On December 10, 2011 concerned Russian citizens took part in numerous protests around the world. The Institute of Modern Russia asked a well-known St. Petersburg journalist Dmitry Simanovsky to report back on the protests and protesters in his city.
St. Petersburg, the city of three revolutions and hometown to the current Russian political establishment’s main players, has long ceased to be the center of civil political activity in the country. However, this Saturday, December 10th, the day of mass protests against the rigging of the Russian elections, things seem to have changed a bit.
Until the late night of December 9th, the status of the upcoming protests was unclear, and their legality was no less murky -- such gatherings have to be approved by a special Russian authority. Several unsanctioned meetings planned by different political parties would have fragmented the protests, and many citizens felt they were losing the rare chance to express their rage against the rigged elections and against the authorities in general.
Not until 6:30 p.m. on Friday did Olga Kurnosova, the coordinator of Garry Kasparov's organization United Civil Front which has been keeping protest culture alive, file a petition for the event. She got it approved in less than an hour (even though, legally, such petitions should be filed at least three days in advance). There were a number of reasons for [granting the permit] with such an unusual efficiency: all of Petersburg’s police stations were already packed with about 500 protesters arrested during of the week of actions at Gostiny Dvor, and authorities checking their prison capacities against rising civil activity made the only decision they had left. Moreover, the gatherings of several thousand protestors which had already been approved in Moscow were a clear signal: the Kremlin didn't want to allow any new martyrs to arise from this movement.
It all started in St. Petersburg’s Ploschad' Vosstaniya (the Uprising Square); UCF’s original call was to meet there at 2:00 p.m. The Square has practically no space to accommodate protest, so it was probably chosen to start the day of action for its symbolic name, one that works well withPloschad' Revoljutsii (Revolution Square) in Moscow, the site of Moscow’s initial 300-person protest (though the event was then relocated toBolotnaya or the Swamp Square, its name later being promoted all over Facebook and Twitter).
Upon exiting the Petersburg metro station, police officers informed people wearing white ribbons about the approved meeting on Pionerskaya and advised them to proceed in an orderly manner. Drivers, upon seeing the masses of people walking along Nevsky Prospect, honked to signal their support. Later that night, it was announced that 7 people were arrested on the way to Pionerskaya for waving black flags and yelling nationalist slogans.
My friend and I walked along Nevsky Prospect to the Kazansky Cathedral, the place where Yabloko told supporters to meet. Within a few minutes, we ran out of the dozens of white ribbons we had prepared. People kept approaching us with the same questions: “What's going on at Vosstaniyaand Pionerskaya?” and “Do you have any spare ribbons?”
Near Kazansky, several dozen Yabloko supporters passed out white flowers and proceeded to Pionerskaya. By 3:00 p.m., Pionerskaya held about seven to ten thousand people, thereby beating a ten-year record of mass protests in St. Petersburg. The square was cordoned off by some of the most inoffensive looking riot policemen I have ever seen, and the mild manners and tolerance they displayed was totally unexpected coming from the Russian police. All kinds of banners flew over the crowd, featuring the whole spectrum of Russian opposition slogans, from the ultra-left to the ultra-right, although most of the people there didn't belong to or even sympathize with any of these parties.
The majority of speeches talked about annulling the election results, freeing all political prisoners, legalizing and admitting all the oppositional parties to the elections, dismissing the head of the Central Electoral Commission Vladimir Churov who permitted all the rigging, and called for new free and fair elections. One of the speakers reminded that United Russia got the highest number of votes in Chechnya, and proposed that Putin, Medvedev and Churov were attempting to continue their political careers under the patrimony of Ramzan Kadyrov, since they are most respected in his region.
A representative of the Left Front party rhetorically asked the crowd how many of them had come heeding Hillary Clinton’s call. This was a response to the fact that Governor Georgy Poltavchenko, Putin’s henchman in St. Petersburg, claimed that the protests were a "provocation meticulously planned abroad." Such rhetoric is often used by Putin and his people, but to mention it right before an event drawing thousands of people from very different political backgrounds was a crude mistake.
A small but well organized group of ultra-right wingers in the center of the square attempted to disrupt every speech, using phrases like "Russia for Russians!" to question the ethnic background of each speaker. Although it irritated most of the attendees, this didn't result in any violent scuffles, instead leading the crowd to express support for the speaker.
The representative of the Liberal Democratic Party (nationalist and pro-Putin) claimed to be a member of the opposition but was booed by the crowd and never even got to start their speech. Maxim Reznik ,the St. Petersburg Yabloko leader, was also denied the right to speak -- presumably for having called his supporters to attend a separate meeting. The most prominent figures to speak were the Muscovites Victor Shenderovich and Artemy Troitskiy. The latter called upon popular musicians, artists and other artistic figures to speak up and join people in this struggle for rights. Unlike in Moscow, people listened to most of the speakers attentively, eagerly repeating slogans and catchphrases: "Putin and Churov are thieves," "Your election is a farce!", "We are not opposition – we're The People," "They fear us," "Russia will be free" and "Free Navalny!"
I heard a lady standing next to me say to her companion: "I have never seen so many decent people come together."
Others argued about whether such an event could influence the current situation:
"In the 1990s they had tens of thousands of people on the streets and it never helped!”
“Don’t you remember?! They never won that fight."
“This time it's different though! I have a feeling we're winning. We’re, like, the new Decembrists!”
The crowds approved the ultimatum (see the above-mentioned Five Demands List) given to authorities, who were then given 8 days to comply. That is, until the next meeting planned for December 18.