Remembering Boris

Boris Nemtsov, a leader and organizer of the opposition to Putin, was assassinated on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in central Moscow two years ago tomorrow. After a meal out with his 23-year-old Ukrainian model girlfriend, he was crossing the bridge on foot when an unknown assailant shot him four times in the head, heart, liver, and stomach, killing him instantly. Curiously, at the time of the murder all security cameras in the area were switched off for maintenance. This was the day before Boris was set to lead the opposition march Vesna (Spring) to protest the Russian economic situation and war in Ukraine.

Today, in remembrance, tens of thousands of Muscovites marched from Chekhovskaya Station to the bridge where the assassination took place. I was lucky enough to be there. I woke up this morning to a text from my program coordinator, Jon, asking my fellow students and I to avoid the procession, but I couldn’t bring myself to miss out on an opportunity to observe protest in an authoritarian state. My original plan was to watch from afar, but the heavy police presence and orange city utility vehicles blocking off nearby streets rendered that difficult and somewhat pointless. After looking for a solid vantage point, fruitlessly, I returned to Chekhovskaya Station and watched the crowd slowly shuffle through the police checkpoint; a line dozens of meters long of metal detectors and officers to look through bags. I was off to the side, but found myself pushed along by the dense throng of protesters. I didn’t fight it, and was swept towards the gates. I knew that, as an American, this was not a welcome place, and stayed silent as I was instructed through the security regimen, and for the rest of my time there. I was cleared and walked through.

Inside the procession little changed, the mass of people walked orderly down a broad street. Some had flags, mostly the red, white, and blue stripes of Russia. I saw some political party flags represented, notably those of Yabloko, the Russian United Democratic Party, too leftist and anti-establishment for representation in the Russian Duma, or Congress. Other handmade posters had messages in memorial of Mr. Nemtsov. “Thank you for everything,” one said. “I remember.” I saw a couple of Ukrainian flags in support of the invaded country and in opposition to its invader. Others chanted slogans. “Rossiya bez Putina!” one went, Russia without Putin!  “Putin prinyal Ukrainu!” (Putin took Ukraine!) said others.  One of my favorite bits of protest art were the dozens of cardboard rectangles painted with the colors of the Russian flag and riddled with faked bullet holes.

It was a calm and disciplined procession. I never once felt threatened. People brought their kids, and I saw many babushkas in their classic Russian fur coats. There was certainly no violence that I saw, although I did hear reports that opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov had green ink thrown in his face by an anti-opposition assailant who was then detained. I wasn’t there for that, though. In general, all I saw was flag waving, some halfhearted chanting, and a lot of walking. There was a very heavy police presence, of course, but they seemed mostly bored and took little action. Some of them looked younger than me. The most frightening part about their being there was their backup; milling around always near the police lining the streets were plainclothes activists wearing red armbands that read Druzhinnik, or Vigilante. It was vaguely fascist and certainly a bit intimidating, but no action was taken by or against them.

At a certain point a couple miles into the march, the crowd was split by the authorities. The road ahead was unblocked and traffic was flowing, so the protesters had been somehow redirected. I couldn’t understand the droning loudspeaker’s instructions and resolved to follow the largest group, hoping that I could follow them to the continuation of the protest until its planned conclusion at the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge. Police continued to line the street, a somewhat promising sign, until I realized that I had just been redirected to the nearest metro station, Krasniye Vorota. I considered backtracking but decided against it. I was cold and my feet were tired, and I didn’t want to rock the boat much more than I already had, so I got a quick lunch and headed home. I’m very glad I participated, though. It was a very interesting experience as my first real protest. In Moscow no less; against Putin! I’m lucky to have gotten this view on what dissent looks like in modern Russia.

Later on in the evening, I went to the Maslenitsa celebration at Gorky Park. It was really cool! They had a concert with some very lively music, and then they burned this scarecrow effigy with lots of fireworks and pyrotechnics.