Despite the huge yellow press pass hanging around my neck, two OMON officers grabbed me from behind and twisted my right hand behind my back.
"Davai, let's go without any struggle," a voice on my right said as he jammed his palm against the back of my neck. They pushed me forward and towards a waiting a police truck.
OMON running to intercept
the fake NatsBols outside of Yabloko's office
They frog-marched me toward an ordinary Soviet delivery truck, the kind you'd see unloading kolbasa and pelmeni at your local produktovy magazin. But instead of a freezer box, the truck was equipped with a 5x5 ft. steel holding cell with a tiny door, no lights, and no holes for ventilation. It was packed so tightly with protesters that the cop had trouble stuffing me inside. Finally I was able to wedge myself in between two people; immediately the door locked behind me.
Inside, the darkness was total. The air was acidic, reeking of metal, body odor, and blood.
"I'm scared, I'm really scared," a guy to my right started whimpering. "I have claustrophobia."
No one responded. People were too busy trying to get into a comfortable position.
Someone flicked on a lighter. Someone else shouted at him to quit wasting valuable air, so I didn't have time to get a good count. But there seemed to be 10 to 15 people in there.
"Air! Air!" a male voice yelled from the far corner. "We don't have anything to breathe in here! Open the door, open the door!" The steel box amplified his voice. The soundproofing killed all outside noise. I twisted around to take out my phone and call the friend I was staying with. But a male voice next to me cautioned: "Be careful! They'll take it away!" It was no use. My friend wasn't picking up.
I was a little freaked, too. Yabloko's office was located less than a block away from Rodilny Dom #6, the drab Soviet maternity hospital where I was born 26 years ago. Would this also be the place where it would end for me?
But I lucked out. After what seemed like fifteen minutes, the door suddenly opened. "Are there any journalists inside?" a voice asked.
"Yeah," I answered.
"What were you doing in there?" a blonde woman in police uniform asked me as I jumped out of the truck. She was some kind of press liaison with the MVD.
"Well, you're out now, so be happy and don't complain!" she said when I didn't respond, and stomped off to the next truck to check for more detained journalists. (Because I was on assignment for Ma'ariv, an Israeli paper partially owned by exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, news of my brief detainment made headlines the next day in the Promised Land.)
No more than 30 minutes had passed since the police first moved to break up the press conference outside the Yabloko offices. By now a column of OMON trucks was moving out towards the real protest.
One of the first casualties
A few kilometers away, protestors had begun gathering outside the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg's main tourist attraction. Other Russia organizers had filed a request with city officials to hold a protest at this spot and then march through the city. Citing traffic concerns, their request was denied. They were, however, granted permission to hold a rally in a less visible part of town. But no one had shown up at that spot. Other Russia organizers had decided to hold an illegal protest at the Hermitage, with or without permission.
The police were ready, and had barricaded the square in front the museum with trucks, snow removal equipment, and a wall of riot cops. With nowhere to go, protestors were forced to congregate on a thin strip of sidewalk at the beginning of Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg's main thoroughfare that starts at Neva River.