[Hitler stole our childhood, and Putin stole our old age. The Blockade of Leningrad is back. Give us back our pensions and our benefits. Down with the bloody government of thieves.]
The media say a few thousand people gathered at two locations, Nevskiy and Sadovaya intersection, and Moskovskiy Prospekt. I went to Nevskiy Prospekt and Sadovaya around 4 pm - never been able to calculate how big the crowds are but today it looked comparatively small - compared to Maidan, that is. One way in which Nevskiy resembled Khreshchatyk today was no traffic was allowed on it (unlike Khreshchatyk, Nevskiy is never pedestrian on weekends). Old people were blocking the street, letting neither cars, nor public buses, trolleybuses and trams pass. A hundred or so young people were represented by the National Bolshevik Party guys (their flags are remindful of both the Nazi and the Soviet ones, and here's a link to their posters), the Russian Young Communist League (Che Guevara flags) and the anarchists.
The slogans were anti-Putin ("Putina - v sortir!" - something like "Putin down the toilet!" - was the cutest one, an allusion to his famous quote about killing terrorists when they're taking a leak, a very approximate translation of "mochit' v sortirah"), anti-Matviyenko (St. Pete's governor, Putin's protege), anti-United Russia Party (pro-Putin majority in the Duma) and anti-government.
The reason they are protesting, in a nutshell, is because a new law has replaced certain benefits, such as free public transportation for pensioners, servicemen, people with disabilities and other groups, as well as discounts on housing and utilities costs, with monetary compensations (from $7 to $15 monthly as reimbursement for transportation fares, for example), which are not enough and the people feel robbed. (I'm not sure what an average pension here is but I doubt the majority is getting over $100 a month.)
Here's more on the protests and their causes from The Moscow Times:
Analysts said that a new wave of protests will likely take place at the end of the month and in the first week of February, when people who have been paying only half of their housing maintenance fees start receiving bills demanding they pay in full.
Under the new law, the federal government will be responsible for subsiding housing costs for 14 million war veterans, disabled people and Chernobyl cleanup workers. But another 18 million people in various categories, who were also entitled to discounts, will now be at the mercy of often cash-strapped regional budgets.
Russian Air Force commander General Vladimir Mikhailov added his voice to those criticizing the law Thursday, saying that the removal of benefits for servicemen will worsen their living standards and hit young officers hardest.
"When a pilot gets something like 4,500 rubles [$160] per month, it's just shameful to talk to these pilots sometimes," Mikhailov told reporters.
[...] more than a dozen pensioners have been charged with administrative violations for participating in unsanctioned rallies in the Moscow region towns of Khimki and Podolsk earlier this week, The Associated Press reported.
In one of the more bizarre protests against the law, Viktor Prokopenko, a pensioner from the Moscow region town of Reutovo, has sent his first compensation payment of 250 rubles [almost $9] to Putin in an effort to get the law repealed, Ekho Moskvy radio reported.
Staff at his local post office promised Prokopenko that the money would reach Putin at the Kremlin, but he said he was not expecting a personal reply from the president.
I spent about two hours at the rally, and my main impression is that it is so different from Kyiv's Maidan. I know people here who hope that this is the beginning of a bigger thing, which would lead to "imoranging" Putin (my Kyiv friend has written me that the word was his personal creation, and since he's a Ukrainian, it can still be considered folklore, I guess...).
But I'm not so optimistic.
First, all those Nazi/Soviet/Communist/Che Guevarish trash - it's repulsive, and dangerous, and if bringing down Putin means giving power to these people, I'd rather stay with Putin. Really, I don't understand this "my enemy's enemy is my friend" approach.
Second, I didn't see anything potentially uniting - not at today's rally, at least: old babushkas demanding to let them ride city buses for free again may elicit pity in many fellow citizens, but pity isn't enough to risk losing your job and, possibly, risk your life. "They lost their benefits - but what does it have to do with me? I've never been eligible for any benefits in the first place, always had to pay my bus fare in full - and survived... So why would I protest together with them?" - I wonder how many people are thinking like this now.
What's really interesting, though, is that I saw at least two men wearing orange and looking like they've been transported directly from Maidan (one seemed very familiar but I was feeling somewhat shy and out of place to come up and say hi to him).
I also heard a group of student-looking guys talking about Ukraine and making a joke about Yanukovych - but I didn't stop to talk to them, either.
I heard several people complain angrily about not being able to take a bus because of this rally; one woman was talking to herself, saying: "I can't believe it, I didn't think something like this was still possible! People have lost all fear... And all the trolleys are stuck there, not able to pass because of it..."
There was little humorous about this rally - one very, very big woman standing on top of what's a flower bed in summer suddenly took a firecracker out of her bag and blew it up, and then laughed mischievously and announced that she'd been carrying it around since Christmas. That was sweet, but otherwise the rally was quite heartbreaking, depressing and hopeless.
As I was taking one of the pictures, I heard a woman behind me ask her friend in a rather paranoid voice: "And why is this girl photographing? Who is she? What is she doing here?" She meant me. Thank God, her friend was a normal person: "Don't worry. She's one of us. She's just taking pictures and will then show them to her friends so that they know about us all." I turned to them at this point and smiled, and the normal one continued: "See, the girl is a foreigner, moreover." I felt totally stupid - but smiled again and moved on.
It reminded me of Maidan - how at the very beginning I felt uneasy to ask people's first and last names when I was assisting foreign journalists. I felt uneasy because I remembered how uneasy we former Soviets tend to feel when we have to reveal personal information to strangers. I kept imagining those people thinking, "And what if they turn me in to the secret police, or what if they tell my boss that I was here?" Well, I stopped feeling uneasy very soon, because everyone - yes, every single person we interviewed except for one - was eager to tell us both first and last names and, I suspect, they would have gladly invited us to their homes if we asked, fearing nothing...
In St. Pete, it's different.
Two women later came up to me and asked me again why I was photographing. They weren't too friendly, sounded more like school teachers - so I told them I was a tourist, and they melted down for a moment, then asked where I was from and when I told them, they suddenly got tense and asked me if I was "orange." I happened to be wearing an orange scarf, out of habit, I guess, and they noticed it before I had time to reply, and one pointed to the scarf and said, "Yes, she is orange. Are you?" And I said, "Well, I voted for Yushchenko, so yes, I guess I'm orange." And they started to move away from me, saying something like "We are against you," several times, very fast, and I shrugged, and then one of the women stopped and declared: "You'll all be living very miserable lives because of the way you voted." And it made me slightly sick but I decided not to show it, pretend I didn't get it, so I replied, "I hope everything will be fine with you. Can I photograph you?" They didn't mind, so I quickly took a picture, and the woman repeated her judgment - "You Ukrainians will have very bad lives" - and I again told her that I hoped everything would work out fine for them. Then I moved away.
Here's the picture of these two women: