The mass of protesters surged forward, some of them with their faces covered, some not. Men and women of various ages, arms interlocked, a look of fierce determination.
‘We won’t fight Ukraine! We won’t fight Ukraine!’ They chanted vigorously. ‘Long live Russia!’
A block and a half away a unit of riot police in full gear, four lines deep, waited silently to stop them, their shields and batons at the ready, their faces covered by balaclavas. Behind them three vehicles with water cannons stood vigilantly along with 2 empty buses.
The march was taking place near the center of St Petersburg along a wide avenue lined with tall apartment buildings, from which balconies people looked down as they snapped photos and took videos.
The protesters kept advancing, undeterred by the riot police staring back at them.
More than a thousand men and women made up the advancing mass.
‘We won’t fight Ukraine! Long live Russia!’
Moments later the protesters came to a stop about 15 feet or so from the riot police. They continued their chanting, which grew louder and more defiant.
An officer stepped out from behind the riot police and to one side. Bull horn in hand, he said to the protesters, ‘Disband! You’re in violation of the law. This is an illegal demonstration. Disband immediately or face the consequences!’
The protesters paused for an instant before resuming their chanting. ‘We won’t fight Ukraine! Long live Russia!’
Then the officer addressed his troops. ‘Proceed to disband!’
And the troops charged the protesters, batons held up high ready to strike the defenseless men and women. And the batons came down hard on the heads and arms of the protesters.
Cries of pain filled the air as the protesters were furiously bludgeoned. A woman and a man fell to the ground from the impact of the clubs.
A woman called out, ‘Vasily!’
She broke off from her companions attempting to reach the man who’d fallen but was blocked by the riot police and shoved back.
‘Vasily!’ she cried again, frantically.
The first cry had sounded vaguely familiar to a riot policeman in the front line but now the second cry made him cringe with fear. He knew that voice. He immediately ceased swinging his baton and yelled, ‘Irina!’
The woman looked in his direction, ‘Igor!’
‘Yes!’ answered Igor with alarm.
‘Vasily went down!’ she replied, signaling to her right.
‘What?’ His face went pale.
The riot police kept pushing the protesters back.
Urgently, Igor began to move toward where Irina had signaled.
‘Vasily!’ shouted Igor loudly, in desperation, ‘Vasily!’
He was trying to wind his way through the advancing officers, but he couldn’t get through the tight formation.
Igor pressed on and reached the fallen man, then threw himself immediately over him, his fellow officers stomping on by.
Igor felt the warmth of the body that now lay under him. But was it him? He wasn’t sure. Reaching up with one hand he then pulled off his mask. And it was him. Vasily. His son.
Irina could no longer see Igor but kept moving in their direction when a club crashed hard over her head and she,too, fell to the ground.
‘Vasily! Talk to me!’ cried Igor to his son, but Vasily couldn’t answer.
The rest of the riot police had advanced past them as they pushed back the demonstrators, the vehicles with water cannons now shooting their hard streams at them.
The officer with the bull horn strode up to where Igor covered Vasily.
‘What are you doing?’ said the officer.
‘This is my son,’ said Igor as he looked up at the officer, the expression confused, bewildered, ‘My son… I thought he was at the university… I didn’t know he was with the protesters… it’s my fault…’
The officer with the bullhorn looked down at Igor.
‘You’re a police officer. Join your fellow officers. Your son will be taken care of.’
And Igor’s expression seemed to freeze.
‘I can’t… I can’t…’ answered Igor as he looked helplessly up at the officer. And then he looked to the side where just a few yards away lay the body of the woman who had called to him. It had to be Irina. He went to her and it was she. A big clot was forming on her bloodied forehead but otherwise she was conscious. She smiled at him. “How is he?’
‘I don’t know, he won’t respond,’ said Igor.
Irina’s expression changed. ‘Help me up, Igor, I need to see him… he needs me.’
And Igor started to lift her but then the commanding officer appeared again at his side.
‘We have people to do that, now join your fellow officers, we’ll take care of your son and this woman.’
And Igor stared back at the commanding officer. He called him by his first name, Ilya. ‘Ilya… I can’t… I can’t do it anymore… these are my children… I can’t do it.’
‘Join your fellow officers now!’ insisted the man, ‘or I will charge you with insubordination.’
Igor didn’t move, just stared back, puzzled.
Two medics, a man and a woman, came up to where Irina lay and started to lift her but she said, pointing in Vasily’s direction, ‘he needs more help than I do, go to him first.’
The medics ignored her, pulled her up and took her to the side of the avenue where other injured people were being gathered.
‘Stay with Vasily, Igor, please!’ were the last words he heard from her.
Igor moved back quickly to where Vasily still lay. He was unresponsive.
‘Vasily, my child, speak to me!’ cried Igor in anguish. ‘Vasily!’
The commanding officer followed Igor and stood over him. Now he was joined by two other men.
The commanding officer stared down at Igor. ‘I will have to charge you with insubordination, do you hear me, Igor?’
Igor had been on his knees, holding Vasily’s hand in his but now appeared transfixed.
‘Do you hear me?’ pressed the commanding officer.
And Igor began to shake his head slowly, horror coming over him as tears rolled down his face. He had been taking his son’s pulse and now there was no pulse.
‘Are you deaf?’ insisted the commanding officer as he hovered over Igor.
And Igor started to slowly look up at the officer, eyes wide open, glaring in disbelief.
‘Ilya… he’s dead… my son… Vasily… he’s dead.’
And the commanding officer stood up straight, aghast.
And Igor, reacting, immediately positioned himself astride his son and started to do chest compressions. And one of the other officers joined him, alternating with Igor to give mouth to mouth respirations… and two medics came to their side with a cardio converter and they tried it. And it didn’t work. So Igor and the other officers went back to compressing Vasily’s heart and breathing for him. And they tried again the heart converter. And they repeated the cycles. Again and again. And again. With no response.
The protesters had been driven back, prisoners taken while others had dispersed, yet still they chanted, ‘We won’t fight Ukraine! Long live Russia!’
From one of the balconies in an adjacent building, a woman had video recorded the entire affair. After all was over, she would upload it and it would go viral.
Igor lay a long time next to Vasily’s body, sometimes covering him with his own, sometimes simply touching his face, remembering when his son was a child, and how he liked playing checkers, and then basketball and video games, and then the guitar, and how he later enjoyed solving math problems. He was going to school to become an engineer.
He remembered that Vasily dreamed of one day visiting the West, maybe working there for a while before returning to Russia, which he loved.
But none of that would happen now, thought Igor. None of it.
Now everything was gone.
And what would he say to his mother?
Her only child.
What would he say to her?