MOSCOW — There are no posters, no tents, no insistent drummers, and no looming police — but the small throng in one of Moscow's most sylvan parks is a remarkable protest gathering all the same.
Since the middle of last week, opposition activists have tested authorities and themselves by maintaining an around-the-clock presence in a corner of the park that runs down the middle of Chistoprudny Boulevard, near the pond that gives the street its name.
In the past, Moscow police have broken up unauthorized political rallies swiftly and forcefully. This camp technically does not qualify as an unsanctioned protest because there are no political posters and its residents do not chant any slogans. The legal hair-splitting shows how opposition leaders are searching for new tactics to keep alive the massive wave of dissent that broke out this winter.
Anastasia Kudryavtseva, a 28-year-old protester from Naberezhnye Chelny city in western Russia, said the protesters don’t even need to voice their demands because "everybody knows why we’re here."
On May 6, the day before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president, a sanctioned rally turned into clashes with police in which more than 400 people were arrested. Many feared the violence would discredit the opposition and marginalize the protest movement.
But arrests on the day of Putin’s inauguration when police targeted pretty much anyone wearing white ribbons, the protest symbol, exacerbated the public anger. Since then, activists have staged "flash mobs" across Moscow, suddenly assembling in public places where they would camp and remain for the night. The plaza on Chistoprudny boulevard has been the protest’s permanent home since Wednesday.
On a quiet Monday afternoon, the camp numbered only about 100, but over the weekend, hundreds of others had thronged to the scene, which is nicknamed "Occupy Abay" because it’s near a statue of poet Abay Kunabayev. Since they are not allowed to pitch tents, protesters lay on yoga mats and rugs. The face of the protest is diverse. It could be a female student with a laptop, a skin-headed lad with a weather-bitten face in a track-suit, or a gray haired man in a woolen poncho.
Protesters spend days and nights at Occupy Abay, reading up for exams, singing songs, handing out books and leaflets, and making sure their fellow protesters are safe and well-fed.
Most camp residents do not have clear political demands, but they seem to agree that one thing: Russia badly needs a change.
"People in Russia were protesting in the 1990s because they were hungry — literally. Now, we’re hungry in a different way. We’re hungry for change," said Ayal Koryakin, a 29-year-old student from St. Petersburg.
Maria Sergeyeva, a 19-year-old student, said she has joined the Occupy Abay movement because she is "fed up" and "things can no longer go the way they do now."
Many Russians felt slighted and cheated when President Dmitry Medvedev announced in September than he would step down to allow his mentor Putin to seek a third term in the office. Putin was Russia’s president between 2000 and 2008. The December parliamentary vote tainted by allegations of wide-spread fraud energized the protest movement.
The protesting crowd at Occupy Abay varies from day to day, and hour to hour. One day it’s an overwhelmingly hipster students’ crowd singing Bob Dylan songs, the other day it’s dominated by quiet middle-aged people.
The Occupy Abay camp represents a wide variety of political views — from the majority of apolitical citizens, to leftists, liberals and nationalists. In an ironic twist, it is the nationalists, notorious for street violence in Russia, who act as security guards at the camp, impeccably ensuring law and order.
Skin-headed Sergei Vasilyev, a self-described imperialist, has not slept for three nights, taking turns with his fellow nationalists to guard the camp. But he said he helps the joint effort of pushing for the destruction of monopoly of power in Russia.
Camp residents do not find anything strange in the co-habitation of nationalists and anti-fascists.
Kirill Prygunov, a 30-year-old IT engineer, said he "takes a real delight in talking to people with different political views:"
"This is a beginning of democracy," he said.
Protesters are angered not only by the lack of political reform they’re pushing for, but also by the arrogant reaction of authorities to their actions.
It ranged from Putin’s famous reference to white ribbons as condoms to his spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s promise to "spread the protesters’ livers on the asphalt" in case any of them hurts the police.
Although Ilya Yashin, one of the camp leaders, a veteran opposition activist at the age of 28, is confident about the goal of the protest ("to get rid of Putin’s monopoly on power"), many protesters admit they don’t see any clear goals or have ready-made solutions.
"I must say no one here knows exactly what to do," said Sergeyeva. "I’m here to work out what needs to be done to change things."
This protest may not have strong leaders or clear political demands, but many feel it to be their moral obligations to come and stay at Abay’s monument and get their voice heard — like Sergeyeva’s friend, 18-year-old Darya Afanasova, who has frequented Occupy Abay for several days and once stayed the night here.
"If you’re not here and don’t feel the urge to come here, it means something’s wrong with you," she said.