Russian liberals march against Kremlin

About 2,000 gathered to accuse Kremlin of crushing press freedom, and straitjacketing democracy, reports Fred Weir.

india Updated: Dec 21, 2006 15:26 IST

Russia's beleaguered liberals and other Kremlin opponents rallied in downtown Moscow a few days ago and succeeded in showing just how marginalised they have become during six years of Vladimir Putin's highly popular rule.

About 2,000 people gathered, amid freezing rain and blustery winds, to accuse the Kremlin of crushing press freedoms, straitjacketing democracy and curbing human rights.

Some participants were well-known Russian figures, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and chess champion Garry Kasparov. Yet marchers were outnumbered about 5-to-1 by riot police, and few passersby on Teatralnaya Ploshad, near the Kremlin, paid much attention to them.

Pro-Putin analysts say the event proves that political freedom is alive and well in Putin's Russia, since the demonstraters were allowed to hold their meeting, even though it featured provocative speeches comparing Putin to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and accusing Moscow police of being "fascists".

Protesters, on the other hand, claimed their point of view was validated by the behaviour of the police, who arrested about 40 people and allegedly beat others with truncheons. State-run television stations barely mentioned the event in evening newscasts, and carefully edited out critical remarks made by speakers.

Human rights monitors say hundreds of people from out-of-town who wanted to join the protest, were prevented from reaching Moscow by the police, who closed regional train stations, pulled known critics of Putin off Moscow-bound buses, and blocked access to the city centre during the rally.

It was a strikingly different scene on Sunday, when about 70,000 activists of the Kremlin-backed youth movement Nashi (Ours) rallied freely on Red Square, making a massive show of support for President Putin.

Few policemen were on hand to dampen the festive atmosphere as the young activists, some wearing Santa Claus suits, and many waving white-red-blue Russian tricolour flags, listened to pro-government speeches and songs honouring the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Moscow, when Soviet troops stopped invading Nazis at the gates of the city.

Thousands of participants were reportedly brought in from other Russian cities in buses provided at government expense, and free food and coffee were laid on for the thousands of young activists and elderly war veterans who turned up.

This demonstration received lavish coverage on state TV's evening broadcasts. In contrast to the previous day's liberal rally, police made no move to stop this crowd from pouring into the vast, cobbled spaces of Red Square, which lies directly beneath Putin's Kremlin office.

He was the butt of jokes during his lifetime, but a majority of Russians now say the best time in history was the 18-year rule of the jovial, bear-like Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

A wave of Brezhnev nostalgia swept over the Moscow media this week to mark what would have been Brezhnev's 100th birthday, had he not died in office in 1982 after a long decline into doddering senility.

Newspapers highlighted a poll that showed 74 per cent of Russians over 35 felt the Brezhnev era was the best time. Over 30 per cent of younger people, who couldn't possibly remember those days, said they feel the same way.

Many Russians now say they look back with affection on the old leader, whose slow-witted, stumbling, country bumpkin style was a source of acute embarassment back in Brezhnev's heyday.

Some newspapers even ran pages of favourite old Brezhnev jokes, which invariably targeted him as a wheezing, stuttering old dummy.

An example: "We must beat the Americans in the space race, and I have a plan," Brezhnev tells a meeting of the Politbureau, the top Soviet leadership council. "Instead of going to the Moon, we shall land a Soviet spaceman on the Sun," he continues.

"But Comrade Brezhnev, our man will be burned up!" the other leaders gasp.

"Do you think I'm an idiot?" replies Brezhnev. "We'll send him at night."

Experts say there's no mystery about the old leader's enduring popularity. Brezhnev's years in power were a time of unprecedented political stability, relative economic prosperity and many Soviet successes on the world stage.

Though historians blame Brezhnev's conservative, anti-reform policies for hastening the USSR's ultimate collapse, most Russians remember it as a time of cheap food, plentiful vodka and no pressure on anyone to work very hard.

First Published: Dec 21, 2006 15:26 IST