The Olympic spirit?

Cyclists banned from Newham for the duration of the Games.

 

For your average left-winger (like me), grandiose patriotic events are usually characterised by post-imperial malaise, myth-peddling and latent racism – until Friday night. Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony revealed a country forged in the actions of ordinary people; actions which to defined a new British spirit of compassion, diversity, irreverence, and audacity. As Anthony Painter so beautifully put it, "The orthodox view of the people as merely extras in a story of regal supremacy and a march to global domination now seems as peculiar as a gurn on the face of Mr Bean." In three hours, Boyle seemed to reclaim history for we, the people, from the royals and politicians who would otherwise own it.
 
But as I watched the Olympic flag being paraded around the stadium, something was happening outside. The police were arresting over 100 members of the cycling group, Critical Mass; a group which has been cycling on London’s streets for the last 18 years with no aim but to celebrate the joy of bikes. In the words of one cyclist who was arrested, "I can honestly say I had absolutely zero intention of disrupting the Olympics. I don’t think anyone did. It was about enjoying cycling – not hating the Olympics."
 
In 2008, the House of Lords ruled that Critical Mass was acting completely lawfully and that the Metropolitan Police were not allowed to obstruct the bike rides. And yet, at around midnight on Friday the police ushered cyclists into a cul-de-sac in East London, kettled them, and began forcing some off their bikes. Over 100 cyclists were then arrested under Section 12 of the Public Order Act. They were bundled on coaches, where they remained for over 7 hours without access to food, water or toilets. One of the arrestees was a 13-year-old boy.
 
Arrestees were later released with stringent bail conditions, including a ban from cycling in an entire London borough, Newham. Very little is written about how bail conditions are often used to essentially supress protest, but as Alastair, a cyclist present at the ride, summarised, "This is about taking a big chunk of potential activists out of the picture for the duration of the Olympics and using police bail to do it."
 
If the cyclists were simply doing what they have always done on Friday night, then so were the police. As the cyclists were being detained, the Olympics opening ceremony was lauding Suffragettes and trade unionists that were also oppressed and demonised for threatening the pageantry and power of the day. It was ever thus: "generations of people must fight the same battles over and over again," as Tony Benn once said – even if those people are simply cyclists deciding that a militarised sporting event will not change them.
 
Some of those who took part in the Critical Mass bike ride point out the juxtaposition of the ceremony’s themes with the oppression of civil liberties going on outside. But I don’t see the two as being in conflict. When Danny Boyle chose Shakespeare’s words "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises," he was recognising Britain as a troubled and frenetic country. He was acknowledging that Britain has often been a country of struggle, and of noise. Boyle reminded us that Britain’s greatest moments have been those where people stand up to the powerful. By refusing to abandon their tradition at the behest of the authorities, Critical Mass, in its own small way, was continuing the legacy of those the ceremony was celebrating.
 
The athletes will return home in a few weeks, and we must think about the sort of country that will be left behind. The sanctity of the Olympics has provided the police with powers that are likely to remain long after the corporate bunting has been taken down. I choose not to see Danny Boyle’s ceremony as bread and circuses; I choose to see it as a call to arms. We must defend our freedom of expression, as those who came before us did. We must defend it because it is the only weapon we have to ensure that we, the people, can write our own history.
Police corral cyclists from Critical Mass on 27 July (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times