When I was in Athens in May of 2010, the city erupted. The Greek economic crisis was at the beginning of its boiling point, massive austerity measures had been announced and, in the historic birthplace of democracy, the people took to the streets. Not only did they take to the streets in mass, but their rage over the proposed cuts brought out violence and looting, including the burning of at least one bank which resulted in death. The unrest even resulted in the airport closing, the ferries closing and some of the metro stations closing.
Photo by Dana Ayers, a travel partner in Greece
Just a week before, I encountered several sporadic May Day labor protests in the streets of Istanbul. May Day is seen as an international day of supporting and fighting for labor rights in many countries around the world, including Turkey.
A few years before that, on the only day I have ever spent in Paris, it happened to be Bastille Day. While almost all shops and businesses were closed, our walk from the train station to the Eiffel tower took us past a few different small groups voicing their concerns, although I can’t remember what it was related to.
Living and working in Washington, DC, protests are a daily occurrence. While I’ve participated in a few large scale protests over the last few decades, I’ve observed and had to avoid many, many more day in and day out. Sometimes a group of 20 forming a picket line in front of a nondescript downtown office building to fight for health benefits, sometimes a few thousand people wearing green chanting for freedom in Iran in front of the White House. Sometimes tens of thousands marching through the streets to protest the Inauguration of a President they don’t believe is legally the President.
Regardless of the cause, this is democracy. In a democratic society, people elect those that govern them. Because democracies are mostly representative democracies, the people don’t vote on every issue that affects them. Their representatives do that for them. So how do citizens voice anger over decisions made, by the people they elected, in real-time? They protest. They take to the streets. They raise awareness over issues they feel so strongly about, issues over which they are willing to draw criticism, be seen as an outsider or a nuisance, or sometimes even potentially lose their job, in order to speak out about what they see as wrong.
I’ll spare you yet another personal analysis over what kind of democracy exists in Russia, but on paper, Russia is a democracy for the most part. What you don’t necessarily see often in this Russian democracy is civil dissent. Protest, to be more specific. It happens, but it’s rare relative to other democratic societies. Partly because dissenting en masse is not a part of the culture, partly because dissenting en masse can bring great harm or jail time. But protesting in public, when holding a permit, is legal. As long as it doesn’t involve any gay symbols, because those harm children and will get you arrested.
I hop off the train in St. Petersburg, excited to explore a city that is not Moscow in Russia. My hotel is about 3 miles away and I can find a bus that goes nearby or take the metro with a transfer. But if my travels have taught me anything, it’s that walking through a city is by far the best way to experience it. So I set out on foot, pulling my suit case behind me and a stuffed backpack on my back. I stroll down Nevsky Prospect, the main drag through town. After about a mile of walking, I notice a few people shooting pictures across the street. Beside them are three very large police vehicles that are clearly for transporting a large amount of people. Police officers, some heavily armed, appear up and down the street. I have to find out what’s going on.
One of the three Police vans for transporting those arrested.
I cross the street after a few minutes of internal debate given that Russia does not take kindly at all to foreigners engaging in their internal politics or any potential unrest. But I have to at least get a few pictures, especially since I have all my camera gear on my back. I pull out my camera and snap a few shots, trying to figure out what’s really happening. Navalny. The blogger turned opposition leader turned Moscow mayoral candidate, one of the very few public figures who strongly opposes Putin and tries to organize opposition efforts, was sentenced to 5 years in prison that morning. These are his supporters mulling about, handing out flyers and gathering in a public square. No real protest leader exists, but after 15 minutes of relative quiet, small chants start to break out. They grow louder as police start to infiltrate further. An officer with a loudspeaker yells in protesters’ faces, those who have come to close to a fountain. I will note, that while I don’t know what he is yelling, he is ending it with “please” most times.
Yell at me to move back and I will taunt you by photographing you as closely as possible.
People with camera gear are everywhere. There is probably a guy with a D-SLR camera for every 10 protesters. There are a few official media, but my guess is this is mostly the blogger crowd. Navalny is one of their own, and they will not let this event go unpublicized. I snap as many shots as I can, then back out from the center, hoping to prevent any problems for myself. But I find the whole display fascinating. I’m witnessing democracy not in my own country, but in a country that has struggled with real democracy for years. A county that draws significant international attention for its crackdown on opposition. I’m witnessing that opposition in person, even if it is just a few hundred people standing in a group occasionally chanting. Each person that gets arrested draws loud applause from the whole group. Then a chant begins, usually just Navalny’s name but sometimes it includes something something PUTIN. Another and another is arrested, loud applause breaks out. Why they are being arrested, I don’t know. But I have to guess it is for something like standing on the public fountain too long, or possibly pushing an officer. Then a newly handcuffed protester tries to evade, he falls to the ground kicking. The crowd cheers like crazy, the symbol of defiance seems to invigorate their cause.
Solidarity for Navalny was shown by holding up this paper. This lady has passion in her face.
About 45 minutes in, and the protest seems to have leveled out. The crowd is still large but I’ve got a hotel to find and it’s starting to rain. I’ve witnessed somewhat subdued opposition, but I’ve witnessed opposition with passion and drive nonetheless. And I’ve got pictures to tell a story with, a story about democracy happening. One I’ve been privileged enough to witness in many countries around the globe. I’m just not sure if protests are drawn to me, or I am simply drawn to protests. It’s a cultural experience like none other.