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Andreas Speck reports from Moscow on how, against the backdrop of war in Chechnya, one group of anarchist activists is trying to rebrand desertion in a more positive light.

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 anarchist network Autonomous Action “celebrates” 23 February with protests against the war in Chechnya, and against militarism in general. This year, the group organised a Deserters' Festival from 20 to 23 February which, unfortunately, was met by more attention from the authorities than had been expected.

The Festival included discussion on antimilitarism and how to respond to military service:to perform the now possible, but discriminatory, substitute service, 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 in the form of punk gigs. It ended on 23 February, the “Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland”.

Moscow cat and mouse

The 23 February events began with a Food not Bombs action at one end of Arbat Street in the centre of Moscow . The organisers tried to get permission for a Food not Bombs action at a different location, but failed. So the action took place without permission, but it had been publicly announced anyway, and generated a lot of media interest. However, after 15 minutes the police intervened, and the distribution of food ended. The crowd dispersed, only to reassemble 45 minutes later for a demonstration against the war in Chechnya, and against the present military reforms, which will get rid of most of the reasons for postponement or exemption from military service. The demonstration marched on the pavement through streets in central Moscow , accompanied by police, who did not do much at the beginning. However, when the demonstration reached Arbat Street, police attempted to arrest the people holding the front banner , but others quickly overtook and formed a new demonstration. Police arrested those holding he banner anyway , and more police arrested people in the remainder of the demonstration, which then quickly dispersed. n total there where about seven arrests, but all were released hat evening. One person was beaten at the police station.

The demonstration lasted a total of about 30 minutes, and a lot of leaflets were distributed to people on the streets.

Positive spin

Most people were surprised about the response from the authorities. Until recently , Autonomous Action had not faced many problems from the police or other authorities, but the Deserters' Festival seems to have changed this. Not only had a discussion meeting in a gallery to be ended abruptly due to pressure by the authorities, the group's normal meeting space--a youth club--was also put under pressure by the Russian Secret Service FSB (the successor of the KGB) to no longer allow political meetings, as this would be “outside of the terms of their licence”, and could therefore lead to criminal proceedings against those running the club.

It seems as though the attempt to re-define the term “deserter”--a term which has very negative connotations in Russia--in a positive way was seen as a provocation, not only by the authorities. Less radical organisations working against the war in Chechnya or for substitute service also felt alienated by the term deserter , and therefore did not take part in the festival. Others, however ,thought it a brilliant idea to mark the deportation of Chechens and Ingush and the “Defenders of the Fatherland Day” with a deserters' festival.

Autonomous Action, http://www.avtonom.org/

Andreas Speck works for War Resisters' International as a conscientious objection campaigner.

Topics: War resisters