Speakers’ Corner, Moscow Style?

April 17, 2009

So President Medevedev would like to create a “Speakers’ Corner” in Central Moscow for Russians to vent their political passions.******”It looks cool,” Medvedev told a group of human rights activists. “I need to speak with the Russian authorities and build our very own Hyde Park.”***Was this just a rhetorical flourish to impress his guests, a signal that he would loosen the reins that his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, has pulled so tight? Free speech, say the rights activists, is not something Russian authorities have prized, whether on the streets or in the media. Would it, could it, work in Moscow? Where ever would you put it in that crowded, bustling city? Who would go there? What would they do there?***Singaporeans, not know for a culture of dissent and protest, have led the way, setting up their own speakers’ corner to protest over economic hardship. Hundreds meet there every Saturday to demand government help. No trouble reported yet.******The London speakers’ corner is held up by some as a symbol of British democracy, a place where anyone can stand on a box and say (more or less) whatever he wants without fear. Yes, in their day, Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx haunted the place, touting ideas that would have had them dragged away by police in their own countries. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, wrote in her memoirs that the Bolshevik leaader was most impressed watching speakers “harangue the passing crowds on diverse themes”. All jolly stuff and not something he himself encouraged when he set up the dictatorship of the proletariat back at home.******These days though, for the most part, London’s speakers’ corner is a gathering place for quirky exhibitionists and comedians, political oddballs of left and right and religious eccentrics of all ilks warning sinful tourists of hell and damnation. The occasional thoughtful soul will read through Shakespeare’s sonnets or expound the virtues of a forgotten philosopher. Heckling seems to be a central part of the fun. A policeman may be at hand in case things turn nasty, but they rarely do.******Possibly, the spot in the north-east corner of Hyde Park was chosen for its closeness to Tyburn gallows where once the condemned would make their last declarations. The Moscow equivalent to Tyburn, I suppose, would be Red Square, where villains were put to death by the axe – though, in the Russian tradition, without those last words. Perhaps, then, Moscow’s Speakers’ Corner might fit nicely nearby at Alexandrov Gardens, at the Kremlin Walls. Arguably, though, a bit too close to***Medvedev’s seat of power. My proposal would be a few hundred metres up Tver Avenue, on Pushkin Square where the Soviet Union once maintained its own bizarre and macabre form of speakers’ corner. Perhaps I should call it the hat-takers-offers corner.******Every Human Rights Day, a keen crowd of journalists and plain-clothes KGB officers would gather in the winter cold around the perimeter of the square named after the great liberal poet Alexander Pushkin. As the hour of eleven approached, a tense hush would descend. A single figure would eventually appear, walk to the centre of the square, stand for a moment, and then take his hat (usually a rabbit-skin ‘shapka’) off; a symbolic protest against the suppression of human rights in the communist state.******In an instant, the KGB officers would swoop down upon him, drag him across the square, bundle him into a van and speed him off to the Lubyanka prison. A few minutes would pass and a second dissident would arrive, take off his hat and stand to attention before being likewise borne away by the forces of order. And so it went on.******Pity though the ‘innocent’ citizen who strayed unwittingly onto the square on that December day, carrying perhaps a magazine or a string bag of potatoes, and found himself suddenly the focus of this hawkeyed gathering. He would break his step and look around, of course, in wonder at his sudden and unexplained celebrity. Me?***That was more enough. Hat or no hat, he followed the rest, bundled into the van and away. It happened, sadly.******Finally, I ask myself who would pitch up at Moscow’s speakers’ corner and in what frame of mind? Memories of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the coups, the civil wars, the anger and the hardship, are still fresh. Economic crisis raises fears of another plunge into uncertainty and the eternal search continues. Kto Vinovat? Who is to blame?******What makes London’s Speakers’ Corner possible, amid all the mockery and sometimes quite pernicious views, is that most people just don’t take it seriously. They laugh, make fun. There may be anger but it knows its bounds. People throw up their hands and walk away, triumphant or humiliated before their peers.******How would Speakers’ Corner take root in Russian soil? Would liberal literati feast on Pushkin and Gogol, while the preachers invoke the fires of hell? Would it become a platform for Muscovites nursing private grievances against uncaring state institutions, the police, big business, the President? Could a Chechen malcontent plant his flag alongside angry nationalists and red-banner waving Stalinists?***Are Russians ready yet to laugh at profanity?

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