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Moscow's New Free-Speech Zone, Inspired By Hyde Park - But Is It Good For Democracy?

Gorky Park
Gorky Park
Grigori Tumanov and Olga Shkurenko

MOSCOW – There's a novelty for the spring in two of the capital's parks that has the air of democracy: Muscovites can now submit applications to hold public events on the official websites of Gorky Park and Sokolniki Park without having to get authorization from the authorities.

This is part of a new program instituted by the city that is meant to emulate London’s Hyde Park. The program actually came into effect in January, but it wasn’t until this week that the administrative structures to actually run the program were put into place.

The Moscow city government first came up with the idea to create a specially designated area where citizens can hold rallies and political debates without permission from the government during the first wave of mass protests after Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2011.

While the protests were at their peak, the idea became a hot topic among officials. City government officials said they were willing to consider any public space that was suggested by the opposition, and the project was overseen by the head of the city’s culture department, whose liberal views are well known. A website was even created so that people could vote for the area they would like to be designated as Moscow’s “Hyde Park” – Gorky and Sokolniki parks won.

Construction was done in both parks to accommodate demonstrators, and as of May 1, the parks will be ready for their first rallies. According to the Gorky Park website, the space will be available to events with up to 2,000 participants that take place between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. According to the park’s press service, there will be electricity and toilets provided, as well as a decorative barrier surrounding the perimeter of the protest area.

Security will be provided by the police and the park’s employees will take care of cleaning up after each protest. Similar procedures and amenities are available at Sokolniki Park. The amount spent adapting the parks has not been released.

Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner

While presenting the project, the city government continually stressed that they were following the example of other governments. They said freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly was enshrined in the law in many countries, but that most often, these countries did not have specific places where those freedoms could be exercised. In some countries, however, so-called “free speech zones” are used, where people can protest. In these places, there is no need to apply for a protest permit. One such place is the famous “Speakers’ Corner” in London’s Hyde Park.

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Hyde Park. Photo Cory Doctorow

Historical alumni of the Speakers’ Corner have included Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell, as well as many other famous orators, but today the speakers are largely eccentrics and the spectators are usually tourists. Most bona fide rallies are held elsewhere – Trafalgar Square or Whitehall.

This area, in the northeast corner of Hyde Park in London, has been around since the mid-19th century, and was made official by the Parks Regulation Act of 1872. According to tradition, any person can come to Speakers’ Corner during the park’s hours of operations and make a speech about absolutely anything without asking for authorization first. But the park does not provide microphones or any other infrastructure.

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Vintage Hyde Park. Photo Colin Smith

Moscow officials say these new “free speech zones” will create a new protest culture in the city, and assure they are prepared to accept all sorts of protesters, from LGBT activists to nationalists, as long as they don’t break the law. They don’t hide, though, that these protest zones will make life easier for officials who often spend countless hours negotiating about the location of protests in support of political prisoners.

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Vintage Hyde Park. Photo Wikimedia

Opposition leaders don’t share the city government’s enthusiasm. From the very beginning, they have said that the government is trying to contain protests to a “demonstration reservation.” The opposition has become increasingly concerned about the project – especially in light of the trouble they have had recently getting permission to hold protests in the city center.

“The government is seriously mistaken if they believe London’s Hyde Park is a place for mass political protests. In London, protest happen anywhere. Hyde Park is not a political place; it is a place where people can speechify about their problems. It is a place for individuals to talk,” says Eduard Limonov, an opposition leader. According to other opposition leaders, the government is just trying to make it seem like they are meeting the opposition halfway.

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Hyde Park. Photo Cory Doctorow

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Photo of visit of Forest In The Middle Of Lisbon

People visiting a Forest In The Middle Of Lisbon

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