Some 2,000 people gathered on Pushkin Square in central Moscow on Saturday October 23 to protest the war in Chechnya and, more broadly, the administration of President Vladimir Putin. Members of various human rights and pro-democracy groups, including For Human Rights, the Anti-war Club, and Committee 2008-Free Choice, were among the demonstration’s organizers and participants.
Demonstrators held placards reading “The war in Chechnya is a bloody line between the government and the people!”; “Putin is killing our freedom!”; “How many more lives will we pay for Russia’s territorial integrity?”; “KGB — hands off of power”; “Mr. Putin! All of Chechnya’s oil is not worth the life of one child”; and “Vova didn’t finish playing soldiers” [Vova is a diminutive of Vladimir]. Several demonstrators carried signs reading “Freedom for Russian political prisoners.” These signs listed former Yukos Oil CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his fellow Yukos core shareholder Platon Lebedev, and Yukos security official Alexei Pichugin, who are all currently in prison. They also named Mikhail Trepashkin, the jailed ex-Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who investigated allegations that the FSB was behind the 1999 apartment building bombings, and Igor Sutyagin, the researcher imprisoned for espionage. Some demonstrators held aloft photographs of Khodorkovsky.
The demonstration’s opening speaker, the journalist and author Yevgenia Albats, said that democratic protest by Muscovites had been successful thirteen years earlier. “This is our country, we were born here,” she declared. “Our children live here and we are obligated to provide a future for them. We managed to do that in 1991: we took the country away from Chekist power. And we will give the country back to them [our children-EDM] this time.” Anna Politkovskaya, the award-winning Chechnya correspondent for Novaya gazeta, also addressed the demonstrators. “Someone has to stop shooting first in this war,” she said of Chechnya. “The residents of our country should demand this of the Russian authorities. Only in this way can we create peace in Russia” (Newsru.com, October 23; Hro.org, October 24, Moscow Times, October 25).
Among those who addressed the demonstration were Oleg Shein, a State Duma deputy with Rodina, the largely pro-Kremlin left-nationalist party, and Valeria Novodvorskaya, the fiercely anti-communist Soviet-era dissident who heads the Democratic Union. Moskovsky komsomolets today (October 25) quoted Shein as telling the crowd he had been told by “officers” that Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basaev “calmly travels around Chechnya in a jeep” and that the Russian special services are “protecting” Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov in his native village of Alleroi. The newspaper commented: “If the Rodina faction is really, as many assume, managed by the Kremlin, then Shein is going too far.”
The Moscow authorities apparently decided that Valeria Novodvorskaya went too far in her address. Interfax quoted unnamed demonstration organizers as saying that officials of Moscow’s central district, where the rally took place, thought that Novodvorskaya went beyond the demonstration’s stated intention of protesting the war in Chechnya into the realm of “anti-government slogans.” According to the Moscow Times, Novodvorskaya was wearing a sign around her neck that read: “Putin is not Yeltsin’s successor, but rather Andropov’s” (Interfax, October 23; Moscow Times, October 25).
Several observers were critical of some leading liberal groups and politicians for not attending the rally. According to NTV television, the only Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader to show up was Boris Nadezhdin, while Irina Khakamada, the former SPS leader who now heads the Free Russia party, addressed the gathering in a pre-recorded message (NTV, October 23). Moskovsky komsomolets called Khakamada’s decision to participate only electronically “very cynical” (Moskovsky komsomolets, October 25). Yevgenia Albats, who addressed the demonstration, wrote in today’s Moscow Times, “It is a bitter irony that the liberals who lost in the State Duma elections last year didn’t even bother to come to speak to the people who, despite the misery of their lives, have continued to cherish democratic hopes.” According to Albats, most of the demonstration’s participants appeared to be in their 50s and 60s; members of the Soviet-era intelligentsia who have been, as she put it, “among the hardest-hit by the past 15 years of reforms.”
One of their number, Lev Ponomarev, the veteran Soviet-era dissident who heads For Human Rights, told Ekho Moskvy radio on the day of the demonstration: “If the authorities don’t hear us, if the State Duma votes for legislation that we consider a constitutional coup, then we’ll gather again” (Moscow Times, October 25).
A small counter-demonstration was held simultaneously with the anti-Chechen war rally on October 23. Approximately 50 young people participated, carrying placards that read, among other things, “Enemies of Putin are accomplices of terrorism” and “We are for Russia, they are for Maskhadov.” The Human Rights in Russia website claimed that the authorities were behind the counter-demonstration. “The authorities, unhappy with the organization of a mass anti-war demonstration [and] following tested Soviet methods, inspired the holding of an ‘alternative demonstration of the indignant people’,” the website wrote (Hro.org, October 24).