Secret labyrinths, secret rooms and secret speakers. Thanks to this approach, the Forum for Peaceful Russia (FMR) was held in St. Petersburg during the SPIEF without disruption by the security forces. The organizers publicly spoke about the event after it ended. Thanks to the methods of conspiracy, the new forum managed to avoid the fate of previous meetings of the Russian opposition, which dispersed by the police. As a result, Yulia Galyamina, Mikhail Timonov, Sergei Guriev and other Russian politicians, economists and activists.
The organizer of the forum, lawyer and politician Sergei Ross, told DW how to hold an opposition meeting in modern Russia and not end up in the police.
DW: Last year, the police first disrupted the forum of municipal deputies in Moscow, and later the “Zemsky Congress” Yulia Galyamina in Veliky Novgorod. Why did you decide to organize another opposition forum against this background?
Sergey Ross: We’re just better prepared. We had a rule of complete silence, and the forums listed were publicly announced before the event.
And the idea of our forum is very simple. I do not see an alternative event for the opposition in Russia, where meanings could be created. The authorities have it – it is Petersburg Economic Forum. But over the past ten years, SPIEF has turned into a small-town amusing platform. After February 24, it seemed to me that it would be very important to create such a platform for coordinating people of relevant positions and views, and, on the other hand, for discussing the most important issues for the country this year.
– Why during the SPIEF days? The president is in the city – you could attract even more attention …
– On the contrary, there was a strategic calculation to minimize the possibility of a collision. Even under Medvedev, I participated in the organization of SPIEF. I know this event very well from the inside and I understand very well that this is a question of the president. If something happens during the days of the event that will negatively affect the reputation of the president, it can be quite painful.
– Conspiracy measures are really impressive. How long did it take you to prepare them?
– About five months. For example, we had three rooms for two days of the forum. One spare that we didn’t even use. We reported the site address an hour before the event. Separately, there were chats with journalists, separately with speakers, separately with participants. No general mailings, only individual messages. We changed routes, changed SIM cards. We bought tickets for the same date, so that it was not clear when exactly the person was arriving.
– Was it difficult to convince the speakers to participate in such a risky event?
– The speakers did not know when and where it would take place. They also did not know about the level of security. But in general, their attitude was skeptical. We persuaded speakers in February-March. They were then in total apathy, not knowing what would happen to them and the country, whether they would be in Russia.
Many, even after they agreed, were sure that we would be dispersed. There were participants with special legal circumstances – they could not be detained in any case. Otherwise, they were threatened with a criminal term. For such people, we have thought out a system of labyrinth passages and several back exits so that they can quickly disappear from the site if they start to delay.
– That is, it was so important for people to be on the forum that they came there, risking their freedom?
– On the one hand, this is trust in me as an organizer. It’s nice. On the other hand, this is a truly unique offer. In Russia now there are no such events at all. Even those that you listed, like the congress of municipal deputies – these are all specialized events on the topic. There is not a single project in the country where you can discuss key events in the country this year. There is no such place. Even the only pro-government platform has ceased to fulfill this function and has slid into the discussion of fakes.
– Nevertheless, the police and NTV correspondents did show up to you?
– There were “eshniki” (an employee of the “E” Center for Combating Extremism. – Ed.), police. According to rumors, there were FSB. NTV was on duty both days at our doors, trying to get inside. In addition, the “eshniki” were all the way to the event. Whatever the precautions, tracking even one well-known participant like Yulia Galyamina gives information about the location of the event on the day of the event.
When we were already on the second day at the second site, the police came to the first – to the museum premises. They inspected all the premises, requested a lease agreement, which was published almost immediately in the pro-government public on Telegram.
– That is, they knew where you were, but did not thwart. Why is that?
– I think if they knew in advance, they would have torn off. Since they found out too late, and the SPIEF was taking place in the city, they could not do anything better in a short time, except to organize the duty of the “eshniks” and NTV.
– Your forum was attended by politicians who are in Russia, but also by those who were forced to leave. Is it still legal to be an opposition member in Russia?
– I think that it is possible and necessary. Now it is very important that people like the participants of our forum be in Russia and actively involve people in politics. You can do a lot of things effectively – politicization and depoliticization. You can actively participate in elections with anti-war rhetoric and demonstrate to people opposition to the rhetoric of power.
Many people in society now doubt what is happening. Even those who adhered to pro-government positions. In order to support them at this moment, it is necessary to demonstrate to them the role model of people who adhere to an alternative position. To make it clear to them who to join.
On the other hand, it is very important to think through the future, to try to show intellectual leadership. For example, we had a section on transitional justice. In the 90s, when the new Russia was being formed, there were no people competent in transitional justice and lustrations. That’s why we failed them. The toolkit needs to be thought out long before any changes happen and whether they happen or not.
That is a field for work oppositionlarge, and it has not changed much compared to what it was before February 24th. Forms of mass protest did not disappear, but became more partisan and dissident. Despite any form of pressure, civil society is always bigger than the state.