At an annual Anna Politkovskaya event at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, a man obviously impressed by an account of the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia asked: “What can we in this country do to try and influence these developments?” One of the possible answers today is: “Support Strategy-31”.
The civic movement that has existed for just over a year has managed to unite Russians still hoping to live in a free and democratic country and served to expose the undemocratic and repressive character of the current Russian regime. Strategy 31 is based on a simple and clever idea originally conceived by writer Eduard Limonov: if Article 31 of Russia’s Constitution grants Russia’s citizens freedom of assembly, let’s get together in the central squares of our cities to exercise this right. Not too often – just on the 31st day of each month that has 31 days - 7 times a year.
From the very first attempt to assemble on 31st July 2009 to the latest gathering on 31st August 2010, the reaction of the authorities, especially in Moscow and St Petersburg, has been alarmingly disproportionate: the notifications required under Russian law from “the 31st-ers”, informing the municipal bodies of their intention to gather in this or that square, have inevitably been treated as requests for permission and gloatingly refused. Not once has a rally been allowed, the authorities inventing all sorts of reasons for refusing and usually organising an alternative event on the square named in the original notification. Moreover, every time those brave enough to go out onto the squares have been roughly beaten up by riot police, dragged to police buses, detained in police stations and fined or sentenced to a term in prison. The longest sentence – two and a half years imprisonment - was given to Sergei Mokhnatkin, whose crime was to try to stop a police officer from beating up an elderly woman.
Violence as a way of responding to peaceful gatherings has recently been advocated by Prime Minister Putin, who in his conversation with a journalist warned that “unsanctioned” protesters can expect “a whack on the bonce”. However, “sanctioning” is not part of the plan – Triumphal Square in Moscow, where people have been trying to assemble all this time, has just been closed for refurbishment for an indefinite period.
It was between 31st July and 31st August 2010 that the idea to make the protest global was suggested for the first time. Alexander Goldfarb, writing in his blog published on Grani.ru, compared the current situation with Soviet times. Then Soviet dissidents were supported by Western governments and Western media. Today, he wrote, the situation could not be more different:
“Surely, the Western leaders of the present have no illusions about the Kremlin regime, but their foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere. Whether scared by Russia blackmailing Europe with threats to cut oil and gas supplies or encouraged by the promise to let the Americans have their way on Iran, the West has agreed a Faustian pact with Putin, and ‘Western values’ on the Kremlin-controlled territory are nothing else than a part of this trade-off.” And yet, Goldfarb continued, “Thank God, Western society is not monolithic and there are enough decisive and influential people here who would be happy to defend these values all over the world against the policy of appeasement conducted by their own governments.”
One way of defending these values was shown on 31st August by the Finnish parliamentarian, Heidi Hautala, Head of the EU Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights. Together with three other EU lawmakers, she went to Moscow and reported back to the EU about the police brutality they witnessed there. Another way would be for Russia’s Western supporters, concerned about the fate of the country, to join rallies organized on 31st of the month by Russian émigrés in London, New York, Washington, Berlin and other cities. The participation of Westerners would have at least two important consequences: first, attracting media attention to the repressions in Russia, and, secondly, bringing pressure to bear on Western governments over their dealings with Russian leaders.
Rallies for freedom of assembly in Russia held abroad, exactly like those organized in Russia, bring many different people together. In London on 31st August one could see Vladimir Bukovsky and Marina Litvinenko, Yury Dubov and Andrei Sidelnikov, Yevgeny Chichvarkin and Boris Berezovsky. Surely, at first glance, Berezovsky’s participation allows the Kremlin to play its favourite card: the argument, which seems to come straight out of Orwell, that all opposition in Russia is organized and financed single-handedly by the exiled oligarch. The purpose of this argument is to dismiss the efforts and courage of hundreds of people, who consciously risk being beaten and arrested for the sake of asserting their constitutional rights.
Berezovsky, no doubt, enjoys the status ascribed to him by the Kremlin. The banner he brought to the rally bore a paraphrase of a line by Gogol addressed to Putin: “I have given birth to you - I will stop you!” – thus taking the civic conflict to an intensely personal plane. However, none of this really matters much. After all, the original idea of Strategy-31 came from Eduard Limonov, whose ideology of National-Bolshevism must be utterly unacceptable to many people, and yet his brilliant tactics of focusing on the government’s reluctance to observe the constitution have attracted a whole spectrum of the Russian opposition, including veteran dissidents like Lyudmila Alekseeva in Russia and Vladimir Bukovsky in Britain. It is impossible to discuss the differences openly so long as freedom of assembly is denied and the fight to get it unites those who no doubt would take their separate ways once it is achieved.
The global Strategy-31 gives a unique opportunity to support the heroic attempts of Russia’s human rights activists to stop the country from sliding back into its Soviet repressive past. You can help them in a simple, straightforward way, without waiting for the assistance of any official body. In Europe and America those coming to a rally are not going to be “whacked on the bonce”. But every person present will make a difference.
The next rally is due to take place on 31st October.
13 September 2010