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© RIA Novosti. Artem Zhitenev

Freaks and geeks

by Natalia Antonova at 13/05/2013 21:07

Over the May holidays, a newfangled civil gathering site in Moscow hosted a meeting of lonely young women looking for a date. A man holding a sign that read “We want kisses” tried to proposition an attending policeman and was politely turned away. The crowd cheered and threw paper airplanes into the sky.

Moscow’s so-called Hyde Park zones began operation on May 1 and are ostensibly meant to promote civil society. Modeled on the Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner in London, the sites have nevertheless come under heavy criticism – and are frequently referred to as an empty gesture by a government intent on paying mere lip service to free speech.

The Hyde Park zones were first proposed by the government in 2012, in the aftermath of unprecedented political protests in Moscow. They operate out of Gorky Park and Sokolniki.

Since the sites were formally launched, they have played host to such events as an electronic music party, a patriotic rally hosted by Molodaya Gvardiya, the youth wing of the ruling United Russia party, and a rally “against everyday rudeness” organized by Komsomolskaya Pravda.

The political opposition has pointedly stayed away, while famous opposition figures have expressed disdain for the Hyde Park project.

“I don’t know why anyone should even bother with this [project],” liberal politician and protest leader Ilya Yashin told The Moscow News. “It’s completely meaningless.”

Free expression and Occupy

Some observers believe that the newfangled free speech zones are best suited for ordinary Muscovites with something to get off their chests.

“I doubt that Moscow’s City Hall created these sites with the opposition in mind,” Alexei Mukhin, the head of the Center of Political Information, told Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei.

According to Mukhin, the nonmainstream opposition movement, which includes opposition parties that are not included in the State Duma, is currently “radicalizing” and is therefore more attracted to places “where protest is banned.”

Not all opposition activists agree with Mukhin’s assessment, however.

David Abramov, an activist associated with the street-art group Gruppa Voina, which is famous for controversial stunts such as painting a huge penis on a drawbridge next to a security services building in St. Petersburg, told Lenta. ru that the Hyde Park zones could provide a platform for the local Occupy movement and other projects suited for the outdoors.

Rest of Russia ‘not so lucky’

Gorky Park visitor Alla, who did not provide her last name, told The Moscow News that the free speech zones were clearly “not for very serious matters.”

“I live not far from Gorky Park, so I suppose if I went through a really bad break-up, I would put in an application to protest against heartbreak,” Alla joked. “It would be cheaper than going to a therapist.”

Alla’s friend, Dina, a 23-yearold aspiring performance artist, disagreed.

“Art is a serious matter to me, and this so-called Hyde Park [zone] could be useful for an artist,” Dina told The Moscow News. “I’m from Siberia myself, and it’s not that the local authorities there are opposed to the idea of a free speech zone – it’s that they’ve never even considered it.”

“Muscovites should appreciate the fact that they have these kinds of platforms, because the rest of Russia is not so lucky,” Dina added.

Online applications

In Gorky Park, the designated free speech site is located near the busy Krymsky Bridge, and can host up to 2,000 people. In Sokolniki, it is located near the Green Theater, far from the park’s main entrance, and hosts up to 1,500 people.

An online application is required for anyone who wants to host an event in a Hyde Park zone, and the Gorky Park application page helpfully provides the text of the federal law on rallies so that organizers stay within legal bounds.

The People’s Party of Hate

Although the police are on hand to supervise Hyde Park zone events, this does not automatically mean that people with extreme views are necessarily unwelcome.

Stanislav Diyev, who launched his own movement, the People’s Party of Hate, after alienating his fellow nationalists for being too radical, booked a Hyde Park zone for three days in a row in early May.

Diyev supports throwing all foreigners out of Russia, banning interracial sex, and granting amnesty to all prisoners, including pedophiles and serial killers. According to Lenta.ru, the only other person who showed up to the People’s Party of Hate events was Diyev’s friend, Misha, another former nationalist.

Vera Andreyeva, a psychologist who works with underprivileged youths, told The Moscow News that ultimately, the Hyde Park zones are a good way for the authorities to deal with young people who harbor extreme ideas.

“The worst thing you can do with a young person who has latched on to an extreme ideology is to drive him completely underground to fester and radicalize further,” Andreyeva told The Moscow News.

Andreyeva did predict that the Hyde Park zones would have their limits as far as radical ideas are concerned. “It all depends on whether or not [a radical movement] is perceived as an actual threat by society,” she said. “An eccentric loner is likely to be grudgingly tolerated – but considering Moscow’s history with terrorism and ethnic tension, I can’t imagine a radical Muslim group holding a Hyde Park zone event any time soon.”

Andreyeva believes that minorities holding moderate views would have more luck. “I remember some time ago, a video showing a young Dagestani man urging his fellow Dagestanis to build bridges and be part of society [in Moscow] went viral,” she said. “I think if he decided to speak in one of the Hyde Park [zones], people would be drawn to his charisma.”

“If anything, going out there and working on your charisma while the weather is nice is not the worst way to spend your day,” Andreyeva concluded.

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