#OccupyAbai, or Moscow during Protests

12 May

When I was ten years old, I came to visit my grandfather in Moscow for a few weeks in the summer. This was the summer of 1991; to be more precise, the month of August was when I came to visit. I had just been accepted into the Pioneer organization a couple of months before (I blogged about it here) so I was full of enthusiasm for my bright future as a young Soviet citizen. And then the coup, when Communist Party hardliners tried to force Mikhail Gorbachev out of power and reverse the course of his democratic reforms, took place. I’ll blog about my experience in 1991 later, but suffice it to say that it was largely thanks to my ending up in Moscow that summer that the awareness of myself in some manner of an historical context began.

I am back in Moscow, after several years’ absence, and the moment I land, protests have begun again. They haven’t reached the level of the protests of Russian citizens against the coup attempt in 1991, but the coincidence, nonetheless is striking. But now it’s the protests’ evolving similarity to the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests in the US that strikes me the most. And that calls for some reflections on my place in the world and as part of this history.

All of Russia’s opposition protests, that started last December as a result of fraudulent parliamentary elections, have been dismissed by the regime and its minions as engineered by the State Department in the US. “The long arm of the State Department” (“длинная рука госдепа”) has become a phrase that was coined by the protesters themselves to ironically point out the semiotic similarity that Putin’s regime draws with the Soviet anti-American rhetoric: the State Department’s long arm, after all, is a close linguistic relative of “the long arm of American imperialism.” It has been virtually impossible for me, when I meet and talk with Russian protesters, not to introduce myself (as a holder of a US passport) as “the long arm of the State Department” impersonated.

Ever more so since the moment when, some time in the evening on May 9, when it became clear that the Moscow police was not going to immediately disband the protesters, Moscow protests have started their evolving resemblance to the Occupy-style protesters in the US. The gathering place of the protests is the Clean Ponds boulevard, part of Moscow’s “boulevard ring” encircling the center of the city and close to the Clean Ponds (in Russian, Chistye Prudy). More specifically, the protesters have been drawn to the monument to the Kazakh poet and writer Abai Qunanbaiuli (in Russian, Abai Kunanbaev, or, by now, simply Abai), opened in Moscow in 2006 to honor the visit of Kazakhstan’s (autocratic) president Nursultan Nazarbaev to Moscow. Much has already been made by Russian bloggers about the relevance of Abai’s texts to the protesters: the Kazakh’s freedom-loving streak, accidentally discovered by the protests through the mere coincidence of the statue’s presence near the site of the protests, has been amplified in recent days. I don’t doubt that it would take long before someone makes some sort of Borat-style joke about the whole Kazakh theme.

In any case, the encampment, which is about a hundred people staying at the site overnight, crowds swelling to well over 1,500-2,000 in the evenings and late into the night, has now been dubbed “Occupy Abai” – with protesters themselves beginning to draw on the symbolic link with Occupy protests in the US. Abai, himself, has become everything from an accidental iconic hero of the new protest movement (see my photo of the Obama-style poster included with this post) to an unmistakable toponym (trying to meet a friend at the encampment last night, I was directed to look at Abai’s statue and follow his gaze to the intersection with a side alley where my friend stood). And it’s in this context, where the parallel with American-based Occupy movement has become clear to the protesters, that I found myself  emboldened in my role as “the long arm of the State Department.”

This blog has a twitter account connected to it: @returnstosender through which I try to post my own impressions, as well as share relevant articles by others, both in English (as the ironically self-styled American “agent,” I do have an interest, I suppose, in English-language audiences paying attention). Last night, I found myself talking to one women in the emerging core of organizers of the encampment about structural parallels with Occupy. Around 11 PM, a friend and I organized a lesson on how to use the famous live mic that enabled the Occupy encampments amplify their communications despite the ban on the usage of megaphones (same ban exists in Moscow): about 30-40 people joined my friend and I in “mic check” style recitations of the opening chapter of Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin. We chose the text at random, drawing on its familiarity to most Russians, but the relevant political subtext became clear as we “mic checked” it: the novel is set in Petersburg and Pushkin’s narrator, noting that the North [i.e. Petersburg] hasn’t been a good place for him, hints at Pushkin’s own banishment from Petersburg by Tsar Nicolas I. The crowd in Moscow laughed at the lines last night: Vladimir Putin, at whom the current protests are aimed, is form Russia’s northern “capital” (i.e. Petersburg) and it’s largely Putin’s shady Petersburg friends who constitute Russia’s current political and business elite. Referring to Petersburg, Pushkin’s narrator says, “There too I once enjoyed myself /But North winds are damaging to my health”: the political subtext, created in the context of Occupy Abai’s first live mic, was as startling as it was hilarious.

A Russian-born friend and a Ph.D. student at a US university doing research in Moscow now, who was involved with Occupy Oakland, is doing a teach-in at the Occupy Abai encampment later this evening. Both of us are certainly ambivalent about the imperfect nature of American democracy but, as “long arms of the State Department,” we hope to have something to contribute to our new Russian friends.

We’ll see how things go. Stay tuned.

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