Constitution Day - Then and Now

posted 16 Dec 2015, 00:47 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 17 Dec 2015, 00:56 ]
Those who gathered on Pushkin Square this Saturday [12 December 2015 - see photo, left, courtesy of Eduard Molchanov] to mark Constitution Day met a tough response from the police. Ominously the present regime has dropped this day of celebration from the calendar. 

The tradition of protesting against persistent human rights violations when basic liberties and freedoms were all guaranteed by the Constitution began in the Soviet era, first with the Stalin Constitution of 1936 and the Brezhnev Constitution of 1977. This excerpt from a report in the samizdat Chronicle of Current Events describes how the day was marked in the centre of Moscow and far away in the corrective-labour camps and prisons of the USSR. 

See “Traditional Days of Protest in the Soviet Union”, A Chronicle of Current Events, 43.2, 31 December 1976 

In Moscow the traditional 'silent meeting' by the Pushkin monument was held on 5 December for the twelfth time. The first demonstration on Pushkin Square took place on the same day in 1965. 

Then the demonstrators were demanding glasnost, i.e. that the approaching trial of A. Sinyavsky and Yu. Daniel should be conducted openly, and that the [1936] Soviet Constitution be observed. The latter demand became the traditional motto for the annual demonstrations on 5 December. At exactly 6 pm the demonstrators would bare their heads ‘as a sign of mourning’ for the absence of the constitutional freedoms in the USSR and stand in silence for several minutes. So far the number of those taking part has ranged from about ten to several dozen. The demonstrations have been relatively peaceful; the volunteer police [druzhinniki] have surrounded the demonstrators, forming a crowd of 100-150 people altogether. 

This time everything was different. 

The group of demonstrators, which included A. D. Sakharov, was surrounded by a tight ring of policemen, who began to shove and jostle them, energetically pushing them back from the Pushkin monument towards the benches and hedgerows around the square. N. Fyodorova had her spectacles broken; Victor Nekipelov was knocked off his feet. When, at 6 o’clock in the evening, the demonstrators in the group took off their hats, having failed to get through to the monument, those around them began to throw snow mixed with mud at them. (There was no snow on Pushkin Square that day; witnesses assert that the police brought the snow with them in paper bags.) 

A group of Reform Baptists [initsiativniki] from Kiev, who had come to the demonstration, found themselves outside the ring. One of the Baptists threw a huge bouquet of carnations at Sakharov, but the bouquet was knocked out of Sakharov’s hands and trampled on. All this was going on to the accompaniment of jeers and yells (directed at Sakharov in particular) simulating ‘the indignation of the masses’. 

A few hundred people gathered round those who had managed to reach the monument, but the situation there was much more peaceful. At about 6 o’clock the crowd stretched all the way from the monument to Gorky Street. Some part of the crowd was made up of volunteer police, but exactly how much remained unclear until 6 o’clock. At that moment many people — but not all — followed the example of the ’traditional’ group of demonstrators and bared their heads. 

Unlike the state of affairs round the group that had been pushed away, the silence around the monument lasted undisturbed for five minutes. Afterwards P. G. Grigorenko made a short speech, this being the first speech in the history of the meetings on Pushkin Square: 

“We thank those who have come here to honour the memory of millions of innocently murdered people! We thank you all as well for expressing your solidarity with prisoners of conscience by your presence here! The tradition of demonstrating on Pushkin Square was established by Vladimir Bukovsky, who is now a prisoner in Vladimir Prison. Demand freedom for Vladimir Bukovsky!" 

Many people loudly repeated ‘Freedom for Bukovsky!'

Cameras were constantly flashing above the crowd. One of the most picturesque sights of the evening was provided by a certain person sitting astride the Pushkin monument and continually taking photographs of the crowd. 

Three persons were detained on Pushkin Square for a short while, including Associated Press correspondent George Krimsky (se Chronicle No. 42), who on some pretext had been stopped on the edge of the square, pushed into a car and not allowed to get out until everything was over. The tyres of his own car then turned out to have been slashed. 

On 4 December Alexander Gotovtsev was summoned to police station 73, where KGB officials were waiting for him. They told Gotovtsev that he was forbidden to appear on Pushkin Square with his guitar on 5 December. If he ignored this, it would be regarded as a breach of public order. 

On 5 December, at 5.30 in the evening, A. Gotovtsev was seized on Razgulyai Square (together with his guitar), pushed into a taxi and taken to the local police sub-station; he was kept there until the demonstration was over. 

A. Gotovtsev (stage name Rossiisky) is a composer and singer of songs who has taken an active part in the ‘Sunday Concerts’ (see ‘An Unofficial Entertainment’ in Chronicle No. 41, the ‘News in Brief’ section of Chronicle No. 42 and in this issue). 

For the first time similar demonstrations took place in other towns — in Odessa and Leningrad. In Odessa 13 people gathered at 5 pm at the Pushkin monument on Primorsky Boulevard. In Leningrad 25 people took part in the demonstration at the Pushkin monument on the Square of the Arts. 

On 5 December Armenian political prisoners Paruir Airikyan, Azat Arshakyan and Razmik Markosyan demanded the legalization of the National United Party of Armenia and a referendum in Armenia on the question of self-determination. 

Their demands were upheld, in statements addressed to the Presidium of the Armenian Supreme Soviet, by the following political prisoners in the Mordovian camps: Mikhail Korenblit, Vasily Ovsienko, Vladimir Osipov, Oksana Popovich, Boris Penson, Nijole Sadunaite, Pyotr Sartakov, Irina Senik, Sergei Soldatov, Irina Stasiv-Kalynets, Vasily Stus, Mikhail Kheifets, Vyacheslav Chornovil, Stefaniya Shabatura and Artyom Yuskevich. 

Political prisoners in Vladimir Prison have sent statements to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, pointing out the necessity of bringing the Constitution into line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the UN Covenants on human rights (1966) and the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference (1975), so that ‘the text of the new constitution [adopted in 1977] will not only proclaim the basic human rights and freedoms, but will also make provision for establishing a mechanism to guarantee those rights in reality'. 

Photo courtesy of  (c) Eduard Molchanov

Items in this section of our website are selected, introduced and annotated by John Crowfoot