The St. Petersburg Crowd

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We've just been through the "ten years after" retrospectives of October 1993, and there was little new or startling in them. In particular, there was no answer to a footnote I've carried around ever since: In St. Petersburg, some cunning police commander with a genius for crowd psychology prevented the city from erupting into murderous violence the way Moscow had. I wish I knew who he was, because 10 years on he is a hero.

St. Petersburg was dark and bizarrely windy the Monday after Sunday's worst violence in Moscow. Then Mayor Anatoly Sobchak -- posing as Yeltsin's only hope -- had sent the city's toughest police units, the OMON, to Moscow. As crowds gathered that evening on St. Isaac's Square, it seemed a terrible idea to have emptied the city of cops. These weren't the usual "it's Leningrad not St. Petersburg"crowds of shouting babushki with Soviet flags; instead, amid an eerie quiet, about 1,000 young men stood talking angrily. And then suddenly they were marching -- far, far faster than any Russian protest I'd seen.

They were headed for St. Petersburg's television station, a popular protest site in the early 1990s. I got there first, by car, and found a small line of very frightened-looking police officers. They wore a hodge-podge of different uniforms -- clearly they'd been pulled from posts across the city.

There was a narrow alley leading to the TV station, and they'd blocked it off with trucks, and then stood before this barricade, clubs and riot shields at the ready. It was crazy: They had created a dead-end alley with no way to fall back.

"You want to know why we're unprepared? Ask our leaders," an angry police colonel told me. "Ask them why we're undermanned tonight. Ask them why we have only real bullets to fire instead of rubber bullets, which police in civilized countries use to disperse crowds. Ask them why tonight we're going to have to kill people."

The noise of the crowd grew nearer. Three officers suddenly broke out of the shield line and began scrambling about the alley, frantically snatching up loose stones and tossing them under a bus, out of reach of demonstrators who might throw them. There were perfect throwing-sized stones all over the ground. The wind gusted violently, kicking up dust and scraps of paper, shaking street lamps, sending shadows leaping crazily. The police blinked grit out of their eyes and squinted.

The crowd poured around the corner, and when they saw the police -- so few, so frightened -- they roared in triumph and raced forward.

Just then a bus screeched around the corner, a blue flashing light atop it, and shot past the crowd. It was followed by a truck, but the protesters got in front of the truck, stopped it and literally pushed it back. The bus, however, slid to a sideways halt, blocking the marchers, and OMON troops started pouring out smartly and joining the line of police. It was still a joke -- one bus of reinforcements versus 1,000 or so angry young men. But the last-second dramatic arrival was enough to give the crowd pause; and a crowd paused is a crowd defused.

To cries of "Judas, take your silver!" the protesters pelted the police with coins and one- and three-ruble notes. But that anonymous police commander had out-psyched them brilliantly, using his wits instead of rubber bullets to make sure no blood was spilled.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. []