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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Petersburg Horror Story

Everyone knows that official holidays are little different from natural disasters in Russia. The older generation remembers how the Soviet Union prepared for the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow. Local residents fled the city, where the streets were filled mostly with foreign athletes and KGB agents. In 2003, St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary showed that Soviet traditions were not only alive and well, but were in fact developing further. This weekend's G8 summit will be the next test.

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First the airport will be closed. Then railroads and buses to St. Petersburg will cease, after which city transport will stop. Those who don't move in time will be unable to get in or out of the city. St. Petersburg residents face a new blockade of Leningrad.

At the same time, operation "Covering Force" is sweeping across the country. The media reported a series of measures aimed at stopping "unwanted elements" from reaching St. Petersburg after civic nongovernmental organizations decided to hold alternative events during the G8 summit including conferences, seminars and -- over the same days as the summit -- the Russian Social Forum. Russia is a European country, and St. Petersburg, as everybody knows, is Russia's most European city, so the forum was allowed to go ahead. The only thing the authorities forgot to warn left-wing activists about was that a nationwide dragnet would be thrown over them ahead of the forum.

The forum will take place, but not everyone will be there. People are being taken off trains and arrested by police and state security bodies across the country. Friendly people are visiting them at home, work or school and advising them sincerely not to travel anywhere, as they will not be allowed back afterward.

Roman Burlak, leader of a left-wing youth group in Krasnoyarsk, was lucky. His passport was stolen and police officers took him off a train and told him that a strange object likely belonging to him had been found in the same car; if it turned out to be an explosive device, he would face five years in prison. But people in Siberia are kindhearted, and Burlak managed to get a hotel room -- without a passport -- and was advised to spend the money he had saved for the trip on vodka. Burlak sent all his friends an SMS saying that he had no plans to blow up President Vladimir Putin and that they should not wait for him in Petersburg. No explosives were found.

But Alexander Ignatyuk, a philosophy student from Saratov, was less fortunate. He was called to a police station and not released. Following standard procedure, as soon as he arrived he started throwing his weight around, breaking things and swearing. He was sentenced to 15 days and will be sweeping streets in Saratov instead of appearing at the forum.

Worst of all is Tatarstan, however, where people have disappeared completely, likely to return only after the summit.

"It's like a lesson in Russian political geography," said Ilya Budraitskis, a member of the Marxist group Forward. "The general directive is 'hold them and don't release them.' But every region interprets this in its own way, following local customs and traditions. In some places it's light-hearted, with a sense of humor. In others it's more malicious, and in some just stupid." Budraitskis' group canceled plans for regional members to travel to the forum after they came under pressure in nearly every region. There is no point in playing this game: Putting 20 people behind bars so that three can make it is an unacceptably high price.

But far from all of the Social Forum's organizers realize what is going on. After the authorities banned a demonstration, several members of the organizing committee called for a physical confrontation with the authorities. Worse, the declarations were made in the name of the Left Front, although no one obtained the right to speak in its name. It's easy to predict what will happen next. Clashes between hundreds of activists and thousands of security officers can only serve as PR for two or three self-proclaimed leaders, while the left as a whole will take a battering. Skirmishes between small groups and law enforcement agencies will lead to activists becoming isolated from the general population, which is what the authorities want.

The St. Petersburg summit will be remembered for years and will, in a sense, be a watershed. The authorities have already demonstrated their interpretation of civil rights. The left now has to show how well its understands real life.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.