ST. PETERSBURG -- The morning air was icy and the mood tense as people gathered for Other Russia's pre-protest press conference outside the Yabloko office. The protest itself was a few miles away and wouldn't start for another hour, but it was obvious that something was going to go down, and soon.
A dozen police cars and trucks carrying OMON troops lined the narrow street, Ulitsa Mayakovskovo, as up to 100 people milled around, waiting for the conference to finish. Riot police had blocked off every intersection up and down the street. Across from the building, a police commander in camo paced the pavement with a walkie-talkie, nervously eyeing the small crowd.
"This is not a protest," yelled an older opposition activist with a beard and a loudspeaker. "All we are doing is peacefully walking down the street. Please, do not shout slogans. I repeat, this is not a protest..."
The press conference had ended and the crowd started moving down the street. He seemed to be addressing the protesters as much as the OMON troops that had started hopping out of their trucks, getting into strike formation.
The procession didn't make it 30 feet before a couple of kids at the head of the crowd unfurled black hammer-and-sickle NatsBol flags and began shouting "Other Russia! Other Russia!"
That was all the OMON needed to start pouncing.
"This protest is unsanctioned! What you are doing is illegal," a police officer shouted through a loudspeaker as columns of OMON troops barreled through the narrow sidewalk to head off the crowd. As I ran ahead with them, a few people were already being dragged backwards to the police vans; most of them were young, one was unconscious as they dragged him away by his arms.
The OMONtsi kept pouring out onto the sidewalk, some of them slipping on the icy pavement. People scrambled in all directions and I found myself in a crowd of mostly pensioners and women. We were all jammed up against the side of a building, watching helplessly as the OMONtsi clubbed and dragged people away, including an man who looked old enough to be a veteran of Stalingrad.
Protestors stopping traffic
on the Garden Ring road in Moscow
Just a day earlier, I was at Moscow's protest. There, the police failed to contain a small group of NatsBols who bum-rushed a surprisingly weak police cordon after the sanctioned Other Russia rally came to an end. The young crowd broke through the cops and poured into Moscow's Ring Road, blocking traffic as they turned into a smaller street towards Red Square, getting as far as a kilometer before the cops cut them off and trapped them. I was at the head of the crowd when it broke through, and felt the rush that comes whenever an ecstatic mob takes over. For a good 15 minutes the cops were powerless to stop it.
The next day in St. Petersburg, the overwhelming show of force was a clear sign that the Kremlin wasn't going to allow a repeat. The cops were looking for any reason to nip the march in the bud, which the NatsBol kids conveniently provided. There was only one problem: the NatsBols weren't anywhere near press conference. They were saving their strength for the protest. It looked like a setup, an insider provocation, one of many I was to witness. No one in the crowd was really sure where these alleged NatsBols came from. I noticed that a cop picked up a NatsBol flag that fell to the ground; it may come in handy later.
I was still jammed up against the same building when OMON commanders started shouting orders to grab everyone.
"Vsekh, vskeh!" they yelled.
Other Russia organizers, SPS, and Yabloko figures were targeted first. Then the OMON started detaining people at random.