Over the past couple of days, I’ve been asked many times, by people from around the world, how I came to take a photo of the boy on a bike with training wheels, facing a row of Russian riot police. That story is simple: it was a complete accident. What is harder to explain is how the image fits into the larger picture of what has been happening in Russia in the past few days.
On Sunday, May 6th, about seventy thousand Muscovites—as well as some people who came from other parts of Russia—gathered to peacefully protest Vladimir Putin’s third presidential inauguration, scheduled for the next day. They marched down a wide avenue, carrying funny signs and chanting “Russia without Putin!” They marched until they got to Bolotnaya Square, the site of two other unprecedentedly huge anti-Kremlin rallies this winter. But the police, apparently going back on agreements with the protest’s organizers, stood in such a way as to make entry into the square very difficult, and then cut the electricity to the stage. A sit-in started, someone pushed someone, and the scene became very violent very quickly. Protesters hurled bottles and chunks of cement, police threw tear gas. Smoke bombs flew back and forth. Riot police—dubbed “cosmonauts,” for their shiny round black helmets—descended into the churning, angry crowd in a V formation to pluck out young men to beat and drag away. Over four hundred people were arrested that day, and at least a hundred of them were later slapped with draft cards.
I watched this for about three hours, occasionally getting caught in a terrifying crush and once catching a chunk of concrete to the leg. I watched the plainclothes cops videotape the proceedings. I watched riot police approach terrified bystanders—women and middle-aged men who had come to the rally but had not signed up for this—pull them off the fences, and force them into the scuffle. “I don’t want to go in there!” a woman yelled. “I’m scared!” I saw people keel over, wheezing and coughing from the tear gas, as I pulled my sweatshirt over my nose and mouth. Very scary angry young men, either anarchists or nationalists or provocateurs, who looked very different from the mass of middle-class protestors, threw themselves into the battle. I saw someone hoist a police helmet on the tip of a red flag while four others bobbed in the water of the canal behind us. I saw a burly riot cop stumble out of the scuffle, fluorescent red blood streaming down his face. I saw bloodstains on the ground, and yellow port-a-potties go down, spilling their contents, turning into makeshift barricades. I saw row upon row of internal-security troops blocking the bridge leading to the Kremlin, as if Moscow were preparing for a foreign invasion. I saw two rows of riot police press in on the stragglers from two sides, and I saw the panic in the faces of those around me.
I took ham-fisted pictures of all of this with my iPhone and tried to upload them to my Twitter feed, which in these situations is especially convenient: a notebook and a newswire in one. Then I, too, got squeezed out of the square. I was shaken, exhausted, and strangely hungry, and walked with a friend to get something to eat and catch our breaths. We headed up to another small bridge over the canal, where some protesters had gathered. Everyone was riled up, and no one really wanted to go home.
This is where I took the picture. There was a phalanx of riot police on this bridge, too, blocking another route to the Kremlin. In front of them stood a young brunette in a short red dress and wedge platform shoes. She was waving the orange flag of the opposition Solidarity movement, and, judging by the expression on her face, she thought she was Moscow’s Lady Liberty—the icon of the protest. I thought she was, too. It was just so Russian: a woman in heels, even during a violent protest, self-consciously, calculatingly, making herself into a consumable, sexy image while those around her talked about fair elections and Putin’s villainy.
I was wrong. My friend, Olaf Koens, a Dutch reporter, had the better eye. (He does some television work.) But after hours of documenting the violence, his iPhone was dead. He smacked my arm and said, “Look! Look! There’s the picture!” I saw a small boy on what looked like a tricycle moving through a scrum of people raining abuse on the police. Then he just stopped. I had followed him, my phone still in hand, and, when he stopped, I kneeled down and snapped the picture. I posted the picture on Twitter, misspelling Tiananmen, and went to get something to eat.
The picture went viral, though I was too distracted by the protests to really notice at first: they continued, uninterrupted, for another three days. After Bolotnaya, the protesters fanned out into the surrounding streets, and the police followed, chasing them into cafés and metro stations. Two of my friends, Russian journalists, were arrested. One of them was hit in the head with a truncheon. The following day, people wearing white ribbons (the symbol of the protest) were pulled off the streets, as were those who didn’t know what the white ribbons meant. A café where the opposition likes to drink was raided.
Soon, the protest morphed into something opposition politician Alexey Navalny called the “people’s strolls”: on the night of May 7th, I was with him as hundreds of people trailed after him through the streets of Moscow. Improvising on the spot, they kept going until five in the morning, passing cars honking their support, passengers hanging out their windows and flashing peace signs. It was an exercise in escaping the baffled riot police. “How can I turn them around?” I heard one officer say into his walkie-talkie. “It’s just me and five warriors here!”
Over the next two days, scores more were detained by the police only to be quickly let go: the jails were already too full after the events of May 6th. And yet the protests kept going, moving around the city, from square to square, even as Navalny and the other opposition leader, the radical leftist Sergei Udaltsov, were arrested. “I was born and raised here,” a thirty-five-year-old man told me. “And now they’re going to arrest me for strolling through my own city? Now I’m going to come every night.” At each gathering, the faces were different. Twitter and Facebook were used to marshal reinforcements. I slept only infrequently, for a couple hours in the early morning, periodically marvelling at the blooming bruise where the concrete had hit my thigh.
I never did find out who that little boy is, or how his parents let him wheel that close to the police. Instead, I’ve found myself observing the evolution of the protests. After running from the police all over town on Wednesday, about seven hundred people gathered by the statue of Abai Kunanbaev, the Kazakh poet-philosopher and new symbol of the roving protests, in Chistye Prudy. (The movement is now using the hash tag #occupyabai.)
Chistye Prudy was the site of the gathering, on December 5th, a day after a disputed parliamentary election, that launched the protest movement, a wave of discontent among the middle class to which the Kremlin has responded by alternately ignoring it and issuing threatening statements. (A couple of days ago, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, allegedly told a parliament deputy that the protesters deserved to have “their livers smeared on the pavement” for each injured cop.)
And yet, there was no anger here. People sang songs and socialized. A trio of drummers showed up. A young man handed out McDonald’s burgers, saying, “Who wants a State Department burger?” (Putin and his allies have portrayed the opposition as American pawns.) So many of those present had been arrested, some more than once, that it became almost unfashionable not to have been arrested. The police with their herd of personnel carriers stood ready in the streets, but the order to move in never came. They hung around blasting music from their cars and eating sunflower seeds, or catcalling to passing girls from the protest. It was a party, and it looked a lot like Union Square on a Saturday night. No one knew where it was going, or how it would all end, but most people I spoke to predicted that blood would be a factor in that end. They seemed calm about that prospect.
The Boy on the Bicycle [TNY]