The Activism of a Passive People
Feeling like a wee hair-of-the-wolfhound after a good hit of the Old Bushmills at the Irish Embassy on St Patrick’s Night, I headed for Papa’s Place, the bar just off Red Square in which a group of expats gather at 7 on Wednesday nights for two hours of free beer. Just out of Revolutionary Square Metro station, I see Frank from Manchester, one of the regulars, hurrying down the street towards me—that is, away from the pub! This is a surprise.
“There’s no beer till 9 o’clock,” he says shaking his head despairingly. “No alcohol at all. I’ve no idea why. All you can get is soft drinks.”
He tells me he has some shopping to do in GUM, which is right on Red Square, so he will go there and come back for 9 o’clock. As it is 7.30, I hesitate. Can I be bothered to wait, or should I just abandon ship and go home, thirsty?
Curiosity gets the better of me, not least as I am only 50 yards from the pub. I am even more curious when I notice groups of Russians walking slowly up from Red Square, some of them with red, white and blue balloons in their hands, most looking as it they want to find a place to dispose of them.
Inside the bar, things are just as Frank said. No alcohol of any sort is being served. A few of the regulars are there, drinking colas with their Cajun chicken wings.
Then Doug Steele, the genial owner, appears and says that the police came in a 6.30, waving a paper ordering all catering establishments within the Garden Ring—which encompasses the whole of central Moscow—to stop serving alcohol until 9 p.m. tonight.
“Something to do with Crimea Day,” he says, shaking his head. “That was the first I knew about it, at 6.30. I could not put anything up on the internet to warn you guys. So there’ll be free beer from 9-11 and also from 7-9 tomorrow.”
It is not hard to understand why we all like Doug, a friendly Canadian who has been in Moscow for twenty years or more and run some spectacularly entertaining pubs in the past. He usually sits in the corner of his bar, keeping an eye on the staff and patrons while smoking a substance that smells like carbolic soap in a huge hookah.
Rumour has it that there is a demonstration in progress on Red Square in favour of the annexation of the Crimea. Putin is addressing the allegedly enraptured multitudes. In order to avoid trouble, the police have banned all alcohol sales until it is over. Nobody knew about this, but we all mutter about the usual lack of planning in Moscow, or rather the way in which the authorities do not feel they need to give notice of things like alcohol bans, or closed roads or suspended bus services. They simply stop them without explanation and then stand around watching while people sort themselves out.
“They did the same at the time of the Nemtsov funeral,” one of our group says.
We fall to discussing that event, and I say how different it was from the first big protest in Moscow, held at Bolotny Square just south of the Kremlin, three years ago when the prospect of another term with Putin as President was beginning to alarm the “intelligentsia”.
I went to both events, and was struck how much more serious and sombre the atmosphere was at the Nemtsov march. People were not ranting about the government but quietly waving Russian flags en masse.
Then somebody comes into the bar and tells us that the demonstration is a bit of a joke, and that the people he spoke to all seem to have been ordered by their employers to attend. He saw people trailing Russian flags along the ground. That would explain my bored-looking balloon holders.
The curious thing is that Putin publicly accused the Bolotny crowd of having been paid to attend—by “the Americans”. That was complete nonsense. I could see the sort of folk that were there. However, it was true that people were paid to attend the pro-Putin rally which was held two months later on the huge, hideous, Albert Speer-ish plaza where the World War Two memorial stands, bleak, windy, massive and cold.
I went to that too, with a Russian friend, just to see what was going on. The first lady we met complained to us that this was her only day off in the week from the Post Office, but she had been ordered to attend, and was getting double pay for doing so. Another person told us that he had been flown from Novosibirsk by his factory for the demonstration. The price was attending a couple of lectures, but he was happy to put up with that as it gave him an opportunity to visit his brother.
Everyone had to go to a registering tent and sign a form to attest to their presence. Then they had to go to a coffee shop a hundred yards away to collect their money. As we left, a rumour ran through the smallish crowd that the money had run out and no-one was being paid. Everybody shrugged their shoulders in the usual patient Russian way and left. There was no hint of a mood for going and smashing up the coffee shop, as I hope there would have been in Britain.
We discussed this and a lot more until 9 o’clock when the free beer started. A few minutes later, Frank re-appeared. Where have you been, we asked?
“I was in the café at the top of GUM having a beer,” he said with a grin. “No alcohol ban there!”
We could only conclude that the police had been too lazy to walk up the three flights of stairs, which illustrates one reason why life in Russia is still tolerable, despite Mr Putin’s political ugliness. Though ubiquitous and well-equipped, the police are usually almost as passive as the people they are policing.