Zakharov Publishers, Moscow
Edizioni e/o, Rome
Europa Editions, New York
Protest marches in Russia are not even three years old, but it is already certain that they will go down in Russian history. There have been acts of civil disobedience and demonstrations by the opposition before, but they were never so full of despair as these marches are. Since the darkest hours of the Soviet period, the opposition has never been so sure that their actions will be prohibited by the powers that be; that the militia and secret services will be making preventive detentions of all the activists they can find; cordoning off the planned assembly site with a triple ring of OMON [SWAT] troops, militia vehicles and armored cars; and that attempts to demonstrate will be broken up; that leaders, activists, participants, reporters, and even chance passers-by will be beaten, arrested and carted off by the militia.
Despite all this opposition marches are taking place in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian big cities with persistent regularity. Thousands, and sometimes even only hundreds, of people are taking to the streets with banners reading "Russia without Putin," or "We Need Another Russia." They let themselves be beaten up for demands that seem almost absurd in the totalitarian Russia of today. Widely differing politicians like Garry Kasparov, Eduard Limonov and Boris Nemtsov are taking such unusual stages as the back of a pickup truck, the balcony or window of a building. The political right, the political left, liberals, social democrats, and communists are all united by the wish for freedom and by opposition to the Putin regime, a regime that has not changed its character under the Medvedev presidency. The people who listen to these politicians and march into lines of militia are equally different: they include politicians, workers, bank employees, journalists, students, army and secret service officers. They want freedom too, and they are prepared to risk their heads under the threat of militia batons.
The structure of this book is similar to Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, where a bridge collapses, and people who didn't previously know each other, or have anything to do with each other fall into an abyss. A priest investigating the incident looks into the lives of each of the victims and comes to the amazing conclusion that it was not a coincidence that they were all there that day, and that it was precisely on this day that they were meant to die.
In Panyushkin's story, twelve activists meet on the way from Moscow, where there has just been an opposition march that was beaten terribly apart by the militia. They are secretly on their way to St. Petersburg, where another march is planned for the next day that will probably be equally brutally dispersed by the militia. To keep from being found, they have been changing from one means of public transportation to another, using rental cars, or taking the train, but without buying tickets, just bribing the conductor. They are under surveillance, and are trying to lose it. They meet one another by accident in a café on a highway near Tver. That is the only part of the novel about the lives and actions of the people organizing the opposition marches that is fiction. This meeting never took place, but it could have.
The twelve people sitting in the café are aware that they will either be taken into custody or allowed to continue on to St. Petersburg, and are telling each other their stories. They couldn't be more different: a politician, a young girl, a worker, a chess grandmaster, a satirist, a bank employee, a journalist, a SPETZNAZ colonel, to name but a few. Their tales form a list of demands to the government, and a picture of how people in Russia live today.
The first chapter describes the how and why these people came together in the café. It is the history of the marches by these people who dare to think differently, the history of continuously increasing repressions that have turned the opposition into criminals and led our heroes to the middle of nowhere.
The next twelve chapters that follow are descriptive portraits of the protagonists. They talk about how it became impossible for each of them individually to continue their lives the way that they had been, and why they joined the opposition camp.
1. Garry Kasparov: A prominent individual who has become a pariah. The road from former chess world grandmaster from the covers of high-gloss magazines to a prison cell.
2. Marina Litvinovich: The evolution of the political consultant. Why a woman who worked for Putin, the Union of the Right, for the politician Irina Hakamada and the businessman Mikhail Khodorkovskij is organizing opposition marches.
3. Viktor Shenderovich: A satirist who joked his way into prison.
4. Maxim Gromov: Why a machinist from Cheboksary on the Volga protested forced psychiatric treatment in front of the local Lenin monument with his mouth sewed shut, occupied the Ministry of Health in Moscow, and was thrown into solitary confinement for it.
5. Natalya Morar: Why a young journalist from Moldova has been declared persona non grata in Russia.
6. Andrej Illarianov: Yeltsin's and Putin's economic advisor successfully fought big business corruption, and unintentionally helped to put Mikhail Khodorkovskij, the first oligarch to pay his taxes, behind bars.
7. Maria Gaidar: How a girl from a good family, the daughter of a former prime minister, became a revolutionary.
8. Ilya Yashin: The head of the young people's wing of the moderate opposition party "Yabloko" [Apple] is radicalizing his own party.
9. Sergej Udaltsov: From bank employee to the leader of the Russian Red Brigade, the party of the "Avant-garde of Red Youth". This is also the tale of the romance between the party leader and his press secretary. They are now married.
10. Anatolij Yermolin: The former SPETZNAZ colonel and member of Khodorkovskij's "Open Russia" comes into conflict with the ruling party "United Russia" and loses everything.
11. Vissarion Asseyev: A regional legislator takes part in the action to free the hostages in Beslan and cannot forget it.
The twelfth oppositionist is the author himself, who cannot understand why people without banners and slogans, who demonstrate armed only with flowers, are beat up and arrested by the police.