A Festival for Deserters in Moscow

In Russia, 23 February is traditionally the "Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland" — converted from the Soviet "Red Army Day". But for the Chechens and Ingush it is the anniversary of the deportation of their entire people from the Caucasus to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzistan by Stalin back in 1944. They were only allowed to return in 1956, to a country which was then populated by Russians and neighbouring people — one of the sources of today's conflicts in the North Caucasus. Attracting attention For a few years now the Moscow group of the anarchistnetwork Autonomous Action "celebrates" 23 February withprotests against the war in Chechnya, and against mili -tarism in general. This year, the group or ganised a Deserters'Festival from 20 to 23 February which, unfortunately, was metby more attention from the authorities than had beenexpected. The Festival included discus -sion on antimilitarism and how to respond to military service:to perform the now possible, but discriminatory, substituteservice, or to avoid conscription by various semi-legal means(the usual way out for the majority of Russia's youth)? The Festival also included several cultural events, mainly inthe form of punk gigs. It ended on 23 February, the "Day of theDefenders of the Fatherland". Moscow cat and mouse The 23 February events began with a Food not Bombs actionat one end of Arbat Street in the centre of Moscow . Theorganisers tried to get permis sion for a Food not Bombsaction at a different location, but failed. So the action tookplace without permission, but it had been publicly announcedanyway, and generated a lot of media interest. However, after 15 minutes the police intervened, and thedistribution of food ended. The crowd dispersed, only toreassemble 45 minutes later for a demonstration against the war in Chechnya, and against thepresent military reforms, which will get rid of most of the rea -sons for postponement or exemption from military service. The demonstration marched on the pavement throughstreets in central Moscow , accompanied by police, who didnot do much at the beginning. However, when the demonstra -tion reached Arbat Street, police attempted to arrest the peopleholding the front banner , but others quickly overtook andformed a new demonstration. Police arrested those holdingthe banner anyway , and more police arrested people in theremainder of the demonstration, which then quickly dispersed.In total there where about seven arrests, but all were releasedthat evening. One person was beaten at the police station. The demonstration lasted a total of about 30 minutes, and alot of leaflets were distributed to people on the streets. Positive spin Most people were surprised about the response from theauthorities. Until recently , Autonomous Action had notfaced many problems from the police or other authorities, butthe Deserters' Festival seems to have changed this. Not only had a discussion meeting in a gallery to beended abruptly due to pressure by the authorities, the group'snormal meeting space--a youth club--was also put under pres -sure by the Russian Secret Ser vice FSB (the successor of theKGB) to no longer allow political meetings, as this would be "outside of the terms of theirlicence", and could therefore lead to criminal proceedingsagainst those running the club. It seems as though theattempt to re-define the term "deserter"--a term which hasvery negative connotations in Russia--in a positive way wasseen as a provocation, not only by the authorities. Less radicalorganisations working against the war in Chechnya or forsubstitute service also felt alienated by the term deserter , andtherefore did not take part in the festival. Others, however ,thought it a brilliant idea to mark the deportation ofChechens and Ingush and the "Defenders of the FatherlandDay" with a deserters' festival. Andreas Speck works for War Resisters' International as a conscientious objection campaigner. Autonomous Action, http://www.avtonom.org/