed to appreciate how classic it was. A man in his nan's jumper with a tiny, tony head gave an introductory talk and thanked us profusely for having attended and I was surprised he didn't show up at the end of the film to answer questions...

Anyway today I have recovered by taking myself to my favourite retreat in Moscow, the Starbucks at Gallery Aeroport, where I had my Sunday slice of a cake and luxury coffee with a good book. I know they are a corporate giant but unlike Russian coffee houses they provide simple, filter coffee and play relaxing music instead of eurotrance. I think I shall write a whole post about that anyway.

Sorry for how inane most of this post sounds. I wanted to write something spontaneous and unplanned this time. Toodle pip.