According to the students, Ross Medico and Chris Cloonan, Russian police detained dozens. But because they carried American passports, they said they avoided the same fate by minutes.
The demonstration was led by anti-government group Strategy-31, a group of Russian opposition leaders who assemble on the 31st of every month in reference to the 31st Article of the Russian Constitution, freedom of assembly.
Medico and Cloonan, both political science majors, are studying abroad in Russia, where they discovered Strategy-31 was holding the latest in their series of protests. Locals advised the students not to attend the potentially dangerous protest – but they didn't want to miss out on an opportunity to understand Russian politics.
Before attending the protest in Triumph Square, the students said they were excited to go on an adventure. But when they walked out of the nearest metro station and saw what they described as the largest police presence they have seen in their month of living in Russia, they knew this was a serious situation.
“You couldn’t observe [the protest] from a distance,” said Medico, who is from Bellmore. “Trunks were surrounding the perimeter as an attempt to control.”
During the protest, Medico and Cloonan said not being able to speak Russian made the situation difficult. They did not know what the protesters' signs said or what they were chanting. But some Russian citizens participating in the protest were able to translate for them: “Putin is an extremist,” “freedom,” and “put Putin in a Siberian prison” were some of the messages.
Previous Strategy-31 protests have been broken up within 20 minutes, but this particular protest was among the longest the opposition group has experienced. Medico and Cloonan said it seemed the protesters and the police were taking a peaceful approach, but MSN reported about two hours into the demonstration, they said, the protesters began marching to the Kremlin.
The students said police then created a blockade and attempted to prevent the protesters from doing so. Medico and Cloonan said they knew the police were able to step in and decided it was time to get out, or get detained.
“We tried to get out by one side and the police did not let us through,” said Cloonan, who is from Coram.
They decided to try to leave from the opposite side of the blockade, where Medico showed the police his American passport and told them they were American tourists. They were able to leave the scene.
“If we did get arrested," Medico said, "we would have been arrested for being protesters, not American tourists."