One experience at the March for Peace in St. Petersburg on 21 September 2014
The night before St. Petersburg’s March for Peace, I met up with my old friend Max — we’d stayed in touch since our student times in this beautiful city some fourteen years ago — in his favourite pub for a session of mandatory catching-up. As a result of which, Max decided he would come along with me to Sunday’s march — just in case his superb knowledge of local streets, nooks and crannies might come in handy in a violent turn of events.
Indeed, no one quite knew what to expect. Unlike the big march in Moscow, the event in Petersburg had not been sanctioned by authorities. As a result, things like banners, flags or loudspeakers were out of the question. The organizers sent out an appeal to avoid all these things, and to wear blue and yellow (Ukraine’s colours) instead.
A few days earlier, on Thursday, one of the solitary demonstrators on Nevsky Prospect told me: “Be ready for provocations and rotten eggs”. So on Sunday I donned my most washable, dark clothes, packed my passport into a plastic bag, and headed out to Gor’kovskaia metro station, where the march was due to start at 14:00. Max was joining at Sportivnaia on the way there. The participants would walk towards the iconic Kazansky Cathedral on Nevsky, where a people’s gathering — народный сход — was planned.
How many people? Five? Ten? Twenty? I joked nervously that we’re joining them even if there are two. The whole point of human numbers, of course, is that numbers are a bit harder to police.
We were late. By the time we made it to Gor’kovskaia, the people had left. “They’ve gone,” said a policeman as soon as we approached him — we didn’t even have to ask the question. “Were there many of them?” I inquired. “Many is a relative concept,” he mused. And Max said: “Let’s grab a taxi. We can catch up with them on the way to Kazansky.”
So we did. And less than a minute later, as soon as our bus — a marshrutka — started crossing the Trinity Bridge, we saw… them. Dozens. Hundreds. Thousands? They filled the walkways of the entire bridge, from start to finish. They were calm, many were smiling, and all kinds of blue-and-yellow things flashed among them: pins, scarves, headbands, sweaters, coats, hair accessories, balloons. “It’s them!” I said, amazed at the numbers. “It’s them,” agreed Max.
We jumped out on the other side of the bridge, just before the head of the column reached it. A few people with St. George’s ribbons stood at the edge of Marsovo Pole, facing the oncoming crowd. Policemen and policewomen walked along the edges of the column, watching for signs of aggression. Here are the column’s very first persons, just coming off the bridge.
A few words must be added here about St. George’s ribbons, for those who might not be up-to-date on their significance. The Wikipedia page covers the basics quite well. They used to serve as a freely used symbol of commemoration of World War II and its suffering. Lately, however, this ribbon unfortunately began to be associated with the kind of loud, aggressive “patriotism” which, I’d say, musician Boris Grebenshchikov described in one of his songs as “patriotism means only this: kill the one who thinks otherwise”. During the war in Ukraine, in particular, St. George’s ribbons acquired a set of negative connotations. For some; not for others.
The reason I wanted to be sure to mention this is as follows: Max had two. Ribbons. One attached to the front of his black backpack, the other to the back. “I’m not taking this off,” he said before the march. “To me, it stands for love. If we’re marching for peace, I can keep my peace symbols, right?”
Shortly after the column reached us and we mingled with it, I approached a man with a bunch of balloons and asked if he wouldn’t give me one. “You can have two,” he said (eyeing Max). So this is how we walked on Sunday: me with my blue-and-yellow balloons and Max with his black-and-orange ribbons.
No other bothered Max. The people were completely peaceful. The atmosphere — sunlit and even humorous — was unbelievably and unexpectedly bright. Only at the end of Marsovo Pole, a couple of girls behind us took notice of his backpack. I heard one say to the other, clearly in response to her reaction: “Yeah, I know, but he’s with us. He’s been walking with us for a while now.”
This was the atmosphere during our walk from Gor’kovskaia to Kazansky (all four photos are by Вадим Ф. Лурье) —
As the river of people made its way around the visually-well-known Church of the Savior on Blood, I stopped to take some photos.
And then again:
I felt just like this Facebook commentator, who wrote later that day: “I thought there would be few people, and it would be frightening, but there were many people, all were calm, and the column was stronger than what surrounded it.”
In this strange, colourful, sunny mood we reached the Cathedral. And there, at last, we were awaited. Small but vocal groups of people with St. George’s ribbons wanted to be sure we knew we were bloody traitors. Those sleepy-looking, calm policemen acted fast: the loudest provocateur was led away almost immediately. As was, according to notes that appeared on Facebook later that evening, this older gentleman, with a sign that said: “This war is our fault. Drop your weapons.”
Throughout the next hour, a policeman with a loudspeaker wandered through the crowd, repeating in an even, patient-sounding voice: “Please remember, this event is not sanctioned… Please avoid reacting to provocations…”
The sunlit mood of the march grew darker at the cathedral, when people stopped, movement ceased, and discussions and confrontations began. I did not witness any kind of direct violence. However, I sure saw some arguments.
My favourite series of shots: a discussion —
The delicate atmosphere of general kindness slowly melted away as opposing sides voiced their opinions. In the course of the next hour, the fewer original participants of the march stayed in front of Kazansky, the more they were replaced by their opponents. “It’s not just Ukraine! It’s also LGBT!” exclaimed one such person, a young man, behind me. His friend was outraged: “Oh my god! Not LGBT!” The two of them then edged towards this “elderly” artist, and discussed how she was elderly on purpose — to provoke them — because if she were not elderly, they would kick her face in.
“Let’s kick her face in anyway,” said one. “No, I was brought up well,” replied the other. “Can’t really see that,” I noted. Max sighed and moved a bit closer. But the young man took so long to think of a response that I ended up wandering off before he said anything.
Meanwhile, as it turned out, Max was processing an adventure of his own. He had spotted some old acquaintances in the crowd, back from the days of our student theater involvement. He strutted over to say hi, and, according to him, was sent away immediately as an “enemy” (cue: ribbon). “I just don’t get it,” he said, depressed. “We played in the sandbox together. Now I’m an enemy? So much for peace marches…”
By this time, I was rather sad as well — having just observed the mood of a whole crowd of brave, calm, thoughtful people get shaken by a couple of angry men (and women). And this tremendous anger — it interested me most of all. Normally, if you don’t like someone, you don’t seek to hang out with them. You don’t make sure to come to their events and boil over with rage. This rage, I suspect, conceals an answer to something important. A deep and raw spot that is hit by opinions like that of the March participants. Could it be identified? Could its roots be somehow understood? Could they be talked through? Just as I wondered about it, a gentleman (an accidental passerby, I believe) exploded nearby: “You should all be choked to death! I would choke you with my own hands! Banderites! You’ve occupied my Mariupol!” — as his smiling lady-friend held on to his arm.
The police took him away, but I didn’t see the point of staying much longer. Most of the original participants were gone by now, replaced by the “let’s kick her face in” folk. They were so few, these folk, and yet so visible. “Look,” said the one who couldn’t handle Ukraine and LGBT, “they finally gave up the ghost!” I looked up to see a pair of balloons floating away over the city.
At the end, we walked away in silence. “You know,” said Max. “I feel like I was just told that my mother is a whore.” — “Why?” — “Well, this is my home. I can’t hate it, or be asked to hate it. Even if your mother does something wrong, you still stick by her. Right?”
I thought, suddenly, — what if this is the spot that hurts? “You stick by her,” I agreed, “But you also tell her how you feel. Don’t you? Besides, your mother has agency. She can do something right or wrong. And Russia? Things are being done in her name. She isn’t doing them. It is precisely if you love her that you stand up for her. Right?”
We thought a bit as we walked.
“Tell me. Was this a March for Peace or an anti-Russian march?” asked Max, lighting a cigarette.
I thought about it. Then I told him honestly: “If we use these terms, then it was the most pro-Russian march I’ve seen in ages.”
“Maybe we don’t quite understand each other, but I won’t ever defriend you on Facebook,” he said finally. I promised: “I won’t defriend you, either.”
… I have been watching Ukrainians turn away from Russia for months now, as this war gathered force. Coming under attack has the direct effect of forcing people to take sides. And consequently, many have chosen what they see as home. A strongly phrased poem came out of east Ukraine — from Donetsk — in which a Russophone young poetess tells the Russians: “We will never be brothers. […] you don’t have the spirit for freedom.” The poem became popular very quickly, and was turned into a song. This diagnostically morbid idea — of a whole nation having or not having any certain characteristic — “is a crack across my heart” (again, Grebenshchikov). But it is hard to blame a poet saying what she feels in a warzone.
I went to this March because I know, or knew, a different Russia. A Russia that can be loved. A country of dissent, honour, bravery, and intelligence. If that’s hard to imagine, it’s because of the “let’s kick her face in” folk that are so much louder than the rest.
In 1968, the day after the Soviet Union’s dissidents walked out and knelt on the Red Square to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia, a newspaper in Prague wrote that each of those people was one reason why the Czechs will be unable to hate Russians. I hope the world heard this Sunday’s March, and saw its sunlit faces. According to the “thank you!” exchange (in Ukrainian, Russian, English) on Facebook today, we didn’t walk for nothing. But internal triumphs can be short-lived when violence continues on the outside — violence launched in one’s own name.
And here is Moscow marching: