Following the Russian march

Posted by Brian Blickenstaff
© Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/GettyImages

Today’s march was supposed to be peaceful. The Russian fans were supposed to be secure as they marched across the river -- in honor of the 20th anniversary of Russia Day, a calendar mark to celebrate independence from the former Soviet Union -- to Warsaw's National Stadium, where their national team would take on Poland. This was assured by the mayor and reinforced by police spokesmen during daily press briefings. They told us about the 5,000 CCTV cameras positioned around Warsaw, the constant police patrols and the checkpoints. Mayor Hannah Gronkiewicz-Waltz said she would personally be in the fan zone’s crisis management center.


But no one really believed it would be peaceful. After all, there’s too much tension between the Poles and the Russians.


Today I asked a woman named Karolina about the two nations and their fraught relations. “History comes back,” she said. What history?


Look it up. It’s there. Put 1945 into Google. Try 1939. The Polish-Soviet war took place from 1919-1921. Don’t forget the war of 1792. In 2010, the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, died when his plane crashed in Russia. He was traveling to the site of the Soviet massacre. The victims? Poles.


The people here recited these dates to me. They rattled off the dates. They had them memorized. They’re not historians, they’re Polish.


So when I decided to go to the Russian rally, scheduled for today at 5 p.m. local time, I had a bad feeling.


History comes back.


---


Things started out peacefully enough -- just a lot of people drinking. No big deal. When I got there at exactly 4:34, the fans seemed relaxed. The Russian supporters stood on one side of the street, Polish supporters on the other.


The police seemed relaxed, too -- as relaxed as people can seem in body armor anyway. At 4:37, I made a note about how many police they were still trucking in. Hundreds, probably even thousands. The place seemed safe. What can go wrong with so many police around?


I asked a 23-year-old sociology student named Lukasz if he thought anything would happen. He said no, but then shrugged and said, “There are idiots among every nationality.” I guess that’s all it takes: a couple of idiots.


At 5:09, I noted that the groups were separated. They’d grown in size by then and were yelling chants back and forth, but down the middle of the street, in the space usually occupied by the trams, the police had parked a line of vans. On each side of the vans, between the vehicles and the two groups of supporters, a line of officers stood watching. Most of them held shotguns.


But here’s the thing. That line of vans? It was only 10 -- maybe 12 -- vehicles, and those vans were the only thing separating the two groups. The rest of Jerozolimskie Street was unsegregated. Patrolled, yes, but all you had to do to get around the vans was walk further down the road.


At 5:17, I began to hear fireworks and started to wonder. At 5:26, I saw the first skirmish. I don’t recall who did what to whom, only that suddenly we were all running. I ran toward the ledges in front of the Polish Army Museum (I was using their Wi-Fi) and when I looked across the street, I saw people throwing flares at other people. I saw some people swinging, others ducking. Yet, I witnessed no police response.


Then things settled down. The Russian supporters began to march across the river. You might even say things became a bit festive. I snapped a picture of a guy in a Darth Vader costume, even playing photographer for a passing family of four.


I got up to leave. I had things to do. I hadn’t eaten dinner. I had a blog post to write. But then I had to run again. Something was happening a little bit behind me, to my right. Somebody screamed. I turned and saw six or seven men swinging on two guys: red shirts on blue shirts. The blue shirts did what they could, but it was clear they couldn’t do much. One blue shirt went down on the tram tracks. They kicked him in the head. They stomped on his body.


And then they were gone.


The man in the blue shirt didn’t go, however. He stayed right there, blood pouring from his head. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t moving. He didn’t move again until 6:05, when paramedics loaded him into an ambulance. A phalanx of officers had surrounded the medics and the man, but after they took him away, the police walked back down the street, away from the bridge. The bridge was the bottleneck. They should have gone to the bridge.


Not long after they left, I heard a yell. It came from the bridge. A bunch of people were running -- 100? 200? It’s hard to say. They charged -- there’s no other word for it -- like medieval infantrymen but armed with flares instead of swords. More beatings. More kicks to heads. I held my vantage point on the ledge of the Polish Army Museum and watched it all.


The strange part was that the fans never stopped coming. They never stopped walking toward the bridge. Was this normal for them? I don’t know. It wasn’t normal for me.


At about 6:50, I could no longer see any police. They’d left. I did see plenty of red and white shirts, though. They moved toward the bridge, together. Nobody was there to keep them apart.


It was time for me to go.


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