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Russia’s Progress Towards Civil Society – A View from the Paddy Wagon
I attend a lot of public events and I’ve only been arrested twice: once in November 2007 and once earlier this month, on May 6, 2015. Some impressions follow.
My arm was broken the first time – by accident, I presume. My second run-in with the law did not result in any physical injuries. This is not part of a trend. In fact, the reverse is true: police treatment is getting harsher. Actions that were previously considered excessive and arbitrary are now viewed as the norm. Several years ago, a ruptured spleen would have resulted in a much greater outcry.
However, back in 2007, we had no legal support. This time, there was already a lawyer at the police station when we were unloaded from the paddy wagon. I think he was sent by Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars), a prisoners’ rights organization. Having a lawyer certainly made the experience less stressful. The police officers, too, were aware of his presence – and of the possible publicity.
A bit about the police. They look at you with vacant eyes. They make me think of the sergeant from a Vladimir Voinovich book who “regarded humans as one might a tree: Given the orders, he would chop one up; without orders, he wouldn’t lay a finger on it.”
Most remarkably, they don’t believe in what they do. A pleasant young woman in plain clothes who was taking down my personal information asked, “Why do you go to these things?” I explained that I attend because people are in jail for no reason, that I was in Bolotnaya Square myself three years ago and saw people being arrested randomly, that this simply isn’t right.
But the authorities always do this, she replied. The authorities never follow laws – they write them for the general population, not for themselves.
The police are not simply hiding behind their badges (claiming to just follow orders). They do not self-identify as defenders of the law and protectors of the people the way American and British officers do. To keep from feeling like cads and criminals, they ascribe selfish motives – or at the very least naiveté and foolishness – to anyone the government pins them against. But they do have a problem with self-respect. They are not fighting the good fight – they are putting in the hours for their pensions. In the long term, this will be one of the factors that will bring down the existing system.
I should mention why I was arrested. The first time I really did attend a prohibited event – the Dissenters’ March. As it happens, we never even got a chance to start marching, but that’s a minor detail.
On May 6, there was zero cause, save for a white ribbon I had pinned to my blazer. There was no demonstration. Those who were present – and there weren’t many – were just standing and talking.
I, for one, was arrested right in the middle of giving an interview to RBC, with the camera still rolling. It’s unlikely that RBC would air this, which is too bad, because they had a great shot: A man is speaking, pontificating, when he is grabbed from behind and dragged into a paddy wagon. Rise up, spiritual bonds, and then [censored].
As you sit at the police station, you have a greater awareness than ever of the complete disconnect between what you’ve done, on one hand, and what will be done to you, on the other. Incidentally, the police understand this as well, and they don’t mince words. If they so choose, they will charge everyone with plotting a terrorist attack intended to sabotage the Victory Day Parade. If not – they will let everyone walk. Most of us were released, asked only to “come back for a talk,” but three people were booked. And who knows – for them, these few days might be only the beginning.
I am still pondering the question that young woman asked me, “Why do you go to these things?” How do I explain this to her and, more importantly, to myself? I am not personally acquainted with anyone who is in prison because of the Bolotnaya Square case. I have no delusion that our endeavors will help them. Very few people attend these events and one does not walk away with a sense of a greater “we”, of a grand camaraderie that makes you fearless even of death. I have no desire to end up in jail or in a hospital. So, why?
There are two reasons, I suppose. First – some terrific people participate. It is a joy to be with them, even in a paddy wagon. Second – the highbrow delusions: self-respect, being able to look in the mirror without flinching, earning the regard of my children and the esteem of my late mentor… In other words, I have no choice. Next time I’ll have to go again.
 Sergeant Klim Svintsov in “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin”, by Vladimir Voinovich.
 white ribbon – a symbol of democratic protest in Russia
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