Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Day of Roses

Today as I walked to the university, the whole square and road in front of the university was blocked and surrounded by police officers (the square in the city, known as the Pagoda, is the main square in the city.

I had no idea why and when I asked a few people in the teacher's lounge, they were also uncertain so I continued on with my day as normal though I had a bit of worry in the back of my mind.  Saturday, during the Day of the City, one of my Russian students/friends was supposed to meet up with me and we were going to check out the city and see what was happening.  Yet instead of hanging out in the city, my friend messaged me, telling me it was probably safer if we didn't do any walking around and just stayed home.  He had come to school the previous day a little worse for the wear so I assumed the same had happened on Friday night and he simply wasn't feeling up to moving much.  So I ended up meeting up with a few other teachers later on in the day, watching the parade and the concert and thinking nothing of it.

However, come Monday my friend tells me the reason he didn't want to walk around.  He had heard a coffin full of roses (with a note saying the number of roses represented the number of people that were going to be killed on that day) had been placed at a prominent location in the city (he didn't know where, it was all hearsay and even he, more or less, didn't believe the rumor of the coffin was true).  So to be on the safe side, rumors or not, my friend decided it best for him and the foreigner to stay home.

Anyways, as I said, there were lots of police today in the square and while I didn't worry much, I didn't think much of it either and went about my day as normal.  I ended up leaving the university at around 7 and when I left the police were gone, but there was a trail of red flowers (some roses) down the middle of the road in front of the university and this, to be honest, spooked me a little.  I had no idea what it meant.

Finally, I asked one of my students through vkontakte (Russia's version of facebook) and learned that in 2004 there had been a mass protest against Kalmykia's current president: Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (currently serving his 4th term and has said he will not return for a 5th).  Let me give you, Dear Readers, a little background information on Mr. Ilyumzhinov, courtesy of Wikipedia.  Like many after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kirsan was president of the SAN Corporation (researched this, but can't seem to find much info on what it is) and made quite a bit of money since, according to Wikipedia, he has a private jet, 6 Rolls-Royces and two personal limousines, not too shabby!  He has been running Kalmykia since 1993 and is responsible for Elista being the chess capital of the world (he IS the president of the World Chess Federation after all) as well as the construction of it's gorgeous temple, which has prompted two visits from the Dalai Lama.  He, apparently, also claims to have been abducted by aliens. He has currently built Elista in the city it is today with its Chess city and amazing Buddhist temples and is quite popular among the locals.

Anyways, regardless of what he is or isn't, if you're in power anywhere, it's inevitable that some people aren't going to like you.  As a result of this, in 2004 there was a small demonstration with anywhere from 700 to "thousands" of people in front of the university, asking for Ilyumzhinov's resignation.  What happened next is a little hazy.  I researched as best I could, but couldn't find much information.  There were a few different scenarios described and everything from many people were brutally beat by police, that nothing much happened and one article that seemed to say that just a few people were arrested and it wasn't a big deal.  What does seem to be clear in most of the articles I read, however, is that one person at the protest was killed and the flowers on the ground were in memoriam of this person and the events that happened here in 2004.  

Anyways, Dear Readers, I find it all very interesting and am saddened that such things happen, whether here in Russia or Myanmar or in Darfur, people dying unnecessarily is always a hard thing to grasp.

*Update, this was written on September 21, but the following day (22/09/10) there was an actual protest against President Ilyumzhinov, which my Russian colleagues found pointless since he is leaving office in a month anyhow.  It wasn't much of a protest either; it looked like maybe 15-20 people.*

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