It was a Monday morning, normally something I enjoy about as much as pouring a bag of salt on open wounds. But today was different, since this Monday was 12 June, a national holiday in Russia, and I didn't have to go to work. As the city prepared itself for a large, loud, event filled with frivolous pomp and circumstance and screaming obnoxious families (aka a parade). I decided to take the opportunity to leave the center and head to one of the parks on the outskirts to enjoy some peace and quiet, as well as soak up some sun to combat the vitamin D deficiency I had spent all winter building up.
I chose one of my favorites, ЦарицыноTsaritsyno, and leisurely walked through its forested area. Immediately, I could feel my blood pressure drop as the hustle and bustle of the crowded city center was friendly, chirping birds and a gentle breeze weaving through the leaves on the many trees. I was relaxed and it felt wonderful. This was my free Monday, and I was going to savor every bit that I could. Unfortunately, there was just one thing I forgot to take into consideration: the hunger. After about three hours of my pleasant stroll, I heard something that was neither birds nor breeze. From my midsection, I began to pick up on the sound of rumbling, growing louder and louder. Usually, I consider myself to be a man of strong will, but when the hunger strikes, my restraint breaks and seeking sustenance becomes my singular focus. I had no choice but to head back to the hostel and make myself lunch. Hopefully the parade would be winding up by the time of my return, I hoped.
Thirty minutes later, the hunger had transformed from a soft rumble to a ferocious battle cry. Taking my time was out of the question. I needed to feed now. I quickly leaped out the doors of the train car, wishing more than anything to make my way through the crowd and exit the metro as fast as possible... however, that was not going to happen. Not at all.
Within seconds, my mad dash was forced to a stand-still as a huge, immobile mass of people stood in the middle of the station. Every exit except one was blocked off and security guards were all over the place, like mold on stale bread. What could possibly be going on? In the near two years I'd been living in the city, dozens of parades had gone through, including several with world leaders, and never once had it been remotely like this. A voice began shouting over the loud speaker, but it was all for naught since the commotion from the ever-growing crowd easily drown it out.
Ten minutes went by and still the exit remained blocked. The loud yelling from my stomach hunger had become so loud by now that it could be played by Daniel Day-Lewis. But then, just as I was about to resort to scouring the ground to see if anyone dropped a sandwich somewhere, the giant mass of people began to move. Slowly but steadily, we were all escorted out of the metro.
Finally, I resurfaced to a sight I had never seen before in the city. There was no parade going on. Instead, police cars and vans lined Tverskaya as far as the eye could see. Meanwhile, a huge crowd of people, even larger than that in the metro, had gathered about watching something that happened to be taking place. But despite all the commotion, everything seemed relatively calm, and there was no sign of panic or frenzy anywhere. There were now two things I needed to do: Get food and find a better vantage point to view whatever was going on. The hostel balcony should be the perfect spot.
With all the speed my legs could muster, I ascended the stairs, grabbed a banana and a bag of cashews, and bolted to the window. That's when everything became clear. In the square below, thousands of people stood with signs, chanting "Россия без Путин" (Russia without Putin) and "Путин вор" (Putin is a thief). An opposition protest had apparently broken out. I needed to document this.
Quickly stuffing the remainder of the banana into my mouth along with a handful of delicious cashews, I began to snap photos and take film, amazed and (to be honest) pretty excited to witness such an event unfold in real time. At first, everything seemed as if it would remain relatively calm, without any clashes between protesters and police, but then two swat teams formed lines and entered the fray. Seemingly at random, they grabbed dozens of people, literally hoisted them into the air, and carried them to the vans to be arrested.
I began to feel nervous. Knowing that I probably had several friends down there at the moment, I hoped there would be no escalation of violence. Would the crown dissipate or fight? Turns out, neither. To the protesters' bravery and credit, they stood their ground, but did now lash out violently. Refusing to move, they jeered the police, chanting "Фашисты" (fascists). The police, like a spoiled child who just heard the word 'no' for the first time, did not like this one bit. Hundreds of officers linked together and marched through, attempting to clear the whole square entirely.
I leaned forward as much as I could with an unbreakable stare, like that of a cat looking into a fish tank. The officers snaked through the mass of people, but still, they did not disperse and began chanting even louder. Never before had I seen such resilience. I began to wonder, if they could resist all day and night. I began to wonder if this was going to make worldwide news. But that's when it happened. The heavily armored officers, covered in helmets and Kevlar to protect themselves from the unarmed populace wearing t-shirts and jeans, raised their shields and formed a wall. Step by step, they walked across the square, pushing the people off just like a windshield wiper would do to water. Several minutes later, the square was clear of people.
Is this how it ends? Does authority just win instantly by force? Is this what the world had come to? I began to feel disappointed. The counterculture resistance, those who challenge the wrongs they see in society, silenced my men in uniform. I slumped down, thinking it was all over. But I was wrong. Very wrong.
Within minutes of the square being cleared, it suddenly became filled with an entirely new wave of thousands of protesters, ready to take the ranks. They were not going to And if that wasn't defiant enough, this crowd began to form a congo-line and march/chant as a single unit. Not only were they showing they weren't afraid, but that they can have fun, even in the most serious of situations. Again, the police wall stormed through, making several arrests along the way, and again another wave of protesters filled their places.
And to think, I left the city in the morning for the park, looking to escape long, boring, pomp-and-circumstance events. Nothing like that ever ended up happening as the protest continued for the next few hours and I stood staring out the window, not to miss a second. Eventually, it did come to a close during the twilight hours of the evening, and although it was eventually over, I've got to give credit where credit is due. Congo-lines in the face of heavy-duty, near militarized police forces is pretty bad-ass. Hats off to them.