oDR: Opinion

I was arrested at an anti-war protest in Moscow. Here’s what happened next

After eight hours sitting in front of a portrait of Vladimir Putin, it’s clearer than ever to me that the government is determined to crush dissent. This article is published anonymously

8 March 2022, 12.48pm
Moscow, 6 March
(c) Georgy Dzyura / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Two o’clock in the afternoon: I leave the metro station Kitay-gorod. As you come out, nothing tells you that you are in the capital of a country at war.

But after you pass the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, you come across a police cordon that covers all the approaches to the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters on Lubyanka Square. Most of the police officers are wearing ski hats. It’s getting colder in Moscow, and these hats provide not only warmth, but anonymity.

Several protest movements announced anti-war rallies in Moscow on 6 March; the team of opposition figure Alexey Navalny announced a meeting on Manezhnaya Square, just opposite the Kremlin. A coalition of feminists and leftists called a rally at 3pm at another public space, the Square of Three Stations. In parallel, a separate group of protesters went to central Pushkin Square.

Since almost all opposition structures have now been destroyed in Russia, and anyone who organises a rally is detained ahead of the protests – just for publishing information about upcoming protests – Russia’s anti-war protest movement is becoming more and more decentralised. In these conditions, the initial starting point and start time for protests can vary.

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I turn onto Nikolskaya Street: here, as usual, there are many tourists, and tour guides approach people who want to take an excursion around the centre of Moscow. But Red Square and Manezhnaya Square are covered with metal fences and guarded by the police. Passers-by take pictures of the “cosmonauts” – a popular term for riot police.

In front of the Bolshoy Theatre is a huge parking lot for police vans, just by the monument to Karl Marx. In St Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, ordinary buses have already been used to collect detainees when the police run out of space in their own vans. It is difficult to determine the total number of protesters, but today the police fill up the vans quickly: detainees are forced to stand in a crowd for several hours until they are taken to the police station.

Moscow's Bolshoy Theatre, 6 March
(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

I read on Telegram that a group of protesters is standing near the journalism faculty building of Moscow State University – it is across the street from the blocked-off Manezhnaya Square. On my way there I find myself near the Marx statue. There are no more protesters left. Two policemen come up to me, ask to see my documents and demand that I proceed to a van “for delivery to the police department and a database check”.

It is useless to argue in this situation. I go with the officers to their minibus.

I was detained very quickly, without the use of force. But, according to police detention monitoring service OVD-Info, at least 34 protesters in different cities were severely beaten by Russian police on 6 March. The demonstrators were punched, kicked, beaten with truncheons and tasered. The police department in Brateevo, on the outskirts of Moscow, was especially distinguished in this regard. There, police officers threw water on feminist activists, hitting and insulting them. Protest participant Alexandra Kaluzhskikh managed to discreetly record her interrogation and torture by police officers.

“Putin is on our side. You are the enemies of Russia. You are the enemy of the people. Now we’ll fuck you up here and that’s it. It’s a done deal. We will also get a bonus for this,” a policeman shouted at her.

In these conditions, few people decide to join a protest again.

The first time you are detained at a rally, you can face a fine of up to 15,000 roubles. If you get detained again within a year, you can face up to 30 days of administrative arrest or a fine of up to 300,000 roubles. If you receive more than two administrative detentions in six months, you can face a criminal case with a real prospect of landing behind bars.

Footage from Moscow on 6 March. Source: SOTA

Exemplary police department

“Your visor is fogged up!” a young detainee in our van shouts at a policeman.

“Why are you trying to piss them off?” I ask.

“They’re not the ones who are going to process us,” he responds.

“Shame!”, “Freedom!” another detainee shouts. At first I think this guy is a cop in disguise: wearing an outdoor jacket, he has the build of a typical police officer. Perhaps I was mistaken – he was kept detained with us all day. Since he did not have a passport with him, he was fingerprinted – although by law, a person has the right to refuse fingerprinting.

There were 25 people in our van; more than half of them did not participate in the protests, but were just standing or walking nearby. We created a Telegram chat for our group of detainees, appointed a person in charge to communicate with OVD-Info in order to promptly provide information about which department they were taking us to and what was happening to us.

Already at night, after I was released, I read that in the centre of Moscow, the police were actively detaining ordinary passers-by, apparently on the basis of the clothes they were wearing. In some cases, in order to decide whether to detain a person or not, the police demanded that they unlock their phones to read their messages. I used to read about how police in Chechnya did this. Now it has come to the capital.

Our van quickly filled up and drove to the police station almost immediately. On the way, I delete apps on my phone – Telegram apps, Signal – that may be of particular interest to the police, and remove some photos. Relatives start calling people in the van after another one carrying detainees overturned in Moscow.

My fellow detainees are women and men, 20-30 years old. There are also a few older people.

“Oh, how long will they keep us like this?” one person laments.

Nobody responded: most understand that they will not be released quickly. Those who have power banks share them.

We are unloaded at a police station on the outskirts of Moscow. Despite cases of violence in other police stations, this one is almost exemplary.

The station has been renovated recently. The corridors on the walls display photos from films about good policemen. It’s clean. It reminds me of the kindergarten I take my kids to. We are led to an assembly hall: chairs with soft backs, on the wall hangs a pennant – “The best police department of the district” – three portraits of Vladimir Putin and one of the Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev.

The policemen are emphatically polite, and not only to us. The foyer has a small detention cell with three men locked up in it. One of them, a drunk-looking guy, walks from corner to corner, either doing push-ups or practicing boxing against the wall.

“Well, Mikhalych, well, how long do I have to sit here, I have to go to work!” he turns to an elderly district police officer. The two men are clearly connected by years of acquaintance.

“Vasya, well, I say this in front of everyone: it doesn’t depend on me any more,” the policeman replies paternally.

Manezhnaya Square, Moscow
(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

We are questioned by district police officers and investigators for about six hours: this significantly exceeds the length of time allowed by law. During this time, the police raise their voice several times, albeit infrequently. The detainees are registered mainly by district police officers, who are overloaded with work even at normal times. All the officers look underslept, with an air of complete indifference to what is happening. I sit and think that if tomorrow Emmanuel Macron somehow ends up as the President of Russia, they will come to work in the same way and will do what they are told.

“If someone raises their voice at you, I apologise,” an officer informs us. “We have not had a single day off in weeks, we do not see our families. We have our normal work, and we are here doing all this with you. We cannot explain why you were specifically detained. We are a different division of the police, we do not know the specifics of the work of colleagues.”

The police are afraid that another van could arrive at any moment, and then they will not only have no day off, but not even any time to sleep until the next working day. The second van does not appear, but the district policemen constantly use phrases like “a mess”, “a madhouse”, “try and do it quickly”. They want to go home no less than the detainees.

The detainees spend their time on their phones. I’m the only one with a book. In the meantime, we discuss yoga, whether we will be able to go abroad this summer, a healthy work/life balance, detentions at protests in support of Alexey Navalny, who has people of what nationalities in the family, and other small talk. We argue with the police about whether a Russian citizen could accidentally be in the centre of Moscow during a protest. Or whether if someone is there, then they’re definitely part of the opposition.

The district police officer who draws up the report of my detention is happy that we share a birthday. He obviously processes a lot of detainees: he says that I am the fourth person with the same date of birth as him since the start of the protests.

My story – that I had gone to the centre of town to buy toys for my children – does not impress him.

“Tell me a story I haven’t heard. How people went for a walk, how they went out for something to eat,” he replies.

“Maybe someone really went out to eat?”

“Yes, but what do I care? We attach the report of the guys who brought you in, your explanation, and then you go to court.”

The report says that all the detainees were in the crowd near the monument to Karl Marx, shouting “no war” and did not stop even after the police told them to.

In addition to the district police officers, detectives ask the same questions. Due to the lack of officers from the Countering Extremism force, criminal investigators are sent to our police department to note the political views of the protesters. One of them, an officer in his forties with a giant build, is trying to put pressure on us to divulge information. Two of his colleagues, younger investigators, are indifferent. One of them even apologised to us for what was happening.

Indeed, the young investigators are completely satisfied with my story about buying children’s toys.

“How do you relate to the regime?” one asks me.

“Write that I have no relation to it,” I answer.

The employee does not record anything about my views.

I leave the police station late at night. As we leave, the district police warn us that if someone detained has a licence for a rifle or a rubber bullet pistol, it will most likely be cancelled. It sounds like a suggestion to shift to a more “direct” phase of the protest.

Smoke over Gostomel and Bucha, north east of Kyiv
Image: UNIAN. Used with permission

Persecution unfolds

Despite the harsh measures, people in Russia continue to go to rallies and anti-war pickets. Other forms of protest are also used: people print anti-war propaganda at home or at work (it is extremely risky to do this in copy centres if you do not have good friends there); they spread calls not to pay utility bills, so as not to finance the state; or some take days off from work to try and damage damage the economy.

In addition to detentions, Russians have also faced other problems since the start of the war: namely, the inability to obtain information from independent media. The websites of almost all independent publications are now blocked, and internet users are installing VPNs en masse. Several publications were blocked after the introduction of military censorship, some closed down by themselves or announced that they would not be able to cover the invasion – to avoid criminal prosecution for spreading “fake news” about the Russian army.

Due to blocking and hacker attacks, both pro-government and anti-Kremlin websites do not work regularly. Sometimes, the authorities try to block one website, and as a result, ten others stop working. Google’s search engine is also unstable.

Roskomnadzor, Russia’s censorship organ, has focused on blocking Facebook and Twitter. TikTok has itself restricted the publication of content in Russia. Apparently, the authorities do not want to block Instagram and WhatsApp because of their huge popularity. (A significant part of the country’s small businesses trade through Instagram.) Telegram is now home to both protest and pro-Kremlin channels. The Russian authorities have already burned themselves with their previous attempts to block Telegram, a popular app.

Over a dozen criminal cases have been opened since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,: participants in anti-war actions are accused of violence against police officers during arrests, of vandalism for anti-war graffiti, of extremist calls for actions and other apparent offences. According to the Net Freedom initiative, investigations have been opened against 60 people under Russia’s new criminal offences connected with military censorship. The usual fines are 30,000-60,000 roubles.

Since 24 February, 13,583 people have been detained in Russia during anti-war protests.

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