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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Demonstrating Resilience

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Saturday was an ultimately gray day, with low clouds and no sun at all. Moreover, the rain started at 4 p.m., exactly the time that an antiwar demonstration was scheduled to begin on Pushkin Square -- the venue for many perestroika-era demonstrations (if for no better reason than the fact that Alexander Pushkin wrote, almost 200 years ago, in his poem "To Chaadayev": "Russia will start from her sleep ... ")

The location of the demonstration was cordoned off by policemen, and they had installed two metal detectors, thereby creating a long line of demonstrators bearing signs declaring: "Putin Should Step Down," "KGB -- Hands Off," "No More Killing in Chechnya," etc.

I watched the crowd of some 2,000 people arriving from a makeshift tribune.

The majority of demonstrators were in their 50s and 60s, with far fewer of student age or in their 30s and 40s.

I was looking at them, standing in the cold and rain, carrying their signs made from cheap paper and cheap ink -- and I kept asking myself the same question: What brought these people here?

Of course, they are of the generation that remembers how things used to be.

They remember the years when decent books in bookstores were as rare as meat in grocery stores; when xeroxed copies of forbidden manuscripts were distributed and had to be read in a single night (for which a jail sentence was the likely reward if caught by the KGB). They remember the times when there was nothing but propaganda on television, no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia (as a popular joke had it back then).

They experienced firsthand all that is history for those born after perestroika.

And yet the question remained: What had brought them out into the cold and the rain, to face a careful screening by several hundred policemen and FSB men?

After all, the Soviet intelligentsia has been among the hardest-hit by the past 15 years of reforms. Their savings were wiped out in the early 1990s, their jobs at universities and research institutes were cut or their salaries reduced to below the poverty line. Their trust and belief in the young reformers, who in the early 1990s had come to power on their backs, was irrevocably damaged by the corruption of those who preached freedom to them and later labeled them demshizy, or democratically minded schizophrenics.

Time and again I thought: Why are they listening to the speakers' calls to defend the Constitution, to fight for our right to elect governors and members of parliament, to support the freedom of the press, to stop the bloody war in Chechnya and to help defend our rights to be citizens as opposed to speechless, zombie-like consumers? Why on Earth should they be concerned about all these things that will not obviously make them any better off or their lives any easier?

There were few, if any, cameras from the Russian networks, and none of the leaders of the current liberal parties and groups were present at the demonstration -- just old-time human rights activists and a few journalists. Yet they managed to hold the crowd's attention for as long as two hours. It is a bitter irony that the liberals who lost in the State Duma elections last year didn't even bother to come to speak to the people who, despite the misery of their lives, have continued to cherish democratic hopes.

I was also thinking about all those analysts in the West who choose to believe that Russians do not want freedom.

I wish that they would talk to people like those at the demonstration for a change, and compare their views to what they get fed at glamorous gatherings -- along with plentiful sturgeon and caviar -- by politicians in their Brioni suits, arguing that Russia needs a "strong hand."

Sure, the people who came to the antiwar demonstration on Saturday may have no clue about democratization theory and the advantages of autocratic rule over popular democracy in periods of transition.

I would guess all they have are the Pushkin poems that, for many Russians over the decades, were a substitute for prayer:

"Comrade, believe: It will arise, / The star of captivating joy, / Russia will start from her sleep, / And on the ruins of autocracy / Our names will be inscribed!"

Yevgenia Albats, who hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy on Sundays, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.