x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Beatles song lands Russian rebel in jail

Officials take a dim view after opposition politician Roman Dobrokhotov appears to provoke police into making arrests.

MOSCOW // It was a seemingly innocuous performance of the Beatles' Yellow Submarine, boisterous and somewhat dissonant, that landed Roman Dobrokhotov and his guitar in a Moscow jail cell on a recent Monday evening. Mr Dobrokhotov, 26, had chosen as his stage the central Moscow square outside the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, where dozens of his fellow political opposition activists were holding an unsanctioned rally against what they call the government's consistent betrayal of their constitutional right to freedom of assembly.

That he and his group of singers maintained, with straight faces, that they were not involved in the protest made little difference to the three riot police officers who lifted Mr Dobrokhotov completely off the ground and hauled him into a nearby police van. Avoiding a short jail stint on a charge that he resisted arrest may require the intervention of Vladimir Putin, Mr Dobrokhotov wryly suggested. The Russian prime minister, after all, has made no secret of his affinity for the Fab Four, even sitting front and centre for a Paul McCartney concert on Red Square several years ago.

"Maybe Putin needs to have his friend Paul McCartney explain to him that there's nothing illegal about singing Yellow Submarine," Mr Dobrokhotov said in an interview two days before his scheduled court date. He said he will not appear in court unless he receives a summons. It was a typical stunt for Mr Dobrokhotov, who has built a reputation as the Merry Prankster of Russia's marginalised and disorganised liberal opposition, which accuses the Kremlin of stifling democracy and is portrayed by pro-government forces as a fifth column and devoid of constructive ideas.

With Kremlin-friendly national media rarely, if ever, giving a platform to harsh critics of Russia's ruling elite, Mr Dobrokhotov and members of "We", the small political youth group he heads, have turned to guerrilla theatre, dreaming up and executing ironic - and often ridiculous - capers to lampoon authorities. Part performance art, part stand-up comedy and part political statement, their escapades - such as the Yellow Submarine stunt - appear largely aimed at provoking police to arrest them for entirely legal, and even patriotic, behaviour.

Mr Dobrokhotov, the son of a philosophy professor and an engineer, cited Mr Putin's favourite sport, judo, as an analogy for the strategy behind his political antics. "The main rule of judo is to use your opponent's momentum against him," Mr Dobrokhotov said. "We try to illustrate, in a very simple fashion, the pointlessness of a totalitarian system, the pointlessness of its violence." Moscow City Hall has repeatedly denied permission for opposition groups to hold anti-government rallies over the past four years, and riot police have on several occasions violently quashed unsanctioned demonstrations in which police far outnumber protesters.

Playing on the wariness of police regarding any form of political protest, Mr Dobrokhotov and several of his fellow activists in January stood several hundred metres from the Russian government building with tape over their mouths and holding blank white signs. Although they made a point of making no political statements - verbal or written - they were nonetheless detained by police, with Mr Dobrokhotov eventually receiving a five-day sentence for cursing at police.

In one stunt in 2006, he and his group attempted to deliver several "suspicious" large stones to Russia's Federal Security Service, the main successor agency to the KGB, after the agency claimed to have cracked a British spy ring that used a secret rock containing electronic devices to communicate. "Of course police stopped us well before we got to their headquarters carrying these big rocks," Mr Dobrokhotov said.

Moscow police know him well and often seem to have information about when and where his group's events are planned. "I presume they are either reading our e-mails or listening to our phones," he said. With such a small number of active opposition activists and even less access to the national media, Mr Dobrokhotov and his group rely largely on the internet to create a buzz over their pranks. "We live in an information age, where it's not necessarily as important to gather a bunch of people on the street, but rather to be colourful and different ? so that bloggers talk about your demonstration and circulate videos on the internet," he said. "A demonstration with 2,000 participants on the street, for example, can go almost completely unnoticed if it's boring."

While most of the stunts spearheaded by Mr Dobrokhotov are the result of coffee house brainstorming with his fellow activists, his most famous performance was a spontaneous outburst in December at a speech by Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, dedicated to Constitution Day, a national holiday. The speech came as Mr Medvedev was leading a drive to change the Russian constitution to extend presidential terms to six years from four, a measure many believe is meant to pave the way for Mr Putin's return to the Kremlin in 2012 and another 12 years in office.

Mr Dobrokhotov had managed to get his hands on a ticket. He said he was not planning any trouble. But at one point during the speech, he started heckling Mr Medvedev, calling the amendments "shameful", before he was wrestled from his seat by the presidential secret service and escorted out of the auditorium. "I just lost my patience," he said. Mr Medvedev's request to let the young man stay ("To be honest, the purpose of the constitution is to allow everyone to voice his opinion") went unheeded by the men charged with protecting the president.

It was a rare unscripted moment in Russia's carefully scripted political life, and while footage of the incident did not make the national television news that evening, it was shown on a local television station in St Petersburg, Russia's second city. Mr Dobrokhotov is finishing his doctoral dissertation at Moscow's Higher School of Economics as well as attempting to get on the ballot as an independent candidate in the Moscow city legislature elections, which are slated for next month.

He said, however, that he does not really think of himself as a politician. "I just want to be able to tell my grandkids that I did everything I could, that it's not my fault that the situation is like this." cschreck@thenational.ae