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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Parallel March in a Parallel World

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What could be easier than going to a demonstration? It would seem the simplest sort of political activity: a short-term commitment with no special skills required, and it provides the added bonus of spending time outdoors with a group of like-minded individuals. You would think.

I went to the anti-fascist march on Sunday. Physically, joining the march was a challenge. Every side street leading to Myasnitskaya Ulitsa was closed off by police. The only way to join the march was to line up to go through the metal detectors set up at the opening of the Myasnitsky Gates. The pretense that they were set up to protect the safety of participants seemed just that, a pretense: They failed to react to the computer and various electronic junk in my bag.

The metal detectors, like the 400 cops who lined the street, were there to separate the march from the rest of the city. Such is the world of street protest in Russia these days -- a parallel world. Somewhere from 1,500 to 3,000 people gathered in the center of Moscow to march down an empty street cordoned off to guarantee the absence of casual observers. Shops along Myasnitskaya Ulitsa were closed. Residents were kept from exiting their courtyards. Real living and breathing Moscow was firmly separated from the Moscow that was infected with politics.

Then there was the protest itself, which amplified the feeling of having been transported to a parallel universe. The organizers -- a broad coalition of liberal groups -- tried to make order of the banners and posters and flags, but they were not very successful. A group of young people carried posters with the portraits of outstanding Russians, including members of the Ryurik dynasty and chess champion Mikhail Botvinnik, who was Jewish. A young couple carried a banner that said, "Russia, you are like a kiss in the freezing cold." And Alla Gerber, a well-known human rights activist, carried a poster that said, "My great Russia is a country of sterling minds."

Not only was this a parallel universe physically, its language also seemed parallel to the one with which I live. What did all these signs and banners mean? They were apparently an effort on the part of the participants to show that they love Russia as much as the ultranationalists do. But since when do declarations of love for one's country count as the ultimate expression of patriotism? Why have even former dissidents forgotten that dissent can serve as a better measure of patriotism? Why are they speaking the language of the people they claim to oppose?

There was a deeper problem, too. The threat of fascism is an issue engineered by the Kremlin with a transparent dual goal: to siphon liberals' efforts away from protests against President Vladimir Putin, and to provide justification for cracking down on opposition activity -- in the name of fighting fascism. At the same time, the ultranationalist movements launched with the Kremlin's inspiration and support are clearly taking on a life of their own, and should therefore be fought. We step into this trap with our eyes wide open.

So there we have it. Several thousand people spent their Sunday gathering in a parallel physical space to use parallel language to fight a battle that is parallel to the one they really wanted to take on. And the worst part is, they came because they felt they had no choice. That is certainly why I was there -- and why I did not want to be there.

There are times in your life when you feel trapped -- when you truly are trapped, in fact. You have your bearings, you can tell right from wrong, but you still cannot find a way out. That is how the anti-fascist march made me feel. It is how I feel more and more often these days. And it's cold comfort to think that I am far from the only person in this country who feels this way.

Masha Gessen is a contributing editor at Bolshoi Gorod.