Russia: Zombies Versus the State in Omsk

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

Early last Sunday morning (19 August, 2012) in the city of Omsk, Russia, a few hundred young people gathered together at the Irtyshskaia Embankment and held a hastily organized flashmob. Police were on hand to warn everyone that they represented an illegal assembly, and could be charged with breaking the law.

Why did roughly 300 of Omsk's citizens come out into the street on a Sunday morning? The answer to that question is the “Zombie Parade”: the city's first attempted ‘walk of the living dead.’

The Parade is the brainchild of 25-year-old photographer Mikhail Yakovlev [ru], who first blogged [ru] about the idea earlier this summer, after Omsk held its first ‘sky lantern’ lighting on June 16. Yakovlev's initiative fits into a wider campaign supported by public figures like Maksim Kats and Ilya Varlamov, who have also stressed the need for new, more creative celebrations that fill a void left by Soviet holidays (a vacuum that especially affects Russia's younger generations).

Zombie Parade, Omsk, Russia, 19 August 2012, screenshot from YouTube eye witness video.

Yakovlev tried to register the Zombie Parade with the government, and initially received permission to organize the march, though the city quickly withdrew the permit, allegedly [ru] after pressure from civic groups and religious authorities.

In the media and online, rumor has it that the local Russian Orthodox diocese objected to the parade on the grounds that “raising the dead” is un-Christian and potential disturbing to bystanders. The city's Muslim representatives apparently argued that the event conflicted with the spirit of the Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr holidays.

Meanwhile, a group called “Parental Control” is said to have warned [ru] that the Parade might increase crime by attracting so many young people to one area. (Parental Control, incidentally, is the same organization that recently petitioned the city of St. Petersburg to sue Madonna for violating the town's ban on “homosexual propaganda” [sic] in her latest tour.) Other civic groups apparently complained that the sight of zombies on the streets of Omsk could “permanently traumatize” children and the elderly.

Yakovlev, for his part, has kept his sights aimed squarely at the state, arguing [ru] that his only concern is the legality of the permit issue:

я же буду не на РПЦ писать и мусульман. А на администрацию САО, т.к. они в ОФИЦИАЛЬНОМ ответе написали такую хрень и чущь. Вы не забывайте, что они там ни слова не написали про письма и возмущения вышеуказаннх лиц.

I'm not going to write to the Orthodox Church or the Muslims, but to the Northern Administrative Okrug because they OFFICIALLY wrote such crap and nonsense in their [rejection]. And don't you forget that there's not a word in their [rejection] about any letter or concerns from [the Church or others].

Yakovlev has also been keen to point out his respect for Omsk's various faiths, declaring that he would never have advocated the Parade, if he considered it an affront to any religion. Perhaps distancing himself from the antics of the now world-famous Pussy Riot prisoners, he defended [ru] the zombie march on the grounds that it would take place far from any houses of worship and nowhere near sacred ground.

When Omsk's authorities revoked the permit, it seemed as if the parade would be canceled. Yakovlev called it off, and publicly absolved himself of organizational responsibility. Then, apparently without Yakovlev's involvement, a group [ru] emerged on the Russian social network Vkontakte, announcing that the Zombie Parade would proceed, after all, albeit at a new location.

On August 19, Yakovlev attended the now unsanctioned, flashmob stand-in for what would have been his approved zombie march. He claimed to be there as a photographer — not as an organizer or participant. (Indeed, Yakovlev wore neither makeup nor zombie-like clothing.) Nevertheless, a police officer informed him that the gathering was unlawful, and that he would be considered its organizer if they decided to intervene. Shortly after learning (and laughing incredulously at) this announcement, Yakovlev left to return home, calling loudly on everyone to disperse. (People did begin to leave, though they generally did so together, transforming what was a standing crowd into a moving march.)

Suspicious concerned citizen, Omsk, Russia, 19 August 2012, screenshot from eye witness YouTube Video.

Before Yakovlev's exit, there was a curious episode involving what most assume [ru] to have been a plainclothes policeman. At one point, a large man approached the crowd with his daughter in tow. After angrily insulting Yakovlev (not without some unsubtle obscenities), the man proclaimed that he would be filing with the police a complaint that the Zombie Parade was having a traumatic effect on his daughter.

Video footage of this moment and briefly afterwards, however, shows the young girl smiling and, at one point, actually playing happily with one “zombie's” pet rabbit, which he brought to the march on a leash.

Several other “concerned citizens” also emerged in strange fashion, leading many local bloggers and journalists to suspect that these people were “planted” by the police, presumably in order to charge Yavkovlev with inciting either an illegal rally or mass public indecency. (This latter charge is how Moscow law enforcement agents penalized [ru] a Zombie Parade in May 2011.)

These suspicions were reinforced minutes later, when Yakovlev was detained forcibly from inside his car, with the help of four plainclothes police officers, including the father mentioned above. In fact, that same foulmouthed large man would soon threaten to “bash in the head” of a cameraman filming the scene.

This video shows footage of the march before, during, and after, uploaded to YouTube by user  on August 19:

In a LiveJournal post [ru] later that night, Yakovlev refused again to make the issue about religious tensions, instead attacking the state for ignoring the country's youth and stifling its creativity. If the government fails to offer fun and entertainment (namely, if it has no meaningful holidays), then teens and twenty-somethings will either find it elsewhere or demand it somehow, he explained. “Of course, if there's nothing for us to do,” Yakovlev continued, “young people will go out into the street and take part in protest rallies.”

As a matter of fact, Yakovlev helped organize some of Omsk's December 2011 demonstrations against the parliamentary election results. This history, one assumes, has played a role in how the police have treated him.

Where then does the Zombie Parade belong in the story of modern Russian society? Was this simply an administrative slip-up? (Yakovlev himself wonders if he should have applied for a permit under a city ordinance for cultural events [ru], rather than the federal law on political rallies.) Or was this another instance, perhaps like the Pussy Riot trial, of religious institutions exerting their influence to curtail the observation of free speech?

And maybe Yakovlev is right, and this is evidence of the state's insecurity about its “monopoly on the holidays.” In the days of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party's “monopoly on truth” was a pillar of the political system. When that component vanished, the country's stability went with it. While a monopoly “on the holidays” seems trifling in comparison to the claims of Marxist Leninism, it does speak volumes about the bonds between the state and society in Russia. Distrust and fear remain key features in that relationship, then and now.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.


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