This is a tale of Moscow’s two demonstrations — first the Nationalists, then the Communists , It is not just a tale of the Blacks and the Reds, but a tale of two generations.
“Russkii Sport” chanted one flying squad of nationalists. And, on signal, they threw themselves horizontal on the cold, gray asphalt, pumping out pushups.
It looked a mite comical with their winter coats, and the scarves their babushkas had probably forced on their tough guy grandsons.
I thought of the Women Talk column that Svetlana Kolchik, a friend, had written two days earlier for Ria Novosti: “Where are the Men?”
C’mon Svetlana, you should have taken the Marino metro line almost to the end, to Lyublino. Ok, all the guys wore black, many covered their faces with bandannas, and some snapped sinister stiff arm salutes.
The nationalists were young, male, and angry.
Targeting Russia’s ruling United Russia party, one group carried a banner that showed United Russia’s bear symbol dragging a bag of loot. They chanted: “Down with the party of thieves and swindlers.”.
Targeting Muslim immigrants, one squad of 40 young men, clearly pumped for action, chanted: “Arm yourselves! Don’t tolerate them!”
One large banner read in English: “Gaddafi Is Killed, Who’s Next?”
Oh, I thought, more whining about the demise of the Kremlin’s favorite dictator. Then, the group’s chant started to sink in, ever louder: “Rossiya Bez Putina! Rossiya Bez Putina!”
They were chanting: “Russia Without Putin! Russia Without Putin!”
As a youth, I grew up next door to William Shirer, author of “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” When I became interested in journalism, we met and talked a few times in the 1970s – 40 years after he had covered the early years of Nazi Germany. Now 40 years after those conversations, as I stood on the cold sidewalks of Lyublino, I felt a whiff of Germany, a la 1931.
While standing near a metro exit, a large man in a black jacket accosted me. He sneered: “I suppose you would like to see Moscow all American?”
As a seasoned street-wise reporter, I read this as the awkward appeal of a lonely soul who wanted to talk. So we chatted for a while, warily.
His main assertion: 90 percent of Muscovites share nationalist anger over the massive influx of migrant workers from the Muslim south – Central Asia and Russia’s own Caucasus.
Startlingly, I found sympathy for the nationalists from two people I interviewed at random as they came out of the metro. Blinking in the sun of a holiday afternoon, they had stumbled on the public rage of the black jackets.
Three days later, the Reds had their turn.
The Communists marched down Tverskaya, Moscow’s central shopping avenue. The police seemed to be mostly concerned with picking up plastic traffic cones, restoring Moscow traffic to its rush hour paralysis. Two ambulances closely followed the parade, standing by in case a marcher had a stroke.
The Communists were poor and old. They were overwhelmingly pensioners, women fumbling in their purses for the right coins to pay for a cheaply printed Communist newspaper.
Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist leader, gave a brave speech about new blood coming into the party and new (invisible) brigades of Communist Youth.
But marchers under 40 years of age clustered together, evincing the kind of self conscious uneasiness that some people show when they visit a retirement home.
Viktor, a retired construction worker, said life was great under the USSR: “Free education, free health care, guaranteed work.” When I asked if his children were helping out, he said they had all turned out “bumzhi” – bums. A harsh verdict on a cold gray evening in the stone city (Moscow).
As the red banners passed the Zara clothing store, reportedly the most expensive street level merchant space in Moscow, I watched as sleek metrosexual salesmen cautiously peeked through their window displays. They looked out as if their luxury turf was being invaded by Martians.
The sea of red flags, the comfortable old language of 5-year plans, and the chance to meet with old comrades were the main attractions. Few people I talked to expressed the slightest hope that December’s parliamentary elections will change anything.
I asked one woman why she was buying a newspaper.
She responded: “You are a big American jerk.”
(Gee, how did she see through my disguise so quickly?)
As a seasoned street-wise reporter, I coolly sized her up.
To me, she looked like an older, shrunken version of Rosa Xhleb, the ex-KGB colonel in “From Russia with Love”. In that movie, Col. Xhleb pops a poisoned blade out of the toe of her shoe and repeatedly tries to kick James Bond.
With that vision in my head, I decided to keep moving.
As I walked away, she actually cackled: “Xa, xa, xa, XA.”
This Rosa Xhleb, 2011 edition, was clearly delighted that, there on Tverskaya, only two blocks from the Kremlin, that she had unmasked a “vrag naroda” – enemy of the people.
The march ended on Theater Square. But the Communists turned their back on the neo-classical front of the Bolshoi Theater. A few years ago, workers removed the hammer and sickle from its place of honor. They restored the double headed eagle of Czarist Russia.
Only one week before the Communist march, Theater Square was the stage for the gala reopening of the Bolshoi, capping a lavish, six year, $680 million renovation. Instead, the Communists faced the grey granite statue of Karl Marx, the largest in Russia. There, the “Lenin Generation” bathed in the warmth of the old songs and slogans of their youth.
The Kremlin evidently sizes up the Communists as yesterday’s people. Not a future threat, they get prime time and prime real estate for their march.
In contrast, the angry young men in black got police helicopters, detention trucks, and a desolate, windswept marching site that cried out: Siberia!