“We are not a country. We are just pure corruption”: how Moscow came out in support of Alexey Navalny
One of the biggest rallies in Moscow in recent years shows that in Russia protest is alive, well and unpredictable.
“It’s just like Belarus!” exclaimed a girl in glasses as she came out of the metro station and saw the crowd. A huge buzzing stream of people was emerging from Chekhovskaya station - and from the opposite side of the street - and gathering on Pushkin Square in central Moscow. The roar of the masses mingled with car horns in a deafening cacophony.
Six days ago, opposition politician Alexey Navalny was arrested at Sheremetyevo airport on his return to Russia, and - having released a new video about a secret palace owned by president Vladimir Putin on Russia’s Black Sea - he called for fresh protests across the country on 23 January.
Half an hour before the start of the Moscow protest, the police tried to completely block off Pushkin Square, but, seeing the numbers, they gave up and chose to wait to make their move.
“Don’t forget to wear masks and gloves. Please observe social distancing. Don’t help spread coronavirus,” the initially friendly police megaphone warned people as they arrived.
Smaller police units, ignoring these instructions, unhooked from the main group at the edge of Pushkin square and cut through the streams of people, detaining individuals with placards, “casuals”, men wearing camouflage clothes or techwear. The protesters responded by trying to snatch detainees back from the police - and a sharp rise in their rhetoric.
“Fuck you, scum!” shouted a young man to the police snatch squad who had tried to detain him moments before. A riot police officer pointed two fingers at his eyes, then at his opponent: “We will meet again.” “Fascists! Putin’s dogs!” sounded after him. The loudspeaker’s tone also changed - from concern over public health to a false paternalism: “Dear citizens! We are doing our best to ensure your safety. Leave the illegal event if possible.”
“Is it legal to steal billions of roubles?” one elderly protester asked in response. On this occasion, the police restrained themselves, and did not claim that protesters were “hindering the movement” of other citizens.
Traditional protest slogans started sounding: “Putin is a thief!”, “One for all - and all for one!”, “Shame!”, “Let us go!” Participants also called for Navalny’s release from investigative detention, and expressed solidarity with Belarus (“Long live Belarus!”) and other Russian regions, “Khabarovsk, we are with you!”, “Petersburg, we are with you!”, “Saratov, we are with you!”
“Get out of the Kremlin, Satan!” shouted an elderly woman, who promptly crossed herself. Someone tried to launch a new, but naive “classic” (“The police are with the people, do not serve the bastard!”), but the crowd did not pick it up - in parallel, police went after another victim, roughly shoving protesters aside. People tried to elbow their way out of the police’s grasp, someone would collapse to the ground and was instantly back on their feet thanks to the crowd. In these circumstances, “The police are the shame of Russia!” has become a much more popular slogan.
At the “front”, people started creating chains to protect the crowd from the police. “Hold on! Close ranks! Protect the detainees! Build a chain!” “Fucking idiots! Don’t let these bastards take anyone!” the vanguard shouted towards the police.
The snatch squads doubled in size, up to 12 officers, and each group now had a large officer at its head, whose job was to break the human chains. “Fucking freaks! You are infidels!” one protester, apparently a Christian, cursed the snatch squad as protesters surrounded it on all sides. They were unsuccessful. A few seconds later a second squad came to its aid, they merged and retreated to their positions at the edge of the square. The next sortie ran into even stronger resistance, and the police retreated, starting to regroup for a new strategy. Several motionless black silhouettes - whether they were real or not, it’s unclear - watched the rally from the rooftops.
There was a short lull in the confrontation. Protesters at the front were applauded (and the police informed: “Go away!”, “You will not detain everyone!”) Pushkin Square was now completely full with protesters. Young people, just like Russia’s 2017 anti-corruption protests, climbed the pillars and divided the square in two, displaying a few Russian tricolours and Russia’s old imperial flag. They also graffitied slogans such as “Putin is a thief” and “ACAB”. On the monument to Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet, anarchist signs, “Antifa” and more anti-Putin slogans appeared.
One young man, seemingly a Putin supporter, climbed on one of the square’s pillars (where he brought out a poster that rhymed Navalny’s surname with a certain body part), but he stayed there no longer than a minute - he was pelted with snowballs, pulled by his legs and kicked out of the square. (A poster with the words “Freedom to Navalny!” appeared instead.) Opposition politician Ilya Yashin did the same to a young man in a horned hat wrapped in a US flag - either a provocateur or a fan of the Q Shaman. His opposite number, wearing the same hat and the tricolour painted on his face, was waving the Russian flag at policemen. “Are you a patriot?” he asked every single officer to their face. The riot police did not answer.
Unlike 2017, young people were not the dominant force at Saturday's pro-Navalny protest. I managed to talk to several people who had not gone to protest actions before. They turned out to be representatives of Russia’s disappearing middle class, who, everyone thought, had disappeared forever from opposition rallies.
“I came to the rally in support of Alexei Navalny today because I am deeply outraged by the lawlessness and arbitrariness with which the Russian authorities are treating Alexey!” said Marina, a businesswoman in her sixties whose clothing store has been affected by the pandemic. “I want me, my children and grandchildren to live in a legal state. Freedom for Alexey Navalny!”
“We squandered our chance [to change the situation in the country] in the 1990s,” another older protester said. “Now I’ve come out to correct the mistake of my youth, when we did not protest.”
“I’m sick of it,” admitted senior manager Anatoly, 31. “I’m tired of the tyranny and lawlessness by the powers-that-be. I’m tired of being afraid to look up, say something, express my opinion. Tired that corruption has permeated all layers and branches of government. And not only the authorities. We are not a country, we are just pure corruption. Because of this, the entire social sphere is going to the dogs. Everything is in ruins. I am tired of watching my country degrade and become increasingly poor from year to year. The country is flying into the abyss, more like Somalia than the Third World. Into chaos. I am tired that the government is not changing. Tired of seeing people who have an opinion different from the opinion of the authorities being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and put in jail. I’m tired of all this. This needs to be changed. Everything is very simple.”
Anna, 34, participated for similar reasons. The young mother says she is tired of “lawlessness and corruption.” “I no longer want to watch how they rob my homeland, destroy its natural resources, poison our people! I came out to protest for myself, my children, my relatives and all the people of my country!” she said. Her friend, Yulia, who is department head at an international company, decided to attend “despite her fear” and despite the fact that she “has something to lose” .
“This time I responded to the call not to stand aside,” she said. “Because I want to believe that my position and vote means something. That at some point there will be so many people who are no longer afraid, that it will be no longer impossible to ignore us and take us into account, while they steal and break the law.”
I asked programmer Ivan, a protest veteran, why he was here. He pointed to the contrast between the “courage of Alexey [Navalny], his faith and commitment” and “the cowardice of the guy who sits in his bunker”, a reference to president Vladimir Putin. “I couldn’t help but come. I just couldn’t accept Navalny’s arrest. The investigation about Putin’s palace itself was cool, but it did not affect me in any way, there was nothing fundamentally new in it for me. Everything was clear [about president Putin] for a long time. But it’s great that the investigation stirred up other people. I was skeptical about how many people would come out - but I’m glad to be mistaken and see how many new people are out today.”
“Whose palace do you think it is? Whose ugliness is this?” a girl in a fur coat asked a line of police officers, showing them images of a certain luxurious Black Sea resort. The police were silent.
“I also understand you,” she continued. “But why are you doing this? Stop fucking guarding them! This bunch of snakes and parasites! May they flee our country someday!”
“Who do you mean?” one officer asked.
“We’re going for a walk!”
Ninety minutes into the protest, a flock of birds flew into the sky from the square, and the police, lined up in the widest possible chain, began to push the protesters towards the opposite side of the square. Special units on the edge of the square, who had set up barriers, blocked people from leaving. Those who could not or did not want to retreat were severely detained. Snowballs flew at the police - not for the first time in a day, and far from the last time.
“Comrades, look at things from our position!” one young man tried to convince the police.
“I'll arrest you now” the riot policeman shouted back.
“Get fucked,” another protester answered him.
By four o’clock, the police had cleared half of the square up the Pushkin monument. Two young people, who had previously been at the front of the human chains, encouraged themselves: “Well, that’s ok. We lasted a minute and a half. Maybe even three.” “Fucking bastards! They’re fucking hitting everyone,” others commented, observing how the police gradually occupied the square’s fountains.
“We’re going for a walk!” the protesters accepted the only possible option and moved off in the other direction.
“Yes, go on then, we’ll run a sweat up,” the police laughed among themselves.
Traffic on one side was blocked by empty buses, creating a gigantic congestion in the entire area - the Yandex traffic map turned red, drivers also reported failures in navigators. The jam screeched unstoppably with hundreds of horns, and the rhythmic supporting horns drowned in the mass of neurotic ones.
The main protest mass, now divided into two snakes, was able to flow out onto Strastnoy Boulevard, on the south side of the square. But one group was blocked in police cordons near the cinema, on the side of the exit from Chekhovskaya - and here one of the toughest fights of the day took place. Trying to break through to the boulevard, people broke police fences, smoke bombs flew at the security officers, the front part entered into a fight with the police - and the sides quickly parted.
The stream of protesters reached Trubnaya metro relatively calmly, blocking several main roads on the way - but new, even bigger snatch squads pushed protesters back onto the pavement. Aware of previous experience, the protest did not linger at Trubnaya, which was sealed from all sides, and moved along Tsvetnoy Boulevard towards the Garden Ring - not without losses to the police, who started brutally detaining protesters.
It was the third and a half hour since the beginning of the action. The protesters walked along both carriageways of the boulevard and along it, again resorting to local blocking of roads, the security forces again organised themselves into a wide chain covering the entire boulevard and into special detachments, clearing the roadway from protest, but not from cars, and thereby creating new congestion ; a man in a yellow jacket on an elite foreign car, driving at the circus named after Yuri Nikulin , stopped the car in the middle of the carriageway and lit a cigarette.
By the time protesters reached the circus halfway up Tsvetnoy Boulevard, many had already occupied the steps leading up to the building. People started shouting a new slogan (“Aquadiscoteque!” - a reference to yet another puzzling room in Putin’s secret palace), although it’s popularity appears limited.
Here, protesters started throwing snowballs at police cars and snatch squads. One man performed a running kick at a passing riot van - and immediately disappeared into the crowd.
"They are not afraid of snowballs!"
At this point, the police were finishing clearing Trubnaya Square and chasing the protesters - now almost exclusively young people - up the boulevard. Halfway through, the confrontation turned into a tough skirmish - and one of the most intense of the day. Protesters started aiming their snowballs at riot police helmets and then charging them, before immediately retreating. “The cops are worse than shit!” a battle cry rang out.
The boulevard was suddenly covered with smoke, and protesters began to convulse and feel their faces - is it stinging or not? One rumour, actively spread online and in the street, suggested that police would follow their Belarusian colleagues (firing tear gas into protesters). As it turned out, it was smoke bombs again. “Mmm, this taste is the taste of freedom!” commented one of the activists, who ran up to the “front” before instantly retreating.
“Stand here! We should stand! Everyone form a chain!” one man in an orange jacket tried to encourage his fellow protesters. “Come on, we already did it today!”
“Maybe you’ve been paid, ah?” a teenager shot back.
“Are you crazy?” the organiser asked.
“Ok, forget it, dude,” his interlocutor recovered. “There are some guys from Rostov and doing some stupid shit. You can see from their fucking faces [that they have been paid].”
“We should throw bottles at them! They are not afraid of snowballs! Dig into the trash heaps!” a third young man tried to whip up the crowd, but did not find like-minded people.
Meanwhile, three organised chains of riot police pushed them back up the street. “Get out of here! Run away! Go home quickly!” yelled the commanding officer.
The protest retreated around the corner, past the construction site of an elite housing development, losing most of its participants in the alleyways. Around a thousand people set off for Matrosskaya Tishina, the investigative prison where Alexey Navalny is being held - and where at least 18 people were detained.
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