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Russian activists share Woodstock moment in Khimki Forest outside Moscow

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MOSCOW — After four days of peace and music in a meadow outside Moscow, an unlikely assortment of Russians pulled up the stakes on their tents and went home, looking as if they had just shared a Woodstock moment.

Instead of organizing another human rights or environmental protest — which are rarely permitted and widely considered futile by the public — activists decamped to the Khimki Forest on Friday for entertainment and enlightenment, with music, lectures and debates lasting until Monday afternoon. They invited anyone who wanted to come, and 2,000 accepted — mostly supporters but opponents, too.

Once together they agonized over how they could make the voice of the individual heard and count in a country where the Kremlin holds all the power. They asked the eternal questions here, Who is to blame? What should be done? They concentrated on the latter rather than the first, and if they didn’t leave with answers, they did go away with ideas and a new sense of possibility.

“This could be a way of life for us,” Yevgenia Chirikova, one of the organizers, said happily, describing her own Woodstock moment. “We have started to create the right conditions for a civil society.”

Astounding things happened. Leftists and rightists exchanged words — politely. The virtual world grew tangible — bloggers stopped typing and led face-to-face discussions. No one was arrested — unusual for a public gathering of the opposition. And even the police, dozens in their own encampments surrounding the meadow, were having a good time.

Several policemen strolled into the camp to listen to music. One wandered over to eavesdrop on a lecture on organizing voters through the Internet. A crew of much-feared Omon riot police got their heavily armored Humvee-like vehicle stuck in the Woodstock-worthy mud and laughed at their plight.

“They’re not so different than us,” Chirikova said, recalling their more typical fierce demeanor, “just unhappier.”

After a brief flirtation with expanded freedoms in the first years after the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, Russians traded free elections and media for growing economic security. A people who had debated politics fiercely and privately in their kitchens during the repressive Soviet years stopped talking, got up from their tables and started remodeling their kitchens instead.

Now, a younger generation has begun to talk again. For Chirikova, 33, awareness started when authorities began building a road and destroying the Khimki Forest. Though her Defenders of Khimki Forest movement has been unable to stop the project, she has emerged as an appealing leader for those of her generation, reaching them through social media.

This week’s encampment should be their emblematic moment, Chirikova said, when they understood the power that lies within each of them, often unused.

“We are proud we brought many people together with many different views, and they talked and listened to each other,” she said. “When you do that, opinions change, and you begin to understand how to work together for what you want.”

The lectures here — from defenders of human rights, fighters of corruption, seekers of political office — were illuminating for many, Chirikova said.

“When everyone learns how to defend his rights, the authorities will change,” she said. “If you don’t ignore what the authorities are doing, they will change.”

Alexei Simenov, a pediatrician, traveled more than 600 miles from Syktyvkar, northeast of Moscow, to attend.

“Here in Khimki we found positive energy,” Simenov said. “I can take this back with me to help solve our problems there.”

Vladimir Chudov, an 86-year-old World War II veteran, went home when it rained heavily over the weekend but returned Monday morning. He caught a jitney near his home on the other side of Moscow, then a suburban train, then the metro (“I only had to change once.”) then another jitney, which left him on a country road, to wander through the forest — slowed by blindness in one eye. The trip took four hours.

“I wanted to see the nice faces,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that often.”

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