My first visit to Russia was in 2010 as part of a study abroad program. I spent six months in Moscow, living and studying at the main campus of Moscow State University. Even though I had done extensive research and studied Russian for four years prior, I had no idea what to expect. Everyone has a different experience in Russia – from frustration with dealing with bureaucracy, to showing your papers to the militsiya on the street, to the cashier in the cafeteria line shouting at you because you handed your money directly to her instead of putting it on the counter, to Babushkas selling berries and telling you the sexual health benefits of eating freshly foraged berries – Russia offers different experiences to everyone who visits.
I studied Soviet history throughout high school and college, and had been obsessively wanting to visit Russia since I was 7 years old. When I did finally go, it was like a dream come true. I remember my very first time on Red Square – it was a beautiful day and the bells were ringing all around me. I was so excited that I couldn’t be bothered to listen to our student group leader talk – I simply had to look all around me. Going to Russia had been my dream, and now that I was finally there, I was determined to see and experience as much of Russia as I could.
Living in and experiencing Russia was fascinating, especially while viewing it through the lens of its Soviet past. There are still many remnants of the Soviet way of life in Russia. One of the remnants more relevant to this piece is the strong labor movement in Russia. Russia observes International Labor Day on May 1. Fellow Washingtonians will be able to relate, since every official holiday in Russia is observed with a parade or a rally of some sort in Moscow. When one of our teachers told us about the rally being held that year, my friends and I decided that we had to go.
We arrived at the metro station that exited close to the middle of the rally route. I have never seen a bigger sea of red flags – literally. There were a number of groups marching. There were the members of the communist party, the antifascists, the pro-Kremlin parties, the Kremlin critics, etc. There was a Russian nationalist group that was allowed to rally calling for the end of immigration into Russia. My friends and I watched from a distance as these different groups walked past. I was fascinated.
My eyes fell on a group that were dressed in all black. They were surrounded by the Militsiya and they were bounded by banners. No one was allowed to leave that group, and no one was allowed to join. They all wore balaclavas, so you could not see their faces. I was curious about what that group was, so I stepped forward towards them to take a closer look. My friends shouted my name and kept calling me back, but I couldn’t hear them because the group in black started chanting. The militsiya stopped the group, but they stood in their place chanting. This was my chance, I stepped in front of the group and took my camera out. I thought I would take a quick photo, head back, and read what their banners said on my camera. I was just about to take the photo when I realized that I was being stared at by everyone in that group. It felt odd, so I put down my camera and read their banner.
I still remember the fear that gripped me when I read the words “Russia for Russians, Moscow for Muscovites.” (Россия для русских, Москва для москвичей) This was a nationalist group that was protesting immigration. The slogan “Russia for Russians” is used by several extremist nationalist Russian groups that have used violence against foreigners. In fact, victims of ethnic and racial violence in Russia have reported hearing chants of “Russia for Russians” during attacks. I, a brown Indian man, was standing before a group of very Russian nationalist extremists. I looked back at my friends, who looked very concerned, and tried to run back to them, but it was too late. More militsiya joined at this juncture, and everyone viewing the parade from the spot that we were viewing it from were forced onto the street. Meanwhile, the militsiya lined up on both sides of the street, so that no one on the street could get onto the sidewalks. My friends and I found ourselves stuck in the Labor day rally – with a nationalist group behind us.
Luckily, the group was still being escorted by militsiya, so my friends and I ran a little forward and now we were in the middle of the rally. The only way out was by walking the rally route all the way to the end. I was scared, but in the end we made it home to our dormitory unscathed. Where else would such a thing happen, but in Russia.