Global Politics

Russia's Blue Bucket Brigade fights official corruption

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Piotyr Shkumatov heads The Society of Blue Buckets, a group of people who are fed up with Russian motorcades and the power they represent. (Photo by Laura Lynch.)

In Moscow, opponents of Vladimir Putin haven’t given up their fight despite his resounding victory in Sunday’s presidential election.

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There’s word of another protest rally planned for Saturday. The growth of a protest movement in Moscow and other big cities took some by surprise.

But others say it all started at street level, with a few angry drivers and a few plastic blue buckets.

To drive in Moscow requires heavy doses of patience and perseverance. In rush hour it can sometimes take half an hour to travel one block. But there’s one sound certain to make disconsolate drivers feel even worse: sirens.

The sirens could mean an emergency: police, fire trucks or ambulances. But in Moscow, they might also warn of the approach of a government apparatchik – and when they come along with their blue flashing lights, they are the kings of the road.

Everyone has to get out of their way – or else.

And most obedient Muscovites do pull over. Piotyr Shkumatov, 32, found that out the hard way almost two years ago.

Shkumantov owns a battered 2005 Nissan. In April of 2010, Shkumatov was hit by a car as he was crossing the street at a crosswalk.

A sedan, fit with the blue light of a high-ranking official, had ignored a red light. He said he couldn’t find anyone to brave enough to testify and that’s when he had an awakening – he became an activist armed with a blue plastic bucket.

“It is all about fairness and justice. We follow the rules of the road and we demand that everyone else should follow them as well,” Shkumatov said.

The Society of Blue Buckets is a group of people who are fed up with motorcades and the power they represent – power and to Shkumatov, contempt. He, like the others, keeps a small blue bucket taped to the roof of his car at all times. The group lobbies for an end to the flashing blue lights, and they post videos showing dangerous driving by the men in the dark sedans. And some of them now even refuse to pull over when the lights start flashing behind them. When he started, Shkumatov said he got pulled over all the time.

“When we started we had serious problems with the police. But for the last year or so, a lot of the policemen are starting to support us and see us as a force that strives for justice,” he said.

Shkumatov has become almost obsessed with challenging authority. He quit his well paid job in Internet marketing and now goes to court to help others facing unfair traffic charges. His activism has now also spread to politics.

Driving through Moscow in his Nissan, a radio station called him, asking for an interview about the election results. He pulled over to the side of the road to offer his views.

The Blue Buckets may be among the first of citizens groups formed to challenge those in power and they still only number about three thousand active members. But Shkumatov said it was just the start of a change in people’s attitudes.

“In 2008 movements like ours didn’t exist,” Shkumatov said. “In 2010 they were just in their infancy when the “blue buckets” appeared. But now the people who want change have become a group of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. We are clearly giving birth to a new movement and it’s obvious that this will only grow in the years to come.”

But grow into what?

Shkumatov admits he has no idea what will happen in coming days and months for a protest movement that is still without an official leader or a party. For the time being, he vows to work even harder to help people who face injustice.

Saying goodbye, he poses for a moment beside his blue bucket for a photo. After getting back into his car, he waits patiently to work his way back into traffic, crawling along. Slow maybe, but determined to make a difference.

As one passerby mentioned, just the simple fact that the Blue Buckets show initiative, they’re not just complaining but doing something to bring about change, is bringing Muscovites together.