Standing alone, she weathered the Russian chill

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 6, 2011

MOSCOW - A 45-year-old high school teacher stood small and shivering on the street across from Moscow's City Hall on Wednesday, determined to do what she could to prevent her country from turning into a totalitarian state.

The state was watching Marina Rozumovskaya - the stares of a dozen or so large policemen were colder than the 10 degrees on the thermometer. They were waiting for her to break the law. She was intent on honoring it. She would stand on the street, hold an 8-by-11-inch piece of paper bearing the words "Freedom to political prisoners" and dare the authorities to suppress her freedom of speech.

Rozumovskaya was there, she said, taking part in one of three protests across the city Wednesday, because in the past week the authorities had fired off two public warnings. Last Thursday, a Moscow court sentenced former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to six more years in prison on top of the eight he has already served - the maximum 14-year sentence for unproven charges of stealing oil from his own company. The next day, an opposition leader who had been a deputy prime minister in the Yeltsin era was hustled into a police van as he was leaving an officially permitted demonstration in support of the right to assemble.

Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader, had criticized the Khodorkovsky decision and castigated Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the rally. He was sentenced Sunday to 15 days in prison, accused of disobeying police. Another leader was arrested as he left his home, before even reaching the rally.

"We live in a country of signals," Rozumovskaya said Wednesday. "It's becoming clear we are on the way back to the 1940s and a totalitarian state. How can one sit and watch quietly as it happens?"

As Rozumovskaya grew colder at her post, hundreds of Russians in the middle of a week-long national vacation were flocking to theaters and restaurants near the Kremlin, just down the street. "If you don't exercise your rights as a citizen," she said, "nothing will ever change."

The dozen protesters in Rozumovskaya's band were carefully observing the law that allows only one person to picket without obtaining a permit. They stood aside, careful not to block the sidewalk, taking turns holding up a sign. Within minutes, police made their first arrests.

Before Rozumovskaya's turn, a fellow protester had been joined by an unfriendly picket from the Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi, prompting police to take both of them away.

An angry Rozumovskaya lectured the police as if they were unruly students, demanding protection from interlopers. The lieutenant colonel in charge refused, telling her she would be arrested if anyone joined her. She demanded he cite the law.

"I said so," he told her.

Rozumovskaya moved near a statue and held up her sign. A Nashi supporter darted toward her. She rolled up her sign and left the spot. A few minutes later, the intruder gone, she returned, standing straight and still except for her shivers.

By late afternoon, 19 people had been detained from the three different protests - in front of the detention center where Nemtsov is serving his sentence, at the presidential administration building and at City Hall.

Rozumovskaya went home a free woman, her signal sent.

"I am not a politician, just a teacher," she said, "I want my pupils to live in a civilized country. I don't want them turning into people without honor and conscience."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company