A Tiny Group Rallies for Peace

APThe band of protesters demonstrating on Pushkin Square on a recent Thursday afternoon. The sign reads, "Chechnya, Forgive Us."
Dmitry Brodsky and his motley band of anti-war protesters are few but tireless.

With the same unrelenting regularity with which guerrillas lay mines in Chechnya and federal troops unleash artillery barrages, about two dozen protesters gather every Thursday on Pushkin Square to demand an end to their nearly four-year-old war.

They have been coming to the bustling square in the city's heart since March 2000 -- enduring rain, snow, insults and occasional threats of violence as they display their slogans. Officials and the media ignore them, but that does not deter them.

"It's hard to stand here for an hour and a half. ... The wind at this spot is just awful," said Brodsky, who brings together the diverse group including businessmen, Buddhists, schoolteachers and Communists.

Brodsky -- at 53 sporting a gray beard and wavy, shoulder-length hair -- runs an independent library of political literature.

Much has changed since the protests began: International criticism of Russia's campaign in Chechnya has waned following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; Moscow has embarked on new elections in the region that it hopes will bring lasting peace; and the Russian public has done its best to put the war out of mind.

Yet the fighting continues. In Chechnya, guerrilla attacks and land mine explosions kill five to eight servicemen and policemen on a typical day. Human rights groups report continued military abuses, including torture and disappearances.

Today most Russians want the government to look for a way for peace. According to a June poll of 1,600 people by the VTsIOM polling agency, 61 percent believe it is time to start peace talks. The poll had a 3.4 percent margin of error.

Only a tiny fraction of those who told pollsters they oppose the war have participated in a protest. Activists blame disillusionment with politics since the heady days of the Soviet collapse.

"The illness of our democracy is that it's every man for himself," said Andrei Nalyotov, coordinator of the Anti-War Action Committee.

Another factor is the pervasive hatred of Chechens in Russian society. The popular stereotype of a Chechen is a wily and dishonest trader, probably linked to organized crime.

Many people say they oppose the war only because Russian soldiers are dying -- more than 4,500 had been killed as of December, according to rarely released official statistics -- while the anti-war movement calls attention to the suffering of Chechens.

Anti-Chechen sentiment was present even among the mostly educated fans of Russian folk singers who gave a concert to raise money for Chechen refugees this month. Some audience members said they came only for the music and poured scorn on the concert's anti-war theme.

"It's not the Chechens who are dying, it's our soldiers," said Raya, 65, who would not give her last name. "The Chechens are here trading at the bazaar."

Still, Nalyotov and other activists say the movement is gaining ground since October's hostage-taking raid by Chechen gunmen on a Moscow theater, which ended with 129 hostages dead after authorities stormed the building.

After the theater raid, "no one could remain indifferent," said Nalyotov, who joined the committee in its wake. "The war was coming here."

Viktor Shenderovich, a popular political satirist working to bring Russian cultural figures on board the anti-war bandwagon, said the Soviet past makes people reluctant to join any kind of collective movement that might remind them of once-obligatory Communist rallies.

"For a Soviet person, any kind of collectivism evokes a genetic aversion," Shenderovich said. "People are embarrassed."

Businessman Mikhail Kriger, a regular at the Thursday protests, agreed.

"To be honest, if one of my partners saw me here, I would feel a little awkward," he said. "For them, it's a sign that a person is weird."