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‘There are always more than enough idiots and nutjobs’ Historical reenactors talk about getting caught in the mayhem of Moscow's June 12 anti-corruption protest

Meduza
16:20, 19 june 2017

Yuri Kochetkov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

The “Times and Epochs” festival came to Tverskaya Street in Moscow on June 12, with several thousand historical reenactors from all over the world descending on the city’s center for a holiday event dedicated to Russia Day. That same Monday, opposition politician Alexey Navalny called thousands of supporters to an unsanctioned protest at Tverskaya Street, resulting in more than 800 people detained by the police. Some of the festival’s participants suffered in the mayhem, as well, and Meduza spoke to a few of them about what happened from their perspective.

The “Times and Epochs” festival took place in central Moscow from June 1 to June 12, with performances by historical reenactors from several different eras, ranging from Ancient Rome to the 20th century. The final day of the festival was held on Tverskaya, where organizers staged an event called “The History of Russia’s Victories,” featuring exhibits up and down the street from more than a dozen eras throughout history, beginning with Ancient Rus and ending at the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet theater of World War II is known in Russia. The festival has taken place annually since 2011. This year, roughly 6,000 reenactors participated.

Alexey Ovcharenko

reenactor, festival organizer

We started preparing for this festival exactly a year ago, and we were working on it in earnest since about December. That kind of early planning is especially important for foreigners. There were reenactors from 22 different countries this year. Mostly we’re talking about Europe, but there was also Australia. A reenactor from France who came to help stage an exhibit on the French Revolution actually ended up in a police van during everything that happened. He’s home again now, and everything’s fine.

There’s a direct economic effect with all these foreign guests. We know that a thousand foreign reenactors came to the festival. Each one of them spent about 100 euros every day they were in Moscow, not counting their lodging expenses. So that alone brought [the city] 1 million euros. 

For me, as an organizer, one of the main takeaways of this festival was that nobody died or got seriously injured. After all, we got started as a hurricane hit Moscow, and finished with Navalny’s political demonstration converging on us at Tverskaya. Judging by the feedback from the participants themselves, everyone really enjoyed the festival, though now the whole June 12 agenda has partly drowned out those impressions.

Alexander Utkin for Meduza

On Tverskaya Street, I was at the very center of things, near the Ancient Rus exhibit, where the captain [reenactor] couldn’t get out of his ship fast enough, and was engulfed by the crowd. I saw how the protesters were posting on Twitter, and I saw the soccer fans who were coordinating the younger demonstrators. I saw how the whole situation unfolded. For me, the most critical moment was when people with kids and strollers were arriving at the festival from the south, from Okhotny Ryad, at the same time that crowds to the north, full of people come to assert their politics, were building up. My reenactors were caught somewhere in the middle. And they also came with their wives and their children, all of whom found themselves in the center of the mayhem. There’s no other word for it. That said, I consider the actions of the riot police to have been entirely appropriate. I didn’t witness anything out of line.

Now other reenactors, of course, are saying that they suffered big losses, calling it a near riot, but all I saw was just a crowd running wherever it could to get away from the police, and of course people ran right through our camp. Of course, they broke some pots and things like that. And this stuff was handmade and worth a good amount of money. Just guessing, I’d say the total damage to reenactors was about 500,000 rubles ($8,640). I don’t think the protesters set out to stage a riot, but there was definitely intent to create a provocation. The demonstrators provoked the reenactors, insulting them and shouting in their faces. They told us that we were disguised civil servants, and some of them swore at us. People were provoked to aggression, so they could film it and broadcast it on the Internet.

You’ve got to understand that there’s nothing we could have changed or canceled. When Navalny announced that he was moving the protest, the reenactors and their family members were already coming into the city for the festival — a family festival! Just in case, we ordered everyone to remove the weapons, and I’m honestly surprised at how civil everyone was. Though we reenactors are generally folks who aren’t afraid to speak up or take action. We’re not afraid to express views, whether it’s about the authorities or the opposition. As a historical reenactor, I’ve got nothing but pride for the guys who pulled kids, including other people’s kids, out from the crowd and onto the boat exhibit. And when they spoke to the demonstrators, they said what needed to be said. 

I couldn’t say if the police or Navalny somehow planned for everything to go down the way that it did. As an organizer, it seems to me that moving the rally to Tverskaya was the wrong decision. It was a strange decision, too, and it put demonstrators at risk, not to mention the guests who came for the festival.

Alain Nice

reenactor from France 

We were invited to the reenactment festival because we are the only reenactors in France who do the French Revolutionary period, paradoxical as that might sound. We came to Moscow on June 7 in a group of 107 people.

Many people came up to us during the festival and asked why we didn’t have a guillotine, and we explained that our goal is to break free from the stereotypes associated with the French Revolution, and talk instead about its ideals and how they affected the whole world: abolitionism, free public education, the creation of a republic, the declaration of human rights, the franchise.

Before June 12, I’d never heard of Navalny or seen his photograph, though I knew about other Russian oppositionists.

We arrived at Tverskaya around noon, and we understood at once that they were preparing for something big, judging by the number of police officers on the street. They were everywhere. But it didn’t faze me or my group, as it’s become common to see just as many police out in France, due to the state of emergency. So it didn’t shock us or anything.

After lunch, somebody told me about an anti-Putin demonstration, how it didn’t have a city permit, and about how there might be potential “incidents.” Around 2 or 3 p.m., my son ran up to me and said that police detained his friend, our companion Quentin. My son said the police grabbed him, pinned him on the ground, and then dragged him into a police van. Of course, I was especially worried because Quentin wasn’t only in costume, but he was also carrying a sword.

I immediately got in touch with the festival’s organizer, but we weren’t able to find out where they’d taken Quentin until about 8 p.m. We found out that he’d been taken to a police station and later released. I wasn’t worried at all, but we thought it was strange that he’d been detained in the first place.

Quentin wasn’t injured, and everything ended up fine. We’re all really crazy about Russia and Moscow. For us, the whole thing was just a small incident that didn’t really matter, overall.

Alexander Utkin for Meduza

Boris Veselov

WWI reenactor

I started preparing for the festival around the winter holidays. At Tverskaya, I was a World War I warrant officer.

Generally, the demonstrators at Tverskaya didn’t strike me as the sharpest tools in the shed. They shouted out things, and yelled at us, “You’re screwing around here. You should be staging a revolution!” The organizers told us in advance not to react to this stuff, and not to get into any fights, so the whole thing could end quietly and peacefully. Better just to walk away and alert the police. We tried to be peaceful with them. At any festival, there are always more than enough idiots and nutjobs. We were ready for provocations from these opposition folks and sorry liberals.

I think it was the right move to detain them all. Really, they all should have been locked up a long time ago. These people obviously didn’t come to hold a peaceful demonstration. They were offered a place at Sakharov [Prospekt], but Navalny didn’t like it. Anybody who knows how political parties work knows, if you don’t like the staging area, you can bring your own equipment and round up people from your own party to build a stage. But Navalny got all high-minded and drove his people to Tverskaya. He should have realized — he probably did realize — what it could have led to. But he sold his crowd on thе idea, and as a result he spoiled the holiday for people. Now he’s got only himself to blame for his problems.

At one point, some of the other guys among the reenactors got so furious when the demonstrators broke their tents that they went for their swords. They were ready to bring them down on the oppositionists’ heads, but they had the good judgment to stop. The crowd was simply out of control. The whole thing became such a mess.

Timur Cherepnin

reenactor, organizer of several exhibits at the festival

We staged an exhibit on prewar Moscow, showing peacetime in Moscow ahead of the war, and then how Moscow defended itself in 1941. We were the ones on Tverskaya who brought out the fortifications that Muscovites built themselves to defend the city from the fascists: the “Czech hedgehogs,” the barricades, and so on.

We also reconstructed the conscription stations from 1941, where Muscovites signed up to volunteer to serve at the front. And we had interactive zones with 1941-style hand-to-hand combat, drill instruction, and bayonet fighting, and we even had a model of a downed Messerschmitt airplane. It was a reconstruction of the real planes that crashed in the streets of Moscow in 1941. All in all, there were about 450 reenactors working in our exhibits.

It seemed to me that most of Navalny’s supporters were calm and things were fine. We talked to them, had conversations, and they showed an interest in our exhibits, even taking selfies with reenactors. But there were also provocateurs. There was this one incident, where the photograph has already become infamous on the Internet, and people have said that we were somehow unfair to this man. What really happened was this old, bearded man ran up to our barricade. But you’ve got to understand that this barricade was only a prop, and it couldn’t really support the weight of a full-grown man. One of our reenactors climbed up there and asked him to come down, but the man started chanting and screaming. We started to lead him away, so he didn’t ruin our stage set, and then a police officer came up, and grabbed him. And the man kept screaming some nonsense.

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It’s obvious who the intended audience was for all this. Photographers and bloggers ran up and started taking pictures. The whole thing was clearly a planned provocation. After this, I asked the guys to be more careful and not to cave to provocations. We’re apolitical. Our job is to show history.

I think each person should answer for what they did. If Navalny called on his people to come to Tverskaya, knowing that a big festival was happening there, then he knew what he was doing, and everything that happened was his responsibility. 

And as for the reenactors’ perspective… Just imagine that you’ve made something with your own two hands, you want to show people, and then some crazy, out-of-control crowd stampedes through. Say you’ve built a little house or something to show how people used to live, and then people are running around on top of it, starting to break it. And when you ask them to come down, they answer, “We’re for freedom!” What the hell kind of freedom is it, when you’re destroying someone else’s property? It’s hooliganism and vandalism, not freedom. 

I respect anyone who expresses their point of view. We might disagree on certain issues, but we should respect one another. But we shouldn’t come over to each other’s houses and start breaking the dishes, to prove what free people we are.

Of course, what happened at Tverskaya spoiled the festival to a certain degree. People came to see what we’d made, and instead they got stuck in this stampede and had trouble getting through to our exhibits. But we achieved our biggest goal: a lot of people learned about the festival, and we got a lot of folks interested in history.

Russian text by Pavel Merzlikin and Sasha Sulim, translation by Kevin Rothrock