APATITY, Russia – I look to my right, a man in a black balaclava with what looks like a toy rifle is running full speed toward me and shouting something unintelligible.
My first thought is it’s a friend playing a prank. Determined not to let him get a rise out of me, I turn away to continue my conversation.
I had been sitting in a meeting room at a rural tourist lodge in Arctic Russia. It was after dinner at the Vostok Social Forum. The beer and liquor was still in the refrigerator and I was enjoying that quiet time between the meal and the drinking session with nearly two dozen 20-something Europeans.
But my conversation was halted. The man with the long rifle had grabbed my neck and was trying to force me off my chair. It was at this point I began to get annoyed. A joke’s a joke but his grip was starting to hurt. I started to shrug him off – telling my masked friend (I still thought it was probably a rakija-snorting Serb I’d befriended from the group) that enough was enough.
He continued to pull and I was knocked off my chair. Boots kicked my feet apart so my legs were splayed. Boots? No one at Vostk wore combat boots. I turned my head and saw more boots and gun barrels.
It’s the cops.
The OMON-backed police raid took slightly over an hour. About a dozen masked OMON men had stormed the compound and knocked all the males to the ground at gunpoint. They ignored the women and didn’t even search us for weapons. Either they were amateurs or had just been trying to frighten us.
I’d like to fill this space with my indignity of my treatment at the hands of Russian authorities but instead I’d like to point out that this use of paramilitary forces for routine policing is, unfortunately, a growing phenomenon – especially in the United States.
Their stated purpose was to arrest 23-year-old activist Alexei “Raskhod” Raskhodchikov who had been a stick in the craw of authorities in his home city of Murmansk, just 124 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This summer he was fined 20,000 rubles (about $600 USD) for holding a pro-secularism sign in annoyance of Russia’s Orthodox Church establishment. A few weeks later he’d been beaten by police – a long gash held together with sutures was visible on the side of his head – and he’d been charged with assault with a knife after he’d filed a formal complaint.
He told us he wasn’t wanted – yet – but expected he could be served a warrant and re-arrested at any time.
Well, they came for him all right. The OMON force backed up a search committee but they didn’t serve any warrants, just hauled him away. After I’d been allowed back on my feet and even given a one-word apology in English (“sorry”) a few plainclothes police came back with a flash drive. They wanted to use the computer and printer. We strenuously objected – it was not our equipment, it belonged to the organizers who were presumably upstairs being held at gunpoint – and eventually they left in frustration.
I filed a short unsigned dispatch that aired on FSRN:
Russian police raid Vostok Social Forum
Russian police have raided an international cultural forum held in Arctic Russia. The Vostok Social Forum – now in its eighth year – brought together civic activists, academics and others from Europe and Russia. On Thursday, investigators backed by a special SWAT-style unit stormed the lodge where about 30 participants were staying. Agents arrested Alexei Raskhodchikov, a 23-year-old activist who had recently been fined about $600 dollars for holding a one-man demonstration with a sign saying “Secularism or Death.” A week ago he was beaten by police then accused of assault on officers. Police said yesterday he was being arrested on this charge though they did not produce a warrant or charge sheet. Forum organizer Zhanna Ponomarenko said the participants – most of them Germans in their mid-20s – were shaken by the experience.
“Of course it was awful. One person came even into shock – a reaction. So we called the ambulance for him.”
There were no serious injuries. Police returned today and questioned other participants as they prepared to leave. Organizers are working with Raskhodchikov’s lawyers and family to get further information on his fate. (FSRN Headlines, August 2, 2013)
A bit about this “social forum.” I had been invited by a Murmansk-based youth activist I’d interviewed in 2012 for a story about atomic icebreakers that I was never able to sell. It’s funded by a German foundation funded by the main leftist parties and brings together social activists from Germany and Russia for a week of discussions and projects.
I was not versed in “discussion culture” and by Day 3 when our group was often fixated on discussing what we ought to be discussing, I began to fidget.
The upshot of this police raid was at least we had a cause we could focus on. Or so I thought. After we decompressed and went around the circle discussing our feelings, a few of us inquired about action plans on what to do with our 23-year-old comrade who’d been dragged off into the night.
Some of the Germans said their friends in home cities were ready to hold demonstrations in front of the Russian Federation general consulate buildings. There were murmurs about whether this could harm our host NGO or even the visiting Germans still in Russia. Many of the organizers – while careful not to say this outright – seemed reluctant that we do anything at all.
The police raid was an overt act of state intimidation against a youth NGO. It was working. Each time someone would propose a concrete action or public event it would be met with hemming and hawing.
It was understandable that the local NGO had to think about its future and ability to work in Russia. It was much more exposed legally than any of us temporary visitors on foreign passports. But they had brought us here to discuss human rights, social change and now confronted with a clear instance of state over-reach many of the participants – and organizers too – appeared to wilt under the pressure.
The following day we left the tourist lodge near the town of Apatity as planned and returned to Murmansk. We regularly walked past the huge yellow edifice of the former KGB – now FSB – building that houses state security services and where Rashkod was likely being held.
After a few false starts when the group was locked out of the youth center which the organizers had arranged for us to use during the day – we were in Murmansk and the forum was literally paralyzed.
The organizers didn’t want us to make any public scene or action and we didn’t like being cooped up in a cavernous youth center shaded from the glorious Arctic sunshine.
It was time to go.
The second part of the trip was to participate in a project with the generic title of “Mountain Village” also near Apatity. We met one of the organizers “Bankin” in Murmansk and he explained that in exchange for a bit of grocery money, he’d like to invite any Vostok participants to spend five nights in an encampment he and his friends had built at the feet of the Khibiny Mountains.
So began the second phase of our journey. With Jamie Buehner and our brave Serb who I had thought was playing a trick on me when the OMON officer had knocked me out of my chair, we rode for four hours on an elektrichka train into the Khibiny.
It’s a wild part along the Kola Peninsula and was once home to the Sami though few remain. The region only opened up to non-Sami during the Soviet period, with the coming of the prisoner-built railroad in the early 20th century. Now it’s being exploited by mining companies though large swathes are uninhabited and we found quite popular with backpackers who come as far afield as St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The camp was built on a small bluff over the gentle river. The water was cool and totally clear. We drank from it each day and swam in its gentle currents while the indefatigable Arctic summer sun warmed our backs.
Our hosts were avid enthusiasts of native culture. A few had Native American tattoos and they’d built teepees and a geodome that could be converted into a sweat lodge.
It was late August and – being so close to the pole – only now the sun would begin to set. Past midnight, it would get just dark enough that you’d want a light to read. But the dawn would return around 3 a.m. and so the days were extremely long.
This Mountain Village was only in its third year. A cutback in train schedules – they had been reduced to twice a week – meant fewer participants as many are tied to day jobs back in the cities. Others had canceled because they wanted to stay in Murmansk and work on Raskhod’s case and a few others just didn’t turn up.
So we had no solid program and instead took afternoon hikes, swam in the river, moved boulders to improve the site and make new paths, collected and feasted on wild mushrooms and berries and generally enjoyed ourselves immensely.
My Russian language skills remain terrible and few of the campers spoke any English but as experienced campers we knew how to communicate when necessary. A few in the group made daily pilgrimages to the nearest settlement (about 15 miles, round trip) so we were rarely in want of vodka.
Let me go on the record in giving a ringing endorsement for Arctic Russian camping!