Friday, May 11, 2007

The Softer Side of Russia

I always followed the career of Russian chessplayer Gary Kasparov with great interest. I would often get out my chessboard and replay his games, just astounded that anyone could think as precisely and as far ahead as he could.

Recently I was amazed to open up a newspaper and see a picture of Gary Kasparov being arrested. I wondered what sort of trouble a chessplayer could get into. In Russia, apparently plenty! Kasparov, I discovered, is a member of several anti-Putin opposition groups in Russia..

Omon is the special force in the Russian police that deals with riot control. In April, they came under fire for their brutality in suppressing some of the demonstrations against Putin led by Kasparov. In a desperate attempt at image control, this month they have held training events open to the media. Some of the members of Omon were even allowed to be interviewed--as long as they did not give their surnames. A description of the excercises can be read here:

These Omon guys are tough. I mean, they're really tough. How tough?

"Omon machismo dominated the show. One group displayed their strength by chopping flaming bricks in two with their bare hands. Another hardy individual performed stomach crunches on a bed of broken glass as his colleague dropped knives on to his washboard stomach."

But the riot police have a soft side as well:

"With lengthy demonstrations of Kalashnikov firing, grenade tossing and Chechen killing, the sensitive bit of the exercise seemed in danger of being drowned out.

"But then Ajax the attack alsatian appeared and Omon's cuddly side suddenly shone forth.
An officer placed a cat on the ground just yards away from the panting dog.

"If Ajax's soul was tormented by this feline temptation, it did not show. After all, this was a dog on whose shoulders lay the responsibility of reshaping Omon's battered reputation.

"To the orders of his handler, Ajax proceeded to lick and nuzzle the cat, whose expression of nonchalance only started to slip when the dog lifted it into the air in its jaws, carried it several feet and then gently placed it back on the ground.

"'You see,' said Maj Gen Alexander Ivanin, commenting through a microphone, 'our service dogs wouldn't threaten a thing.'"

And what about their brutal break ups of the peaceful protests? Total misunderstanding:

"The rally was forbidden," said Alexander, an Omon commander. "But our reaction was not aggressive. All we did was detain three or four hooligans. Our main role was actually to protect the protesters from, for example, pickpockets."

Actual number of "hooligans" detained: 170 + 1 Grandmaster. No word on how many pickpocketers were arrested.

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