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Kazakh Poet Becomes Russian Protest's Unlikely Figurehead

Protesters lie on camping mats in front of the statue of Abai in Moscow.
Protesters lie on camping mats in front of the statue of Abai in Moscow.
MOSCOW -- A 19th-century Kazakh poet who was previously all but unknown in Russia has become an unlikely figurehead of opposition protests already marring Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin.

It is the latest quirk in the days-long cat-and-mouse game that has ensued since Putin's May 7 inauguration, with riot police in urban camouflage arresting Russians wearing the opposition's white ribbon -- whether they are strolling around or sitting in a cafe.

Arrested in droves or moved on threateningly by riot police for promenading along Moscow's boulevards and singing songs, such protesters finally camped out in front of a statue dedicated to Abai.

Two days ago, 31-year-old protester Timur Khorev knew nothing about the man he and his fellow activists are championing.

A journalist from Ufa who traveled to Moscow to demonstrate, Khorev says it's simply a coincidence that protesters chose to camp out in front of the Abai statue, and that the riot police haven't dispersed or arrested them.

'Out Of Nowhere'

"It's been completely unexpected that a Kazakh poet has become the symbol of the Russian opposition," Khorev says. "It's as if he came out of nowhere. The reason it's happened is that opposition activists gathered here and the OMON [Interior Ministry troops] were driving them away here. After the [Victory Day] march on May 9, the opposition gathered here in front of this statue that, in principle, everyone knew -- and completely out of the blue was born a new Internet meme."

Bloggers began calling for activists to "occupy Abai" and swell the ranks of the tag-team, sit-in protesters. After initial confusion as to who this "unheard of Kazakh" was, protesters were delighted to find out that the father of written Kazakh literature was also an activist who promoted free thinking.

Aleksei Navalny, a key opposition leader who was arrested while walking near Nikitsky Boulevard late on May 9, had tweeted earlier n the day: "By the way, jokes aside, Abai was a cool guy." He then posted a link to Abai's Wikipedia biography on his Twitter feed.

Since then, the "occupy Abai" meme has gone viral and its hashtag, in Cyrillic, has been a top Twitter trend in Russian for almost 48 hours. Users are now widely posting philosophical tidbits by Abai, including aphorisms like, "The worst kind of man is a man without ambition," and, "The man who shouts in anger is laughable, the man who is silent in anger is frightening."

Advocate Of Reform

"It turned out that Abai has poetry dedicated to free elections and to the freedom to rights," Khorev says. "And that's how he's turned into a symbol of freedom. It's a little bit comic, but at the same time that's how it is."

The statue to Abai on Chistye Prudy boulevard
The statue to Abai on Chistye Prudy boulevard
Abai was also a composer and thinker. He translated poets Pushkin, Lermontov, and Krylov, as well as Schiller, Goethe, and Byron into Kazakh.

"Anyone, who is strong and brave enough to say 'no' to the power-holders' lawlessness has to remember," Abai once wrote, "some false charges will be created against him/her, some witnesses will say anything to damage his/her reputation, some people appear even among [those] closest to them, who will do everything to prevent them from being elected to a high position or post."

There is irony in Abai's mounting status with the opposition. Putin erected the statue to Abai in 2006, during his second presidential term, as a gesture of thanks after Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev erected a statue to Aleksandr Pushkin in Astana. The statue to Pushkin in central Moscow served as a rallying site for dissidents during the Soviet era, while the statue to Abai in Almaty has been and remains a focal point for opposition protests in Kazakhstan.

Brief Heyday?

Meanwhile, Putin press secretary Dmitry Peskov tells "Afisha" magazine that the protest in Moscow's Chistye Prudy neighborhood is "illegal" and that police will clear away the small group of protesters. The sit-in has fluctuated between around 50 participants in the early morning hours to more than 2,000 and at its strongest. Numerous opposition figures have spent time in front of the statue, including socialite Ksenya Sobchak and Boris Nemtsov, who have delivered supplies, blankets, and umbrellas to protesters.

In a blog post on May 9, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky commended protesters in the wake of a major demonstration three days earlier against the Kremlin that led to clashes, violence, and hundreds of arrests.

But the veteran of two decades of Russian opposition work called protests "pointless" in political terms. "Of themselves, civic protests, actions and walks, and other kinds of flash mobs, while humanly worthy, will change nothing political and by virtue of their pointlessness will often escalate to fights and seizures," Yavlinsky said.

What the Russian opposition really needs, he says, are "serious politics" and a credible alternative.

With additional reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan

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