In Moscow, a Poetic Occupy Protest

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May 13, 2012; Source: RT

RT is the news channel that brings the Russian view on global news events. It has an interesting balancing act to perform, putting a largely pro-Putin spin on the news, but also providing coverage of news and events that might not have reached the public during the Soviet period.

Some of this dynamic is seen in the tone of the lead in to RT’s coverage of “Occupy Moscow” (or actually, Occupy Abai): “Moscow’s ‘popular promenades’ have entered their sixth day. They have now turned into a peaceful sit-in and lie-in demo, attended by hundreds of protesters, including unusual guests such as a cow, a clown and a rock band.” The RT article is titled “Moscow sit-in: Real opposition or political circus?”

The first pull-quote in the article is from a critic, saying, “People are unable [to] stop and think, why they are doing it.” It goes on to quote Diana Petrenko, a Moscow resident and film producer, who says, “I don’t hear any coherent demands or complaints to the government…From the first day, I keep on getting the feeling that this is all an orchestrated spectacle with media personalities.” The response from an Occupy spokesperson, citing opposition to the recent electoral results, didn’t get similar pull-quote visibility. In fact, the article allows Petrenko a counter-response to the effect that the protesters “follow the herd mentality…although they could direct forwards toward a much more productive cause.”

RT extols the willingness of the Russian police to allow the Occupiers to hold their protests with a minimum of arrests and intervention, citing in particular their allowing one protester to bring a cow to the site “to protest against Russia’s accession to the WTO.” They would have arrested him, except that he brought the cow on a leash, which meant that it could be seen as his pet. The “clown,” by the way, was a guy dressed in a SpongeBob suit who was there to entertain kids, as lectures on the history of civil disobedience and TV censorship aren’t exactly riveting for small kids.

How did Moscow’s Occupy-like protesters get the moniker of Occupy Abai for their encampment at Chistiye Prudi Park? The Wall Street Journal described the process of how protesters moved from site to site trying to avoid arrests until they landed in Chistiye Prudi next to a statue of the Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev. It is a little ironic, because Russian President Vladimir Putin dedicated the Kunanbayev statue in 2006 in an exchange with Kazakhstan, which erected a statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

Kunanbayev went by the pen name “Abai” and was described by an Occupy protester as a “freedom-loving poet.” In addition to civil disobedience lectures, the protesters are holding readings of Abai’s poems, with lines such as “No one possesses a power enough to intimidate people nowadays” and “Train your will; it is the armor that keeps the mind alive.”

Despite a warning from government spokesman Dmitry Peskov that the “illegal” gathering would “definitely” be shut down (though he didn’t identify exactly when), the Occupy Abai protesters are hanging in with sleeping bags but no tents, seemingly prepared with good humor for the inevitable detentions and arrests. In a nation that reveres poets, they find their strength and moral compass in the poetry of a Kazakh poet whose statue was blessed, only a half-dozen years ago, by the very autocrat that they are now protesting.—Rick Cohen