Paranoia Descends on St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG -- The brewing Bolshevik Revolution here almost a century ago must have felt a bit like the unsanctioned G8 protests that sprouted up across the city over the weekend.

Just as Marxist agitators were hounded by the tsar's secret police, the anti-globalization activists, anarchists, communists and others protesting the Group of Eight summit spent most of their time secretly organizing demonstrations and dodging informants.

It seemed that the demonstrators had reason to fear the militia. Many of them were detained or arrested. Many of their protests were broken up. And on Saturday, a Communist Party march was punctuated by scuffles with police officers.

Ella Pamfilova, head of the presidential council for human rights, has promised to investigate claims by activists who say they were barred from protesting. "To be frank," Pamfilova said in an interview Friday. "I want blood."

Police officers found guilty of illegally detaining activists must be brought to justice, she said, adding that she had taken her fight to the Prosecutor General's Office and that by Monday night she expected to see some results. Activists estimated that 100 protesters were detained over the weekend.

Pamfilova's proclamations notwithstanding, a climate of uncertainty tinged with paranoia permeated St. Petersburg Saturday and Sunday.

A demonstration for a detained activist that had been scheduled for noon Sunday was postponed by two hours to give more demonstrators time to arrive. By the time everyone showed up at 2 p.m. Sunday at the site of the rally, next to the police station where the activist was being held, the sidewalk in front of the station had been roped off and 15 to 20 police officers were outside. Demonstrators afraid of being detained did not begin protesting until reporters arrived.

Talk of another demonstration on the Dvortsovyi Bridge near the Hermitage drew a small army of police officers, with one officer monitoring the adjacent riverbank with laser binoculars.

A participant at Saturday's Communist demonstrations, including the march and a rally, refused to speak to a reporter until presented with identification.

After the reporter provided a press credential, the man declared it fake because it was not laminated and warned his fellow protesters not to give their names. And on Sunday, a suspected police informant with glasses, a pressed white shirt and a badge that had been stuffed into one of his pockets, was spotted near park benches where activists from Legal Team were meeting. The group gave free legal advice to protesters over the weekend, suggesting protesters not resist arrest, among other tips.

The sight of the man, who had been seen at the Communists' march Saturday, caused the Legal Team participants to lower their voices. Participants said they had been barred from meeting with detainees and that the suspected informant had been seen walking in and out of a police station, talking with officers.

Tatyana Rudakova of Mothers in Defense of Detainees, Arrestees and Inmates voiced similar fears of clandestine agents keeping tabs on demonstrators.

Rudakova, who took a bus with other protesters from Moscow to St. Petersburg to attend the Russian Social Forum, said she suspected her bus driver was really an FSB agent.

Each time the bus was stopped, she recalled, the driver would talk with the traffic police for a few minutes, the police would call in to headquarters and then the bus would move on. The bus later broke down -- although Rudakova has her doubts about what really happened -- causing the protesters to be late to the forum.

Forum organizers said many activists, some of whom had to scrape together whatever rubles they could find for train tickets, were detained en route. Some were held by police, accused of possessing drugs or explosives; some were told to turn around or face arrest; and some were deterred by the stories they heard from other protesters, participants said.

Andrei Konoval, a forum organizer from the city of Izhevsk, said attendance was cut in half as a result.

Natalya Kornenkova, of United Russia's youth wing, dismissed the protesters and their fellow travellers. Armed with a camera, she said she was documenting the Communists' march. "It's just grandmas and grandpas faithful to the communist way of life and young people who don't have any idea about what communism is and are just looking for a way to release their aggression," she said.