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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pop, Eco-Politics and a Letter to George

MTDemonstrators, some waving pale-green Mestniye flags, pressing to the stage to listen to performers on Monday.
Tens of thousands of young people in the Moscow region were let out of class for Monday's Constitution Day holiday, but not for a day off. Hundreds of buses bore them to two snowy outdoor demonstrations under the banner of a little-known youth movement of "political ecologists" called Mestniye, or Locals.

At the larger of the events, billed as a "concert-demonstration," about 40,000 young people filled a parking lot outside the Crocus City mall in northwestern Moscow and listened to pop music performances. Another 5,000 gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in central Moscow to protest what Mestniye representatives said was a U.S. policy of interference with Russian national interests.

"We propose that the American ambassador study our Constitution carefully and treat it with deep respect," Mestniye head Sergei Fateyev said in a brief speech to the large crowd at the Crocus City event. Several of the young people held banners reading, "America, don't teach us democracy!" in Russian and English. A crane held a giant Russian flag aloft behind the stage.

"Mestniye! Long live the Russian Constitution!" Fateyev cried, then quickly turned the stage over to the pop group Ivanushki International.

Speaking to journalists as the concert continued, Fateyev said he could not name specific violations of the Russian Constitution on the part of the United States, but said that "people who want to teach us what democracy is ought to make sure they know what's in our Constitution."

To that end, Mestniye members at the second demonstration presented a letter and several copies of an English translation of the Constitution to a U.S. Embassy representative.

The English-language version of the letter provided to the media by the group was addressed to U.S. Ambassador William Burns and "the President of the United States Jorge W. Bush," and read in part: "Following ideas and reasons which moved founder-fathers of the United States, who created the Declaration of Independence of the U.S.A., we would like to remind you about the right of nation to remain the sovereign democratic state."

Asked about the letter, embassy spokeswoman Courtney Austrian said by telephone, "We congratulate the Russian people on Constitution Day, and we're delighted to receive copies of the Constitution and the letter."

Austrian noted that in the version of the letter delivered to the embassy, Bush's first name was spelled correctly as George.

It was unclear who had provided funding for the events, or what Mestniye's relationship was to the constantly growing number of government-linked youth movements, such as the pro-Kremlin Nashi, or Us, Mayor Yury Luzhkov's Grazhdanskaya Smena, or Civil Change, and the United Russia party's Young Guard.

Mestniye spokeswoman Darya Mikhailova said that the group's previous events had been financed by local businesspeople who wanted to remain anonymous. Mikhailova declined to comment on the cost or sponsors of the Constitution Day events.

The vast majority of buses at the demonstrations were from Mosavtotrans, a transportation company controlled by the Moscow city government, and bore destination signs and route numbers identical to those of Moscow city and regional buses.

Fateyev said other youth movements were "all doing good things," but that his group distinguished itself with its focus on "purely concrete actions" and its emphasis on combating "ecological terrorism."

As the Constitution Day events showed, the group defines ecological concerns broadly.

Mestniye's first public event, a Moscow region-wide subbotnik, or clean-up day, drew public attention in October by piling the collected trash into pyramids up to 7 meters tall. The pyramids stood beside 10 Moscow region highways with signs reading, "Did you throw this out?"

Vladimir Filonov / MT

A crane hoisting up a Russian tricolor for the rally at the Crocus City mall.

The following month, the group began a campaign against gambling machines that included dozens of pickets of local casinos. Fateyev said his group had collected 470,000 signatures calling for the removal of gambling machines from the Moscow region and that regional authorities were considering it.

"This is our land, and we know what needs to be done here," Fateyev said.

But conversations with young people at Monday's events indicated that few knew either what Mestniye stood for or what the group was.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know a damn thing about them," said Dmitry Dembitsky, 18, a student who had been bused to Crocus City from Moscow State Regional University.

His reply drew laughter and nods from a group of friends.

"They round us up and put us in buses and send us wherever they want to send us. Write that down. Use my last name. The English-speaking public should know how things are done here," Dembitsky said.

Another member of the group had clearer ideas about Mestniye, though he said he had never heard of the organization before he was put on the same bus as Dembitsky that morning.

"It's an organization that supports the Russian Constitution and opposes America's attempts to export democracy," said Alexander Filippov, 18, also a student at MSRU.

"Pseudo-democracy, that is," he added.

Dembitsky turned toward the stream of students heading toward the parked buses.

"Look at all of them. Thousands of little Putinites," Dembitsky said, drawing another laugh from his friends.

Several hours later, a trio of young women stood shivering near the gates of the U.S. Embassy on Bolshoi Devyatinsky Pereulok, having a last cigarette before their bus came to take them back to the northern suburb of Khimki.

"All I know is they said we were going to a concert and, we wound up at some stupid embassy instead," said Vika, 18, a vocational school student who declined to give her last name. "What's this group called anyway?"

Irina, a classmate of Vika's who also declined to give her last name, said they had had no choice about attending the event.

"I can't tell you what would have happened if anybody had refused. Nobody did as far as I know," Irina said.

Asked for her impressions of the event, Irina said, "Some guy came out and made a speech and we stood there and froze."

"Oh yeah, some people had flags, too," she added.