oDR: Interview

"People’s solidarity brings you to tears": Russia’s protest volunteers, in their own words

Volunteers in Moscow and St Petersburg tell openDemocracy about their work supporting detainees arrested at political protests

Vera Gzhel Natalia Shkurenok
23 April 2021, 11.25am
Volunteers in front of a police station in St Petersburg, 21 April 2021
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Telegram channel 'Detentions in Petersburg'

On 21 April, many Russian cities hosted rallies in support of opposition politician Alexey Navalny, currently on hunger strike in prison – where he is demanding independent medical attention. According to monitoring organisation and legal advice centre OVD-Info, very few people were detained at the protests in Moscow, but almost 2,000 people were detained throughout the country, most of all in St Petersburg.

Since returning to Russia after being poisoned, Navalny has set off a chain of protest events across the country – some of which have been violently dispersed, with people reportedly suffering brutal treatment at the hands of the police. Indeed, thousands have been detained at protests in support of Navalny, who is now serving a 2.5 year sentence for violating conditions of his parole.

In recent years, people have responded to the growing need to help those detained at peaceful protests by setting up mutual aid networks – food, water, informal advocacy with the police, legal advice and moral support. Volunteers often come together in chats on the Telegram social media service to organise packages of food, water and personal hygiene products for detainees, or to organise their journeys home or shelter for the night.

openDemocracy asked five volunteers in Moscow and St Petersburg why they do this work – and whether they believe that their solidarity actions are changing Russian society.

Olga, St Petersburg

39, social worker for children with disabilities

I was detained in connection with the protests three times, and once it went to trial – after a protest on 31 January. It was brutal: I spent the night in a police cell with bedbugs, the police did not take support packages [for detainees], and neither fed us nor gave us water. We then spent the next day in a police van waiting for court. It was my son’s birthday on 1 February, and I didn’t get home until the evening. I thought that I would be arrested for ten days, but in the end I was fined, and the case was dropped on appeal.

I still can’t move on from what happened on 31 January, so this time I didn’t go out to protest – I decided to help people who were detained instead. I was on duty, monitoring chats set up to help people, and delivering packages to detainees. I didn’t go to the rally, but I still made a contribution: helping is also participating. I have two children: I can leave the eldest alone, but the youngest is only four years old. I know that the police can search my home, and this has already happened: they came at 6:40 in the morning once. I go out into the streets for my children’s sake, for freedom and justice.

On the evening of 21 April, I finished work and started checking whether anybody had been detained. I found out that there were already people being held in one police station, so I went, and there were already volunteers present. The police said: "We don’t have anyone here," even though we gave them specific names of detainees. We decided to hand bottles of water to the police van that was parked nearby. I also had a folder with pens, paper and ready-made petitions with me – it had come in handy when I was arrested, and I knew that it would be useful for these guys who were detained too. The police didn’t take it in the end, so I threw it into the van when the door was open, but the officer just kicked it back at me.

I didn’t go to the rally, but I still made a contribution: helping is also participating

When I went to another police station, they didn’t immediately accept the food and water I’d brought. I called the station on the phone, and they told me: "We don’t have detainees, but some people have been delivered." An underage guy was released and told us that there were 32 people inside. In the end, our packages were accepted, but we left only at four o'clock in the morning. Some of the detainees were left there overnight. I got home only at five o'clock, and when I woke up, I went to deliver some food and water to the police station next to my building.

There are also volunteers with cars. I met one yesterday, he spent all night driving people who’d been detained home. When I wrote to him at night, saying "Are you at home now?", he said that he had crashed his car somewhere – apparently he was tired. Now the car doesn’t work, but the car is how he makes his money, and he has two children. I'm thinking about how to raise money to help him fix it.

I have worked with disabled children for 20 years. This feeling of ‘I need to help someone’ is in my blood. My friends joke: "Your refrigerator is empty, and there she is running off to another charity organisation."

Activism comes from both the emotional and the rational. I’ve felt it myself: sitting in a police station all night, all day in a police van waiting for court. Of course, I sympathise with other detainees, especially if they are young girls. I’m no spring chicken, I'm not afraid of anything anymore.

People’s solidarity brings you to tears – both when you are volunteering and when you are behind bars. Over time, I think this will change society for the better.

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Rally in support of Alexey Navalny in St Petersburg, 21 April 2021 | Image courtesy of Sofia Kalinina.

Mikhail Lobanov, Moscow

37, associate professor of Moscow State University, member of the University Solidarity trade union

I didn’t go to the protests on 21 April. But from time to time I take part in protest events: on local issues, on university issues, on neighbourhood issues. I also help organise public campaigns – for example, to protect green areas in Moscow’s Sparrow Hills. I’ve been detained: usually I’m taken to the Moscow State University police department, but then police would not draw up a report, they just let me go. But once it ended in court and a fine [for a single picket in support of the mathematician and political prisoner, Azat Miftakhov].

There are both national and Moscow-related issues for which it is difficult to stay on the sidelines and not come out in solidarity with political prisoners. In 2019, there were many students and recent graduates among those detained in the "Moscow case"; it was a nice surprise for me that local communities at many universities stood up for them. In recent years, we have seen the rise of professional solidarity – when lawyers and cultural workers sign letters for political prisoners. This is very important. Naturally, I also cannot stand aside.

For me, the turning point was the 2019 protests when independent candidates weren’t allowed to run for Moscow City Duma elections. During one of the protests, my wife was detained and held at a police station until late at night. I had known that there were volunteer chat groups, but it was then that I really saw how people pulled together; how people detained in police vans would support each other, contacting relatives, exchanging phone chargers; how municipal deputies and volunteers would try and help. I saw the whole process: the atmosphere when very different people unite. For instance, 20 people stood outside the police station waiting for the last detainees to come out: they were worried about how they would get home. It was already late at night, the metro had closed, and some didn’t have money for a taxi. People found them a lift, or clubbed together for a taxi.

The arbitrariness of the judiciary and repression in the country is a common misfortune and a blow to everyone

The experience was very inspiring. After that, my wife and I started following the support chats and if we had free time during large rallies –- both those in January this year and earlier – we’d go to the local police station.

Even before the action on 21 April, Kirill Goncharov [deputy chairman of the Moscow branch of the Yabloko political party] was detained at his campaign headquarters – the police took 17 young people to the police station. I brought water, bananas, biscuits, wet wipes. There was a feeling that the detainees would be released, but I decided that they might still need something to eat. I was in a hurry because I realised that mass arrests are possible, and in such cases police stations declare full lockdowns and do not accept the transmissions.

There were no problems with the transfer, but lawyers from OVD-Info were not allowed to visit detainees. When this happens, volunteers call the police en masse asking why the detainees are not allowed to exercise their legal right to a defense. Everyone was released within three hours.

Kirill Goncharov and I hold slightly different views, but the arbitrary actions of the police, the arbitrariness of the judiciary and repression in the country is a common misfortune and a blow to everyone. We need to support each other.

This kind of solidarity makes me happy. Very different people end up meeting outside police stations. Even if only for a few hours, this meeting mutually enriches people. People might meet at one police station, make transfers, some of them are in a car, they have time and they unite in a team and go to another police station. A small form of organisation emerges for a few hours. This experience enriches everyone involved and makes them think better of those around them. There are thoughts that this experience could be expanded more widely. If three or four people can unite in this way to help, then why can’t tens or hundreds of people? Then they will be capable of big projects. This is inspiring. I hope that this can be considered a kind of school. Next, people can decide to take even more significant steps.

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A rally in support of Alexey Navalny in Moscow, 21 April 2021 | Nikolay Vinokurov/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved.

Olesya Gonserovskaya, St Petersburg

34, artist

Artistic practices push you towards some kind of activism, but the situation in the country is such that people need to take care of themselves, there is no one else. So I started volunteering.

I started helping out during the January rallies earlier this year. I myself took part in the protests and I also went out on 21 April, but I am fearful: to go to a protest for three hours is a feat for me. I participate for a maximum of an hour and a half, then I walk around and go home. I’ve been preparing sandwiches for people who get detained, but yesterday there was no time for that: sandwiches are just the icing on a cake, they are not obligatory. I myself have never been detained.

Helping detainees looks like a bottomless barrel that you just can't fill up quick enough. I have two options – to prepare packages or give people a ride. Sometimes they coincide: you bring food, and while you are handing over the food, someone is released – and they need a ride. It seems that any adult can call themselves a taxi, but only if you’ve got money and you’re not in a panic. This is often not the case. Everything in the police station makes you feel like you’ve been bulldozed, so that you roar inside and think: "Everything is gone."

Helping detainees looks like a bottomless barrel that you just can't fill up quick enough

The situation usually changes every hour or two, with new needs emerging. On 21 April, I delivered food and picked up people in the city, and then decided to take a look at what was happening in the police stations on the outskirts of town. Detainees are taken there when there is not enough room in the city stations, or, perhaps for sadistic reasons. When you are released in the middle of the night in somewhere like Gatchina [a town outside of St Petersburg] and told to go on your way, this can turn out to be a special quest. So yesterday I also went to visit detainees in Kronstadt [another town outside of St Petersburg].

I went to two police stations on 21 April, where they accepted the parcels and dealt with me normally. But in Kronstadt, the police persuaded the detainees to hand over their fingerprints, although according to the law they don’t have to.

I follow human rights projects and the media, but to the best of my ability – you go crazy if you read everything that happens. Coordination in the volunteer chats is developing – we made groups according to where people live and a special bot that helps to look for detainees, otherwise we were just driving around police stations looking for people.

My relatives know that I am doing this, they support it, and even joined in last time. It seems to me that something needs to be done, because all people want to feel good – as they understand it, and as their family does. It's sweet, but we all want it.

I often hear people say: "We will not change anything, we will not do anything." Firstly, if we do nothing, then we will definitely not change, maybe it will even get worse. And what is the result? If the goal is to change everything in the country right now, then yes, it is practically unattainable. But if the goal is to slowly, gradually change and grow horizontal connections, then this is exactly what happens. And how is this not a change in the situation in Russia?

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A rally in support of Alexey Navalny, St Petersburg, Russia, April 21 2021. | Image courtesy of Sofia Kalinina.

Artur, Moscow

26, advertising manager

This was my first experience of helping people detained at a protest. In the past few years I have regularly donated to [independent newspaper] Novaya Gazeta, and donated to pay fines for detainees, or to OVD-Info and other human rights projects. I myself regularly went to rallies – to almost all the actions in Moscow since 2018, except for today’s and January. I’m not going to protests temporarily.

I am a humanist: I understand that people who face repression and pressure from the authorities need help in one way or another. When a person has to sit in a police cell, it is very important for him to realise that they are not alone. It is important that he is as comfortable as possible, has food and water. Therefore, on 21 April, I decided to try to help people with packages for the first time. Surprisingly, there were very few people in Moscow police stations – I was able to make only one transmission.

When I arrived, I was immediately told: "The duty officer has banned packages." It's good that volunteer chats have curators – I told them about the situation and was advised to "push through", referring to a specific government decree. Most likely, the police hoped that I would just leave, but referring to the law helped – they let me in.

I don't go to rallies anymore, because I have relatives who work in the public sector. They are afraid that if I’m detained, it will affect them and politely asked me not to go anymore. I am not particularly afraid for myself: I knew the realities of what could happen, and every time I was prepared for the worst, but there are fears for my loved ones. No one likes the authorities in our family, but they took a negative attitude towards the fact that I protested. They believe that all this is useless, it makes no sense, and most Russians are happy with everything.

Police hoped that I would just leave, but referring to the law helped – they let me in

Consolidation and mutual assistance are very important processes. I am convinced that with each arrest, there should be 50, 100, 1,000 people standing outside the police station. When both the police and the detainees themselves see that they are not alone, that many support the latter, something begins to change. I think this is insanely important, this is one of the foundations for the normal future of the country and society.

For every political prisoner – and besides Alexey Navalny there are a bunch of them – people should protest. Until society begins to fight for each detainee, regardless of his or her views, the country will not begin to change.

Varvara Mikhailova, St Petersburg

Lawyer for the Apology of Protest organisation

At first I took part in various actions, went to rallies, became an activist, then joined the activities of election observers. And after I myself was repeatedly detained, I decided that I had gained experience in helping others. I went to university, received a law degree and now I help detainees as a lawyer. That is, in fact, my civic activism stimulated me to get a law degree.

For two years I worked on my own as a volunteer lawyer and collaborated with the St Petersburg Group for Assistance to Detainees. It all consisted of volunteers who initially provided only humanitarian aid – food, soap, books. Then, a group of lawyers came out of this environment who helped the detainees in court and with the police. I communicated with these lawyers, learned to defend people who got arrested, and after two years of volunteer work I was invited by the Apology of Protest group – now I am their official lawyer.

We have a pretty decent level of court wins for modern Russia

Now, unfortunately, I can no longer afford to attend rallies, because if I am detained, I can’t help others. Now, when there are big protests, I am on duty on the Apology of Protest hotline, we have an open Telegram account, where any detainee can write. At the January rallies, we processed several thousand appeals from all over the country – we helped to find lawyers, and this is not always easy, because not all cities have lawyers. Our lawyers gave legal advice, answered questions, supported people both legally and psychologically. The rest of the time I go to the courts, defending people who need the help of lawyers. We have a pretty decent level of wins for modern Russia, last year I managed to win about 30 cases of people who were arrested at rallies. But all these victories are connected to the fact that us lawyers manage to catch the police on some procedural violations. These are not victories in essence, we do not win because the courts side with freedom of assembly and understand that peaceful protest is not a crime. We win because we manage to identify some procedural flaws and prevent an indictment. So this is more corrective work than legal work. I am now personally working on more than 50 cases of detentions at rallies.

It seems to me that our society is very capable of self-organisation, this is especially noticeable during mass actions and detentions, when complete strangers actively help others, especially with water, food and information. This does not require any topdown organising, which is very valuable. But separate institutions that could provide assistance and support all year round are also needed.

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Evgenia Kulakova, in the middle, who also volunteers for the Apology of Protest call centre in St Petersburg | Image courtesy of Evgenia Kulakova.

Grigory Mikhnov-Voitenko, Archbishop of the Baltic Apostolic Orthodox Church, St Petersburg.

Head of the monitoring group of the Human Rights Council of St Petersburg

For many years I took part in coordinated actions and single pickets. I organised, among other things, a picket against Article 148 of the Criminal Code, which criminalises insults against "religious feelings of believers". I’m not going to mass rallies right now, I think that I will be more useful not as a participant in rallies, but organising assistance to detainees.

The idea of ​​creating a monitoring group wasn’t just mine. We discussed it first in the regional branch of the Yabloko party, then we proposed it to the Human Rights Council. We monitor the entire situation with detentions – we keep lists, coordinate the exchange of information and the possibility of assistance with OVD-Info, from ‘we need water and food’ to providing lawyers in courts and the payment of fines. We have several channels, we have a virtual platform where people can contact themselves and report that they have been detained – all this is processed by operators and put into a single database. Then, if necessary, we send volunteers with water and food or lawyers. In the event that a person has no means of communication, it is difficult to help –if their phone has run out of battery or has stopped working, for example. We had a cases where a person had gone out to the bakery literally in their slippers, and been detained – without documents, without means of communication. His family had to look for him for two days, and he was already in a special detention centre. In this case, we help to establish communication.

Our centre has been operating since February this year – after the January actions, we decided that it was needed. A variety of people come to us, including a lot of proposals from those who can and are ready to provide assistance – with transport, money, special knowledge, work on the phone. There are several active people, the rest are volunteers. And it is very important that municipal deputies are connected to us – they can get access to police stations and check what is really going on.

We had a cases where a person had gone out to the bakery literally in their slippers, and been detained

Pavel Ivankin, St Petersburg

Activist, engineer by education

Last year, after a rally against the amendments to the Russian Constitution, Ivan Ostapchuk [another local Petersburg activist] and I decided to create a single chat for food and water for detainees. Initially we did it together, then volunteers and human rights activists joined us. When Apology of Protest or another group can’t deal with a problem, they contact us and we help. I’ve taken an active role in mass actions and rallies for many years, but now I have actually switched to organising assistance for detainees, but I myself often drive around giving out aid. I already have a lot of experience, I can manage to persuade the police to take packages for detainees.

We have admins, they regularly monitor the situation, make posts. We constantly cooperate with OVD-Info and Apology of Protest; exchanging information, updating people with information on what’s happening in St Petersburg. We have a chat on detentions in St Petersburg, where we host special chats where lawyers and administrators exchange information. Almost all coordination activities now take place on the internet. Between our protests and mass arrests, we still monitor the situation with violation of rights and help those who need it. For example, when in St Petersburg they began to detain Belarusians who were protesting against Lukashenka, we also helped them – we brought power banks, food, water.

Why am I doing this? This is how I was brought up, I love helping people. And I like defending people’s rights, I understand it, and I willingly help new human rights defenders.

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