Last Friday I found myself for a second time in the middle of a crowd on Tverskaya Street near the statue of the dude who founded Moscow, opposite the mayor’s house. My friend Rachel and I were walking home from MXAT when we recognized the austere uniformed militia blocking off the main road, but still letting pedestrians through; the real event was still yet to come, it being the arrival of a leftist political activist of some sort planning to share his thoughts on the right to vote.
Last time this crowd introduced me to another side of Russia, and of life, that I had never experienced prior. Hundreds of press members gathered in the square with their cameras and their badges hanging around their necks like extra appendages. They greeted each other with the familiarity and cavalier manner reminiscent of an office holiday party, and we, the odd Americans standing to the sidelines, wondered what on earth was going on. We waited … and waited. And waited. And every once in a while the reporters would gather together in clumps, or take pictures of the scene around them, or briefly converse with and film people who were there to see whomever it was we were all collectively awaiting. Then. A red jacket. Reporters flocking. Flashes splashing in and between seconds. An old man with half his head shaved and the other half streaming long gray threads began to speak.
I am not sure how much he was able to say in the 30 seconds of free speech he cherished before the blue-garbed militia broke through the crowd of press members, picked him up, and began to forcefully take him behind the barricade that the green-garbed militia had begun to make toward the back of the square. Todd said something very appropriate: “This is not a place we should be right now. Let’s go.” And we left.
We found out later via the Internet that that particular day had been declared a “Day of Anger” where citizens were encouraged by activists to join others in the square in voicing their frustrations with the Russian government. The term “shut up” has new meaning for me now.
Thus, to return to my more recent story, Rachel and I found ourselves once again walking home along Tverskaya. Similar atmosphere: holiday party for the press, just outside, in the cold, and across from the Mayor’s house. We decided to wait again, just to see what might be happening. During one moment of our quiet English conversation, a Russian woman bluntly took out her camera, pointed it at us, and with flash and without shame, took our picture. Rachel and I were a little surprised. We shared a few seconds of awkward tension with the woman before I asked her “Otkuda?” which means, “where are you from?” She answered that she was from a city outside Moscow, and then asked us in broken English where we were from. HA. Sneaky lady, as if she didn’t know already – hence the picture. But she was able to explain to us a bit of what was happening; a leftist political activist was coming at 7:00 to talk about the right to vote. She said something to the extent of “but we know that it won’t be successful.” According to my prior experience with protests in Russia, I could imagine exactly what she meant.
So Rachel and I waited; we were joined by our friend Grady after 10 minutes or so, when he saw us standing as he walked home. Gradually more and more people arrived, many carrying sheets of paper that read “Enough terror!” – each with different faces of government officials on them as well. The people carrying the posters were often stopped by the press and asked questions. Boom mics and cameras were everywhere. And once again, there we were, the awkward Americans.
In spurts the reporters flocked to different mini hotspots of action, one being four older men who began to sing as a quartet while they held their little posters. But the real action began when someone, truth be told I have no idea who, arrived just down the street from where we stood. The flood of people spewed past us to meet him, and then past us again as he made his way closer to the center of the square. Flashes and microphones popped with the excitement of a red-carpet event, but as the militia began to walk slowly in, toward us, and in a very strong, intimidating line, my stomach dropped.
The barricade had begun. Imagine a living wall closing in, step by step. A wall made of firm, male faces whose tongues speak a language that you do not know, and whose figures speak a threat that does not require words. If I had been five feet closer to the crowd, I would have, without choice, been forced into the wave of publicity and bystanders caught by the strong current of these men. But I did not. I was five feet free. And I realized that the message that the policemen had been droning through their megaphones the whole time we were there, which began with, “Esteemed Citizens…” was probably something to the extent of “Esteemed Citizens, you remain here at your own risk. If you choose to stay and support the activities taking place here, know that you will be barricaded. Again, Esteemed Citizens …”
First of all, I don’t entirely understand Russian. Second of all, I am not a Russian citizen. But still, I was only five feet free of a being caught inside a human wall. In Russia. I am not familiar with that kind of fear. I watched the men pick up the man who had been speaking, and forcibly move him back behind the press. I remembered the red jacket, the old man, his half-head-of-hair and his feet off the ground the same as the man before me.
We tried to leave via the side streets, but the soldiers had also blocked off the street, and were telling people to exit another roundabout way, but eventually we attached ourselves to the person by person stream that was threading itself obstinately through the men, and made our way toward home.
I take these words for granted.
Anatoly Smeliansky, the head of the Moscow Art Theater School, gave a toast at our Thanksgiving feast yesterday. He spoke about how much he loves our American holiday and the taking of time to realize just how much we have to be thankful for. According to him, “in Russia also unfortunately because of the history, we don’t know for what we should thank Him. For Christmas? For, for what?” His playful laughter on the word “WhAt?” brought many a chuckle in response, haha.
He continued, “I hope, actually I am an optimist, and, actually I have something to thank God for, what he gave to Russia, He gave Anton Chekhov to Russia. He gave some beautiful great actors who were my friends, and most of them are not alive. He gave great directors and set designers and so on and so on – it’s enough actually. How many great things do you need in your personal life?” His gentle face and the twinkle in his eye smiled at us as we laughed. He looked down briefly, and continued, saying that though Americans vary from state to state and tradition to tradition, and although the president can be bad, or certain people can make poor decisions, as a whole, “America as a country, unbelievably beautiful.” And perhaps the reason for this, is because “in the States you probably got the most important thing which people could get in any country; You got freedom.” Hearing him say that familiar word brought tears to my eyes and a new weight to my heart.
“You got Freedom.”
How often does one hear a word redefined in an instant with simply the use of itself?
I will never forget the image of these men being picked up by blue-clad soldiers. I will never forget what it can mean, in just the mildest sense, according to history, to be denied the right to speak. Just over 20 years ago this country was under the reign of communism. Dwelling in that fact makes my head and my heart spin. There is still so much territory to regain here, and truly, all over the world. Most Americans grow up being taught to be thankful for freedom, but do we realize to just what extent we should be?
This Thanksgiving, I am not only thankful for the amazing opportunity that I have had to study in Moscow, which has truly changed my life, and not only thankful for the incredible friends that I have made from all over the world via my travels here, and not only am I both thankful for and in love with all of my teachers, to the extent that my limited Russian will never express to them as much love as I have in my heart for their incredible souls, and not only thankful for language and the ability that we have as people to communicate at all, and not only thankful for a warm place to sleep at night instead of the cold Moscow streets, and for food to fill my hunger, and not only thankful for my amazing family, and for the God who saved me from myself a long time ago, but thankful for freedom.
Liberty is a gift within five feet of being taken from you.