Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 39

Last weekend, Moscow’s Pushkin Square witnessed the largest anti-war demonstration in many years, with almost 10 times as many participants as in such demonstrations in the recent past. The demonstration had been planned to observe the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the second post-Soviet war in Chechnya, and also the second anniversary of the Dubrovka theater tragedy.

According to the website, the number of protesters was about 700, in spite of the rainy weather. The organizers of the demonstration claimed a turnout of 2,500 to 3,000. Surprisingly, the authorities admitted that there was a large turnout. According to Interfax, an official of the city’s central administrative district issued a formal warning to the organizers after the demonstration was over—complaining that the organizers had said in advance that no more than 500 protesters would be present, but that in fact as many as 2,000 had taken part. Any of these estimates would of course tiny by Western standards, but they must be taken seriously in Russia given the country’s current degree of mass cynicism and political apathy.

The organizers told Interfax that the district authorities had also complained about the content of the gathering’s speeches and slogans—which assailed not only the war but Putin’s measures, both proposed and already enacted, for concentrating more power in the hands of the Kremlin.

The square was surrounded by policemen, each of whom was equipped with a gas mask. Demonstrators were carefully searched before being allowed through metal detectors. The authorities forbade the demonstration’s organizers to erect an oversize, outdoor television screen on which they had planned to show images from the conflict in the northern Caucasus; the justification for this prohibition was that Russia’s law on mass meetings and demonstrations makes no mention of such devices. One of the demonstration’s organizers, Lev Ponomarev of the For Human Rights movement, commented that Russia is supposed to be governed by “the principle that ‘what is not [explicitly] forbidden is permitted’—but it turns out that it’s the other way around.” Ponomarev also noted that a Moscow advertising firm had refused to print fliers advertising the demonstration.