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Summer Plans? Russians Take Their Protests On The Road

More and more people are criss-crossing Russia to take part in protest actions, spawning a new breed of "political tourists" just in time for the summer travel season.

Combining activism with tourism (Person behind the scenes)
Combining activism with tourism (Person behind the scenes)
Maria Portnyagina

MOSCOW - "I specially planned my vacation so I could come to Moscow for the ‘March of the Millions," said Tatyana Ulyanovska, a preschool teacher from Stavropol with a menacing look.

"I wanted to show that there are people who care outside of Moscow." Pointing to Aleksei C., the Muscovite walking with her, she said: "I wouldn't have made it without him. He let me stay with him."

Tatyana and Aleksei met two months ago, when they were both in Astrakhan to support an anti-establishment mayoral candidate. Aleksei is also Tatyana's tour guide - like many visitors who come to Moscow for political activism, she wants to see the movement's "monuments," such as Chistye Prudy, where protesters camped ‘occupy"-style for days after protests in early May.

Of the 30 protesters arrested during the protests on May 16, only about half were from Moscow, police sources say. "Regional activists bring large-scale participation to the capital," says Aleksei Makarkin, vice-president of the Center of Political Technology. "For them, a trip to Moscow is a way to get to know Muscovites. They have their own strengths, like a strong presence on the Internet and ability to get the attention of the national press. But it goes both ways. The opposition members in Moscow, who are often accused of being out of touch with the rest of the country, are interested in visiting the rest of Russia, too."

Meeting Up Online

Nika Kakobyan, 25, and Stepa Perelyak, 22, both live in Stavropol, but they met for the first time when they went to Astrakhan together to support Oleg Shein, the opposition mayoral candidate. The two young women met online, bought their tickets together and traveled to Astrakhan together. When they checked into the hotel, both indicated "political tourism" as the reason for their visit. "It's unlikely that I would have come to Astrakhan otherwise," Step said. "Since I had the time, I decided to come to the protest and see the city at the same time. Of course, political motives are the most important reason for my visit. Tourism is second to that, but it's not unimportant. It's an opportunity to see the country."

"But this is serious business, without the carelessness of regular tourism, make sure to write that," Nika added.

Whether or not it is serious business, thousands of Russians have started traveling around the country - from the capital to the regions, from the regions to Moscow and from regions to regions. The first major attraction for political tourists was the mayoral elections in early April in Yaroslavl, where several hundred political tourists from Moscow and elsewhere acted as observers. The "March of the Millions' in Moscow on May 6 and June 12 both attracted thousands of participants from all around the country.

Like regular tourists, political tourists have to worry about transportation and accommodations. But they also have to worry about connections - calls to fellow protesters, Internet connections for blog posts, and in the worst-case scenario, calls to a lawyer. A specialized "travel agency" was created to try to meet some of those needs. Two photographers from Samara, in southeastern Russia, started an organization called RosDesant, to collect donations to help people who want to travel to "hot spots." The organization has already managed to send 200 people to protests, and the protesters have come from all over Russia. RosDesant has also started its own "security service," to weed out people who are just trying to get a free trip, as well as to make sure minors aren't participating.

Others have found ways to make trips possible on their own, even if they don't have the money. Muscovite Artyem Aivasov only had around $200 to his name, not enough for a protest trip to Astrakhan. So he put out a call on Twitter for financial help, and doubled his resources, allowing him to make him the trip. He got donations from people that he did not know.

Sometimes getting to the protest can be an adventure in and of itself. On the eve of the protests in Moscow on May 6, buses filled with political tourists from St. Petersburg and Ufa were delayed by police under the pretext of document inspection.

Not for everybody

On forums, political tourists trade information about the best places to stay and the cheapest ways to get to hot spots. There is an Internet forum specially dedicated to people looking for local hosts to stay with and hosts looking for guests. Most of the hosts offer to give the guests from out of town tours of the city. Hosts compete with each other to offer the best conditions, hoping to get the most interesting activists as guests.

Other forums offer advice, like how to behave if you are arrested and how to hitchhike.

Of course, this kind of travel is not for everyone. Political travellers are usually young people, without too many family or professional responsibilities, which allows them a flexible enough schedule to take off for a protest. And some protesters see it as less risky then taking part in protest actions close to home.

But there are others who believe that people moving around the country for political reasons is dangerous business. Aleksei Mukhin, director of the Center of Political Information, thinks the trend is risky not for individuals, but for the country's political system. "You can talk about the revolutionary virus. The countryside, even though it hates Moscow, copies Moscow." He is afraid that people from outside Moscow bring greater radicalization to the capital, making the situation much more volatile.

There is no doubt that political tourism has become a real phenomenon in Russia. The question, then, is whether or not that is a good thing. The answer might depend on your political point of view.

Read the original article in Russian.

Photo - Person behind the scenes

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