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G8 Summit, St Petersburg, Russia - On the ground 1

Oscar Beard | 27.07.2006 12:09 | G8 Russia 2006 | Globalisation | Repression | London | World

From London to Riga to St Petersburg, the first part of Oscar Beard's eye witness reports from the 2006 Russian G8 Summit.

Many major crimes go unnoticed on the streets of Saint Petersburg, from petty crime, usually directed at tourists - anyone with a nice mobile phone or other technology that can quickly be sold on the black market - to trumped up charges by Russian authorities against activists and protestors who dared oppose globalisation or Russian premiere Vladimir Putin.

For those crimes that are actually recorded the police do nothing, the common consensus of Russian civilians being they, the police, are paid off, bought out, touchable - on the pay roll of the Russian Mafia who control everything from street robberies, drugs and guns, to the oil and telecommunication industries.

In the weeks leading up to the 2006 G8 summit President Putin proudly declared Russia a free and democratic state where democracy thrived and every Russian was as happy as Larry. But as those words found their way through that sinister smile of the ex-KGB mobster operation “Covering Force” was under way.

Hundreds of leftwing activists were being rounded up and imprisoned. Others were told not to travel. International activists were pulled from trains and arrested. Other activists and journalists received visits to their homes by security thugs who leaned on them and their families.

Leftwing youth leader Roman Burlak had his passport stolen and was accused of planting a suspected explosive device in his train cabin. Others just simply disappeared completely according to journalist Boris Kagarlitsky.

So there was only one thing for this journalist to do, despite the idea being called a suicide mission by various journalists and activists. Some put it bluntly: “You’re going to die,” they said. I hopped a plane to Riga in Latvia and caught the night train to St. Petersburg.

From the outset the trip was totally doomed. After no sleep in two days, running round for funds saw to that, I woke late to meet the photojournalist who was kind enough to lend me some cash.

“Don’t get killed out there,” he said as he passed me the cash, “I need that money back.”

I gathered supplies from various shops and press agencies that I could scrounge from and headed to Gatwick airport. There, as I tried to organise my life with scraps of paper, scrawled notes and a mobile phone, two Italians bought me beer and recounted their time on the streets of Genoa in 2001, when police attacked demonstrators with tear gas, batons and live fire, leaving hundreds seriously injured and one man, Carlo Giuliani, dead from a gun shot wound to the head.

Once in Riga, I did what anyone in my situation would do. I headed for the nearest bar and started drinking. I planned to catch the overnight train to St Petersburg. And there was no way I was going to do it sober. The border would be the first test, especially if the slowly rising evidence of G8 blacklists supplied by supporting countries held true. No, this trip needed some Dutch courage. And by 7.30pm I was chock full of that.

Around midnight the train stopped, border guards appeared at my cabin door, checked my passport and scanned it with an ultraviolet machine. It went quick and smooth. I sat back and began to relax. Maybe this gig wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Maybe I had misjudged the situation.

Some hours later, just as I got my head down for some sleep, there was a knock at the cabin door. The train guard said, “border”.

“Another?” I said.

Only then did I realise the first border was Estonia. Now it was Russian’s turn.

The train screeched metal on metal and came to an abrupt halt. In minutes a fat General type walked past my door. He stopped, looked me over intently, then carried on. Two Russian border guards appeared. They checked my passport and visa. Then called in more guards to check and double-check. One female guard held a large red book labelled A to Z. She flicked through, coming to “B”, my surname initial. Her finger panned across several pages then stopped. They spoke Russian quietly, looked at me, talked more, then left with my passport. The beer was still swilling in my head. The cabin was hot, like a sauna without the white towels. It was the only cabin in the entire train that had the window welded shut.

Remain calm I thought. Show no fear. They live on fear. Any panic would be seen as admonition of guilt. And I would be taken from the train and dumped into a prison cell in the middle of nowhere somewhere on the eastern border. Outside I could hear dogs barking. Big dogs.

Another female guard appeared. She looked like a member of the 1980 Russian Olympic female swimming team, thick, tough and high on racehorse steroids. She gestured me to stand and said something harsh in Russian. I stood up. She shoved me out the way and began scouring the cabin. She left without saying a word and immediately another guard appeared. He said “stand” in English. I did. He shoved me out the way and began searching the cabin. Probing the dark corners and recesses. He told me to open my bags. I did and he checked them, then left saying nothing.

More border guards appeared. One started talking English to me. He asked who I was, where I was going, why I was in Russia. I told him. He asked for proof I was a journalist. I showed him my UK press card and the cover note I managed to coerce out of a UK news agency.

My passport was scanned again and again. The English speaking guard started asking serious questions. It must be a tough life being a journalist. Yes. What sort of journalism do you do? Everything. You must see a lot. Yes. Are you are activist? No. Anti-globalist? No? Things were written down and the other guards talked quietly to each other in Russian, glancing up at me every now and again.

This whole scene went on for some 30 minutes. Finally they gave me my passport and left, apologising for the inconvenience: “But you must understand the security,” said the English speaking guard. Completely, I agreed.

When they left I started breathing again. The train moved off into Russian territory. Ten minutes later two armed guards passed my cabin and gave me the once over. I gave up and slept.

Oscar Beard
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