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Russia December 1, 2007
Two Cities, Two Protests, One Arrest
By Yasha Levine Browse author Email
Page 3 of 4

The scene was chaos. Protesters mixed with pedestrians as tourists and journalists scrambled over the icy pavement to take photographs. Press estimates ranged from between 1,000 to 2,000 people present. Many of them were pensioners and the usual crusty 80s intelligentsia types. Young people were few. Even as the number of people swelled, there was never a focal point or any organization.

Edward Limonov and Garry Kasparov were both missing. Kasparov was in jail, and Limonov's whereabouts were a great mystery. Police had detained most of Other Russia's organizers that morning and picked up a bunch of NatsBols the night before. With no one leading it, the plan to march through the city fizzled. The protest had failed even before the OMON moved in.

When they finally did pounce, it resulted in even more chaos. It's not as easy to create a trap in St. Petersburg as in Moscow. Nevsky Prospekt is too wide of a street, with too many escape routes. Protesters simply melted to different sides of the street, mixing in with pedestrians.

Chaos and OMON outside the Hermitage Museum

St. Petersburg's police force is generally considered more brutal and less professional than their colleagues in Moscow. But after the PR fiasco of their bloody suppression of April's Other Russia protest, they had obviously been told to refrain from excessive violence, especially against pensioners and women. This time, the OMON contented themselves with the slow, methodical process of splitting up crowds, identifying possible troublemakers, and going in for targeted detainments. As soon as a pocket of resistance appeared--a group of people chanting on one corner, another lighting up flares or unfurling banners on another--the OMON rushed in and arrested everyone in the area, clubbing those who resisted. A large unmarked Ford van with a roof-mounted camera circled the protest area.

Boris Netmsov, the co-founder of SPS, only got in about five minutes of face time before the OMON rushed in. His bodyguards didn't even try to resist. A few minutes later, Nikita Belykh, the leader of the Union of Right Forces party, freshly released from detention, appeared on the other side of the street. But the OMON quickly nabbed him again, getting to him faster than the waiting journalists managed to.

OMON's precision-guided smart beatings didn't always hit their mark. A young "photojournalist" I had seen hanging out with the plainclothes spooks outside of Yabloko's office was mistakenly grabbed by OMON after he climbed at tree to get a better vantage point for his work. They pulled him down to the ground, only then realizing they'd beaten the wrong guy.

"Get your hands off me, you can't touch me. Do you know who I am?" he yelled. The OMON officer obviously didn't give a shit who he was and delivered two truncheon blows--one to the head, the other to the body--before dragging him away. I saw him an hour later wearing his hat low, pulled over the welt on his forehead.

With OMON rushing from one side of the street to the other, it was hard to tell what was going on. But then, other than dozens of arrests, nothing was going on. Although 300 people (about a quarter of all protesters) were detained in St. Petersburg, the protest was a far cry from the Grand Theft Auto experience of the previous day's mad dash through Moscow. St. Petersburg's was more like watching the cops play the old manual arcade game whack-a-mole: Boring for the observer and brutal for the mole.

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Yasha Levine is an editor at The eXile. You can contact him at
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