A Festival for Deserters in Moscow

From 20-23 February 2005, a representative of War Resisters' International visited Moscow and participated in some of the events of the "Deserters' Festival", organised by Autonomous Action, a network of anarchist groups in Russia.

The festival started with a discussion on antimilitarism on Sunday, 20 February. The discussion took place in a youth club close to the university, with about 25 participants, mostly sympathisers of Autonomous Action. The day ended with a punk concert in the evening.

On Monday, 21 February, there was a discussion on the G8 summit 2006, which will take place in Russia, as Russia will take over the presidency of the G8 from Britain at the end of the year. Again, the day ended with a punk concert.

On Tuesday, 22 February, a discussion was scheduled at Galeria Franziya on War Resisters' International, followed by a screening of movies on the situation in the military. Shortly after the beginning of the event two police officers arrived and talked to the administration. Half way through the meeting it was then announced that the administration demanded that the meeting be ended immediately - to the surprise of the organisers and the participants. It seemed the police had put pressure on the administration.

The next day was the "Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland" (formerly Red Army Day), and also marked the 61st anniversary of the deportation of the Chechen and Ingush people from the Caucasus to Central Asia by Stalin. The day began with a Food not Bombs action at one end of Arbat Street in the centre of Moscow (see picture above). The organises tried to get permission for a Food not Bombs action at a different location, but failed. So the action took place without permission, but it had been publicly announced anyway, and generated a lot of media interest. However, after 15 minutes the police intervened, and the distribution of food ended. The crowd dispersed, only to reassemble 45 minutes later for a demonstration against the war in Chechnya, and against the present military reform, with will get rid of most of the reasons for postponement or exemption from military service (see picture on the left). The demonstration marched on the pavement through streets in central Moscow, accompanied by police, who did not do much at the beginning. However, when the demonstration reached Arbat Street, police attempted to arrest the people holding the front banner, but others quickly overtook and formed a new demonstration. Police arrested those holding the banner anyway, and more police arrested people in the remainder of the demonstration, which then quickly dispersed. In total there where about seven arrests, but all were released in the evening. However, one person got beaten at the police station.

The demonstration lasted a total of about 30 minutes, and quite some leaflets have been distributed to people on the streets.

The day ended with some film screening and an evaluation of the Deserters' Festival. Most people were surprised about the response from the authorities. Until recently, Autonomous Action did not face many problems from police or authorities, but the Deserters' Festival seems to have changed this. Not only could the meeting in the gallery not finish on the Tuesday, the youth club - the meeting space of Autonomous Action - was also put under pressure by the Russian Secret Service FSB (the successor of the KGB) not to allow political meetings any more, as this would be "outside of the terms of the license", and could therefore lead to criminal proceedings against those running the club.

It seems, that the attempt to re-define the term "deserter" - a term, which has very negative connotations in Russia - in a positive way was seen as a provocation, not only by the authorities. Less radical organisations working against the war in Chechnya or for a substitute service also felt alienated by the term deserter, and did therefore not take part in the festival. Others, however, thought it a brilliant idea to mark the deportation of Chechens and Ingush and the "Defenders of the Fatherland Day" with a deserters festival.