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After Fatality, May 6 Displays Troubles & Resilience of Russian Protest Movement

The Russian opposition, it seems, can't catch a break. Sometimes, this is because the Kremlin's political technologists outmaneuver them. Other times, it is thanks to internal bickering. On May 6, 2013, however, the culprit was plain bad luck. On May 6, Muscovites planned to assemble at Bolotnaya Square for the largest rally in a year, in order to commemorate the anniversary of the now infamous protests at the same location on May 6, 2012, when demonstrators and riot police clashed violently for the first and only time in Russia's 2011-2012 protest season. Investigators have charged twenty-eight people with varying degrees of involvement in the “rioting,” making this group a cause célèbre for the Russian opposition, which views them as political prisoners.

Demonstrators through the sanctioned opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in downtown Moscow, 6 May 2013, photo by Alexander Chernavskiy, copyright © Demotix.

Demonstrators through the sanctioned opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square in downtown Moscow, 6 May 2013, photo by Alexander Chernavskiy, copyright © Demotix.

After months of preparation and weeks of wrangling with the Moscow authorities for permission to hold the protest, a tragic fatality marred the event before it could even begin. When the rally's start was just six hours away, a falling speaker crushed to death 25-year-old Maksim Melkov, a volunteer helping to set up the stage. When police declared the stage area a potential crime scene, it seemed possible that organizers might have to cancel the entire event. Shortly thereafter, however, the Mayor's office announced the demonstration could continue without the stage. Amidst the confusion, anti-opposition spambots flooded Twitter with messages bearing the hashtags “sick of protests” [ru] and “the opposition has faded away” [ru].

Twitterbots simultaneously tweeting the hashtag "the opposition has faded away"

Twitterbots simultaneously tweeting the hashtag “the opposition has faded away”

Such tactics failed to distract Ekho Moskvy journalist Serguei Parkhomenko, who quickly took to Facebook, where he tried to coordinate alternative logistical arragements in a post [ru] that attracted over 130 “shares”:

Друзья, пожалуйста, прекратить битья головами об углы и причитать,”какой кошмар”. Да, случилось ужасное несчастье. Но именно потому, что оно ужасное, сейчас не истериковать нужно, а очень слаженно работать, чтобы в создавшейся ситуации ситуация не пошла вразнос.

Ситауция таков: поскольку трагедия случилась в самом начале работ, сцены нет, и звука нет. Место монтажа оцеплено полицией. Организаторы (не я) продолжают переговоры с мэрией о том, как быть дальше [...]

Итак, нужны:

1) Большой грузовик с откидывающимися бортами
2) генераторы
3) мощные динамики
4) усилители
5) пульт
6) кабели для всего этого

[...]

Если кто-то может помочь – немедленно пишите мне в личные сообщения.

И пожалуйста, не истерите здесь больше. Не накачивайте друг друга, не орите истошно. Просто помогите.

Friends, please stop beating your heads against the wall and proclaiming “what a disaster.” Yes, a horrible accident has occurred. But, exactly because it is horrible, we don't need to get hysterical. Instead we need to work as a team, so the situation doesn't get away from us.

The situation is this: insofar as the tragedy happened at the very beginning of the work, there is no stage and no sound. The rigging is cordoned off by police. The organizers (not me) are in talks with the mayor about how to continue. [...]

And so we need:

1) A large truck with removable sides.
2) generators
3) powerful speakers
4) amplifiers
5) a mixing board
6) cables for all of this

[...]

If someone can help, quickly get in touch with me.

And please, no more hysterics about this. Don't work yourselves up, and don't lose your heads. Just pitch in.

Some oppositionists were keen to turn Melkov into something of a martyr. User social_hipster[ru] tweeted:

Максим Мелков – жертва режима!

Maksim Melkov is a victim of the regime!

Pro-regime netizens were less impressed by oppositionists’ handling of the tragedy. Twitter user xstazik was happy to take the opportunity to troll the protestors:

погиб человек, а этим лишь бы помитинговать #6мая #ОппозицияСдулась

A person has died, but these guys just want to have their rally #6may #TheOppositionHasFadedAway

Blogger alekssidor [ru] also disapproved:

Организаторы готовят аппаратуру к митингу на крови

The organizers are setting up the equipment for their protest on blood

While organizers did manage to acquire a truck and a sound-system, a lack of adequate amplification plagued the event's speeches. Journalist Oleg Kashin, perhaps given the circumstances, decided to forgo a speech. Instead, he sang an a capella version of seminal Soviet punk band Grazhdanskaya Oborona‘s best known song, “Everything is going to plan” [ru], to the apparent bafflement of many in attendance.

The confusion was shared by others online, as well, including those who enjoyed it. LiveJournal user langobard wrote [ru]:

сказать откровенно, я Кашина после вчерашнего зауважал.

Хотя один мелкий обывательский вопрос все равно мозолит мозги. Все-таки он бухой был или нет? Ну чего уж, ну принято интересоваться про это в таких вот случаях.

I can honestly say that I respect Kashin after what happened yesterday.

Just one little parochial question all the same pops into my head. Was he wasted or what? No big deal, it's just interesting to know in such cases, that's all.

Kashin, of course, is an extremely prolific tweeter [ru] and occasionally posts entire song lyrics, 140 characters at a time. SimonKostin [ru] noted the collision of the journalist's online and offline personae.

Похоже, Кашин перенес свои принципы ведения твиттера в реальную жизнь

It's as if Kashin has carried his tweeting principles into real life

The event finished with a speech from Alexey Navalny, who appeared onstage alongside his wife. In a straightforward address, which Navalny himself admitted contained “nothing new,” he promised to continue to fight the criminal charges against him and the corruption and excesses of the government. He closed with “Russia is our country! Russia will be free!” The crowd repeated the slogan in a shout, and Navalny's speech was over.

Though the final attendance of the event (estimated to be around 27,500) was much smaller than the mass demonstrations of December 2011 and early 2012, the turnout does testify that that there are still people in Russia willing to come out on an unseasonably cold day and make their displeasure known to the regime, despite accidents, soundsystem failures, and the ever-present fear of arrest and provocation. Despite its setbacks, the opposition has not faded away, which—a year on from Putin's reinauguration—could be an achievement in and of itself.

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