A light snow was drifting across Pushkin Square early this evening when a curious crowd gathered at the foot of a statue to Russia's beloved poet to watch a demonstration.
The demonstration, however, did not take place.
In the space of an hour, a gang of burly men, operating under the eyes of uniformed police, had whisked away, one after another, at least eight Soviet citizens, kicked a lens off a CBS television camera, pounced on a cluster of leaflets dropped in the snow and thrown the weight of a human wall against anyone who tried to get close enough to watch.
All the while, about a hundred people stood around the base of the statue, watching passively, their faces showing neither approval nor disgust. Even the man who appeared to act as coordinator of the police action asked an onlooker at one point: "What are you watching? This isn't a film."
The demonstrators were at the Pushkin monument to protest human rights violations in their country.
The occasion was U.N. Human Rights Day, which a group of Soviet dissidents first chose to mark five years ago by simply standing by the Moscow landmark and silently taking off their hats.
It was a token gesture, publicly inoffensive, but one that hinted at the determination of those who want to speak out somehow against the policies of the Soviet government.
As soon as the tradition started, the police, in and out of uniform, moved in to stop it.
By 6 p.m. this evening, the small park around the Pushkin statue in the heart of Moscow -- and a traditional meeting place -- had all the signs of a stakeout. Militiamen, or Soviet police, stood in groups of threes. A sense of expectancy was almost palpable.
On Gorki Street, in front of the statue and near the subway stop, groups of men and women lingered, chatting, smoking, looking very much like other people standing around waiting to meet friends, but with one difference: no one came to meet these people, and so over time the snow gradually piled up on their hats and shoulders, setting them apart.
In another corner of the park, a group of western reporters, mostly European and American, huddled together also waiting, shifting from foot to foot to battle the cold.
The first scuffle came shortly before 7 p.m. Someone had scattered what appeared to be handwritten pages at the foot of the statue. In seconds, the burly men dove to the ground, snatching up the pieces of paper and demanding that others hand over their copies.
One man found half of a ripped page on the ground; another leapt to grab him when the two recognized each other and laughed. They apparently were there on the same mission.
Outnumbered on all sides, by the press and the police, the people who apparently came to protest drifted into the crowd singly, talking to no one. As one couple was nabbed and walked off, a young women said firmly, but quietly: "There -- that's human rights." Then she was led off.
After hanging around the edges of the crowd for half an hour, another man walked up the steps of the statue, took off his hat and said he wanted to recite poetry. He also was grabbed and escorted away.
The people were driven off in cars and buses. According to those picked up in previous years, they are taken to local police stations and questioned for three hours before being let go.
Back at the statue, the ritualistic game of cat and mouse played itself out, and the crowd began to drift away. The uniformed police moved in, establishing order, urging onlookers to back away from the monument steps.
"Please step back," said one officer to an old lady, who had come early and stayed in the cold to watch, "This is our monument and we should respect it."