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G8 Summit, St Petersburg, Russia - On the ground 2

Oscar Beard | 30.07.2006 06:43 | G8 Russia 2006 | Globalisation | Repression | London | World

“I wish you success in your professional activity and expect the world’s leading media to provide a detailed, reliable and objective coverage of events taking place in Russia’s northern capital.”

Vladimir Putin

Indeed. Unobstructed and objective journalism. After all, that is what you would expect in a democracy.

I arrived in St Petersburg around 9am on July 14. The station was swamped with police and military. I bought a map, jumped in a taxi, to get as far from the overpowering security presence as quickly as possible, and headed for the official press centre to pick up my G8 press credentials. The taxi driver ripped me off. He said 700 rubels, I bartered him down to 500, only to find out later the trip should have cost me 300 at most.

Only once I was being driven along wide streets skirted by vast canals did I notice the shoving I received from the border guards the previous night had ripped my pink and blue Hawaiian shirt.

A 15-minute ride in a high-speed boat ferried journalists to the official press centre. Security was high. Everywhere I looked were men in black, fingers in ears, holding in squawking ear pieces, and holding jackets closed against the wind so pistols in shoulder holsters were not exposed.

The press centre was a complete abuse of luxuriance. Two large fountains greeted every hack and camera-jock that entered the main entrance. G8 gift packs were handed out. Media handbooks, guides to the city, historical guides, architectural guides, videos, audio tapes, little cheap photo-frames with pictures of picturesque St. Petersburg to place on the mantelpiece. Official G8 staff handed out free blue G8 2006 raincoats. There was free food and free booze. I headed straight for the booze and took as much as I could. But there were several stern-looking men guarding the table with the free official G8 vodka. I stayed clear, took control of one terminal and started posting to Indymedia. I did it quick, figuring every terminal in the marquee was being monitored. But before I could finish a lone Russian cameraman came up and took my photograph. He smiled. I gave him the middle finger and continued writing.

Journalists from across the globe swept up whatever they could get their hands on, everything being stuffed in an official G8 baggie. It was more like a tourist expedition than a G8 summit. I began wondering what the hell we were all doing there. Reporting on the world greedhead meeting? Or just getting freebees on the 2006 St. Petersburg tour. It reminded me of far too many corporate parties I have had the misfortune of attending. 95 percent blind with small pockets of freaks huddled in the corners and looking nervously around.

More men in black patrolled the grounds. Everyone was being photographed by each other. I got paranoid and started yelled at anyone with a camera. Helicopters circled and landed behind heavily guarded steel gates, and delegates appeared, surrounded by heavily armed security. I searched my contacts in the mainstream and left as soon as possible.

The ferry broke down and journalists mumbled and scowled. I stole official bottles of G8 water, but again was unable to get anywhere near the official G8 vodka, as staff took a very dim view of my behaviour, lack of respect for no smoking areas and Vietnam veteran dress sense. I also smelled bad. Two days travelling on plane and train had taken its toll.

The ferry was finally repaired and headed across the Nevskaya Guba bay back to Morskoy Slavy sea terminal. The bay was full of battle ships and gunboats, and a second stranded ferry that had broken down on-route to the press centre.

Once back on what felt like the mainland I took the Metro over to the convergence centre at Kirova stadium, situated on the west end of a small island in the middle of the Malaya Neva estuary. Police and military were everywhere, on every street corner, outside every station, patrolling platforms and any major site in the city. Despite anything else said about Russia, the Metro system must be one of the most efficient I had ever seen. London could learn from this. There were burning temperatures outside yet the underground stations were cool and running on time.

Kirova stadium only had one entrance and exit. Through an eight-foot high steel fence that was constantly guarded by some 100 police officers. A metal detector was set up outside and everyone entering was subject to rigorous searches. The north, south and west walls of the stadium were surrounded by water. The only other way out was to swim.

I walked in to be greeted by ten police officers in blue camouflage uniforms. Two units of some 30 cops were positioned to the left and right of the one and only gate. Most sat around looking bored, but the young ones looked eager and gestured to my bags and clothing. They searched everything and I walked through the metal detector several times when they pointed in that direction and talked Russian.

The scissors from my medical kit were confiscated, and questions were raised over my European plug adapters, that could well have been bomb detonators. Although, the red mountaineering helmet with journalist scrawled in Russian across the front and back drew no concern. As one photojournalist told me, tell them it is like the police helmets, the only difference being the press helmet protects a brain.

Once inside I met with an Englishman who was living in Moscow. He introduced me to many of the different groups, the socialists, the communists and the anarchists. There were no more than 200 people in the entire stadium. We avoided the National Bolsheviks, as the Englishman explained they had heavy fascist connections and would not be happy to see an imbedded British journalist with a video camera.

The anarchists mainly consisted of a group of Russian media activists from Russia Indymedia and Front Aids, but a group of Estonian anarchists had also camped down next to them.

In the following few hours, as daylight turned into white night - where it never really gets dark, but resembles more like a total lunar eclipse of the sun and the clouds glow purple - I met people from Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and Italy.

I spoke to the Ukrainians, with the help of the Englishman translating for me. I learned that the Ukraine Orange revolution of two-years-ago had reversed. The Rightwing again controlled parliament and those I spoke to begged me to return to the Ukraine with them to uncover the mass graves of political dissidents. The authorities were hiring thugs and fascists to throw them down old mine shafts.

The night finished on a film show by the anarchists. Several films by Russia Indymedia played and several other known international movies. Every few minutes all movies were interrupted by a gust of wind that blew the screen over. People scrabbled to their feet, caught the screen before it hit the floor and devised a weighted base of old car tyres.

Scenes of Zapatistas overthrowing Mexican military posts, scenes of Genoa streets filled with 300,000 people illuminated the entire stadium and music by Asian Dub Foundation echoed around the auditorium while small silhouettes, singular and in groups of two and three, patrolled the perimeter.

Oscar Beard
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  1. Link to Front Aids — Oscar Beard