A First-Hand Account of the Recent Demonstrations and Arrests in Moscow from a Young Russian Woman

A First-Hand Account of the Recent Demonstrations and Arrests in Moscow from a Young Russian Woman by Natasha Chertenkova for Russia-Insider

On July 27th, at around 2pm, a wave of protesters flooded Tverskaya street in central Moscow to peacefully protest unfair election rules imposed by the current administration — that are practically stifling any public attempts to express opposition or to practice the all-important democratic concept of political pluralism. Under current law, a would-be candidate for a seat in the Moscow City Duma is required to collect 3,000 petition signatures from the district he represents. Taking into account the general public’s overall distrust of anything related to politics, regardless of whether they’re interested in ‘change’ or not, this task becomes borderline impossible if you were planning to run a fair campaign.

This protest had been branded as illegal before it took place and police warned people against participation, claiming they would see to it that it was dispersed at any cost. The police began preparations for the protest a few hours in advance, setting up fences and parking buses and police vans along the sidewalk to prevent anyone from escaping or entering in any way but through the use of the designated exit and entry points at several locations along the street.

According to the July 26th issue of RBK, tensions had escalated among the supporters of the ‘unregistered’ opposition representatives and of fair elections as such, when police units raided said opposition candidates’ homes and those of their relatives on Wednesday night. According to an FBR source, the goal of these searches had been to dig up evidence about collusion with foreign officials. In addition, they were looking for evidence that would prove them guilty of planning for the upcoming protest.

Alexei Navalny urged supporters to take part a week in advance and the police was quick to warn anyone eager against participation: regardless of whether you’re a journalist or a civilian, they’ll get you if you get in their way. Earlier this week, Navalny himself was put under arrest and sentenced to a 30-day jail term for his vocal instigations, so he could not be present at the rally.

Somehow, the information I got prior to the event and the general tension leading up to it led me to expect something ‘bigger’ than the Bolotnoya Square Case, when over 400 protesters were seized, 30 of which were subsequently officially accused, with many of the participants who had been spared indictment fleeing the country. These expectations were echoed by a lot of those present.

For this reason, the whole affair seemed rather bleak at the start, right after the barricades were in place and anyone entering the zone via guarded gaps in the fence had their bags checked by the nervous-looking police officers. Flocks of unsuspecting tourists were shuffling about, some entirely oblivious, others mildly concerned. Some ordinary civilians trying to enjoy the hot Saturday afternoon with their families just frowned upon the whole situation and sped up in search of a more family-friendly location to get sunburnt in. Proper journalists were claiming their MFA-issued media credentials, those from more obscure organizations were simply getting in position, finding their people, and making sure their cameras were in working order. Some guy wearing a hard-hat was mounted on a construction crane just above the Yuri Dolgoruky Monument (which got covered up by a construction net and was securely fenced in) and was fiddling with a drone that had been circling above the street. Anyway, everything always starts slow, even a thunderstorm is known take its time.

It looked quite foolish, to be honest, the gathering crowd shifting in unison from one foot to the other; people were just looking around and pointing their cameras at nothing in particular, just in case. Someone has to take the first step for the floodgates of courage to open. At that point, the people were still relatively dispersed, giving the first speaker — a grey-haired man with a clumsy banner — the chance to climb onto an elevated flower-bed and claim his minute of fame before being dragged down by the police: if the crowd could spot him, so could they.

A shark only needs a whiff of blood to get its appetite going and this first conquest led to a rise in overall appetite — both that of the protesters and of the police. The people suddenly pulled from the opposing ends of the street, sensing that this – the spot just opposite the Mayor’s Office – was the place where all the action was at. And truly, in the next twenty to thirty minutes, 22 arrestees had been shoved into a police van, really stretching its capacity. After that it all became a jumble. One after another the police was dragging, shoving, accompanying and even carrying people into vans.

One of the first victims of this siege was a very vocal old man, going out of his way to voice everything he believed Putin embodied as a personality.

“Putin is a thief,” he shouted from behind the barred windows of the police van. This was later to become one of the favored chants of the procession. “If you see Putin, leave him alone, he is mine!”

Soon after, a middle-aged woman got shoved into the van, while screaming that “Russia will be free!”

Upon having the door slammed after her, she had to carry on her predictions from the windows, just like the other guy. This is where he convinced her to change her slogan from «Russia will be free» to “Russia without Putin!” through an argument that kept consistently in line with the rest of his utterances: “Russia will not be free while Putin is in it!”

It was impossible to stay near the van for long. Not so much because voices over loudspeakers kept on warning people to stop loitering and move on down the street, as because it just grew old, it was time to see what was happening in other areas. The hunt was on, that much was sure, the number of detainees was rising swiftly, it felt a bit as if the police was trying to live up to the «bigger than Bolotnaya Square» expectations. The most recent numbers show that 1373 have been arrested, which would mean they’ve outdone the May 2012 affair by more than threefold.

With the increased appetite for blood and violence came the increased macho-ness of the police force; they started actively charging into the crowd, —  though at first, they were mostly walking through in single file, like some twisted choo-choo train procession — pushing protesters out of the way or at least attempting to do so. It felt like watching a war with no tactic unfold; or a bar brawl gone too far. There was one big burly fellow, the kind you look at and automatically get the ‘pig’ reference, who seemed to be in charge, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, whilst most of the others on the force had the look of young men without a direction in life who had been given a temporary sense of such and had taken it on without really believing in the cause. Hell, one of them (allegedly, a police photographer) got beat up by his own men because he was out of uniform! In their eyes you could see the empty look of people performing their duty and nothing else: this expression and general vibe translated onto their faces and their limbs, that moved awkwardly as they beat up and seized pretty much anyone who was unlucky enough to stand in their way.

As the police source in the RBK newspaper promised, even journalists were not guaranteed safety — ironically enough, one of RBK’s very own correspondents was assaulted at some point. Eventually the protest that started off on a pretty benevolent, albeit slightly tense note evolved into a spectacle from civic hell — cops bashing anyone or anything that came into sight with their batons, dogs squealing (you can surely tell a situation has gotten out of hand when even police dogs start to get nervous), trash cans being hauled at the police (a very blatant reference to the Russian slang term for police that translates literally into English as «garbage»), anti-Putin chants echoing through the streets.

If Putin’s approval rating was at around 66% before this, one can only wonder what it will be after this. Unless he delivers another Crimea performance or the polls get rigged, there are few chances the trend will be positive.

“All this violence and confusion and madness… and for what?” asked a man who was clearly not impressed by the rally seen as the Okhotny Ryad metro station had been blocked and he was forced to walk an extra kilometer or so to board a train.

Well, there are many reasons why the situation in big city politics in Russia would piss people off. Sure, Putin has done tremendous things for the country, you can’t help but respect him for rebuilding something that was so rotten at its foundations that the latter were practically non-existent. Yeltsin sold out, Putin reclaimed and mended pretty much everything that his predecessor had botched and basically made Russia the developed country that it is today. But the Russian public has been — with the rise of globalization and the effects that mass and social media in this modern world have on overall mentality — collectively striving for this Western model of democracy. We have sushi and McDonalds now, but what about democracy? What about political pluralism and the freedom of press and voicing opposition? What about our constitutional rights?

“We’ve historically been a nation ruled by autocratic leaders,” said my metro-faring companion. “All these people out there, they’re mostly rich bastards with too much time on their hands; and when you have so much time, you’re bound to get crazy ideas. Intellectuals! Who don’t know a thing about history! We had Stalin, we had Brezhnev, the Romanovs… autocratic, oppositionless! We don’t need democracy, we wouldn’t know how to handle it”.

Perhaps he’s right, I’m not jumping to hasty conclusions on matters of such broad context, historical, social and/or psychological. But, whether we are as people addicted to autocracy or not, the fact remains that we get ideas, be it from the web, or from western press, or from literature, both foreign and native — and each idea has two sides to it, like any coin. It just so happens to be that when you don’t have something that many other ‘free’ people have, you tend to pay attention to the plus side of having it. The grass is greener on the other side precisely because when you look at someone enjoying something you lack, you oftentimes forget the basic fact that people are inherently different, that just because something works for one it won’t necessarily work for another. And sure, we’ve had Stalin and Brezhnev and the Romanovs, as this man was quick to point out, but we’ve also had Bulavin and his Cossacks; the Decembrist; the Bolsheviks! All those opposition groups had ideas too, opposition is nothing new or unnatural even, or especially not in Russia, which has always been subjected to the rule of the few who clearly didn’t always show much concern for the opinion of the many. And sure, those thoughts mostly materialized from the heads of the wealthy and educated radicals – who were especially successful if they had a stake in some sort of publishing organization – but they mostly reflected the society’s positions, even if the broader public didn’t always have the courage to vocally support them and stand up for the cause out of fear of what awaited them in case of failure.

We’re addicted to novelty, if our feed on Youtube or Instagram or Twitter didn’t update regularly, we would hardly be interested. It’s not that Putin has messed up the country — sure, he, for example, raised the retirement age which was a real bummer that saw his approval rating plummeting and sure, he’s been doing a lot of questionable things to make sure he stays in power. It’s that modern society cannot deal with seeing the same face in power for almost 20 years without suspecting they’re living in some sort of nightmarish tyrannical state. And nowadays tyranny and autocracy both rhyme with North Korea in the associative realm.

And it’s not just the younger generation or the intelligentsia with their surplus of free time and their bright ideas that are getting restless, it’s also the people who want a go at the power game — the opposition that gets so masterfully shot down (sometimes literally, if you remember Nemtsov) every time they attempt to put their foot in the door or point out the current administration’s misdoings. It’s not about Putin being bad at his job, it’s about democracy. Sure, we had Medvedev for four years for a change but that was a joke that no one took too well: some found it insensitive, others laughed openly; some failed to see what was so funny and others made memes about it to consolidate the joke and perhaps explain it.

Whatever comes out of this peaceful protest gone sour is hardly going to look good for the ruling party. This was yet another precedent, much more intense than Bolotnaya Square; the loudest precedent so far. This was a revival of the riot era (2012-2013) and this time it’s getting much more global attention. Already, the New York Times, CBS, the Washington Post, BBC and even Time magazine are portraying the events of this past day as a bloodbath in the center of Moscow, commenting on the mass arrests and violence and other instances of humanitarian madness getting out of hand. The pressure is on now, not just from the Russian people, but also from foreign mainstream media outlets. Which way will the Caesar’s thumb turn and will it turn at all?

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

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