On 2 March protesters gathered outside the Samara regional government building under the banner ‘No to the Russian invasion of Crimea.’ The rally brought together the Samara branch of the unofficial liberal 5 December Party and the local LGBT organisation Avers as well as other residents of the city. Twenty activists staging one-person pickets around the building, holding white origami doves of peace and placards reading ‘Hands off Ukraine!’ and ‘No to War’, particularly caught the public’s attention and received many expressions of support.
The rally’s organiser Pavel Mironov, who chairs the local branch of the 5 December Party, told me however that the pickets were targeted by an agent provocateur. Under Russian law individuals do not need official permission to picket as long as they keep a distance of more than twenty metres from one another, which the protesters were careful to observe.
One-person pickets, holding placards reading ‘Hands off Ukraine!’ received many expressions of public support.
Suddenly a young man wearing dark glasses appeared among them holding a placard with a very different message, ‘No Maidan in Russia’ – an endorsement of the Russian government’s actions and in Mironov’s view an organised ploy to discredit the opposition rally.
First harassment, then threats
The next day a virtual community appeared on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, calling itself ‘AntiMaidan-Samara.’ It published the home addresses and photos of the homes of local civil and human rights activists who had taken part in the protest. Each blog on the site was aimed at an individual and invited physical violence against them; all were described as enemies and traitors to Russia, agents of the West and fifth columnists. The blogs were accompanied by Soviet political caricatures and posters from the 1940s calling for death to traitors.
The word 'monster' daubed across Aleksandr Lashmankin's flat. His address had been posted online. (c) Valery PavlukevichAmong the people targeted was civil rights campaigner Svetlana Chernova, who received anonymous threats on her landline and mobile phone after her address appeared online, and was also threatened by strangers on the street. Another, human rights activist Aleksandr Lashmankin, found abusive messages on the front door of his flat and a wall in the entrance hall of the building. A photo of his door was also published by ‘AntiMaidan-Samara’ with the caption, ‘He got what he deserved’, and attracted such commentaries as a call to ‘find the traitor and sort him out’ and ‘teach Lashmankin to love Russia.’ Chernova, Lashmankin and others who were subjected to similar harassment lodged formal complaints with the Public Prosecutor’s office.
Human rights activist Aleksandr Lashmankin found abusive messages daubed on the front door of his flat.
There were also general threats to anyone who criticised the Kremlin’s actions in Crimea: members of AntiMaidan-Samara were urged, for example, to ‘beat up the picketers for supporting Yatsenyuk’, and the protesters were dubbed ‘Banderists’, after the wartime Nationalist leader whose desire for an independent Ukraine led him into an uneasy collaboration with Nazi Germany. The Avers LGBT activists were also subjected to homophobic insults and threatened with reprisals.
On 13 March VKontakte’s administrators blocked AntiMaidan-Samara for its ‘incitement to acts of violence.’ Lyudmila Kuzmina, coordinator of the Civic Voice Association, believes however that the ‘community’ was set up with the approval of Russia’s security agencies and Centre for Combating Extremism. ‘They could only have got the addresses and photos of campaigners and where they lived from the police and the security service, who have files on anyone involved in any opposition activity’, she says. ‘Now they’re beginning to harass us.
Members of the Samara branch of the NOD hold a banner with the words 'Motherland, Freedom, Putin' via VK.com‘After every picket or protest rally the people who take part get threats. Two students who were at the 2 March picket were unofficially warned by their teachers that if they didn’t stop attending protest actions they would be thrown out of university. People are becoming afraid to join opposition parties or come to rallies. The police take no notice of this harassment. It confirms the fact that Russia is now a totalitarian police state.’
The pressure increases
But the blocking of AntiMaidan-Samara hasn’t taken the pressure off the oppositionists: other ultra-nationalist political and public organisations have continued their calls for physical violence against anyone protesting against the Russian army’s incursion into Ukraine.
On 15 March, designated by the opposition as ‘All-Russian Protest Day’, two events connected with the situation in Ukraine took place in Samara. The first, which began at noon outside the regional government building on Victory Square, was organised by local Communist leader Mikhail Matveyev and was an officially permitted public meeting in support of the annexation of Sevastopol and Crimea by Russia. It was attended by 300 people who described themselves as Russian patriots and carried placards reading ‘We support the re-unification of Sevastopol and Crimea with Russia’, ‘No to NATO’ and ‘No to Fascism.’
After an Orthodox prayer, the meeting was addressed by local Cossack leader Pavel Korovin and representatives of the Russian Communist, Liberal Democratic and Just Russia parties; the monarchist and anti-Semitic Union of the Russian People (the revival of a pre-1917 organisation of the same name) and the Officers’ Union. The meeting closed with a stirring chorus of the popular Soviet patriotic song of the 1960s, ‘Do Russians want a war?’, which implicitly laid the blame for the Cold War on the USA and the West.
The second, anti-Kremlin, meeting began at the same place at two o'clock, with members of the Samara branches of the unofficial Progress Party, which aligns itself with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s agenda; the Parnas liberal opposition party, the ‘Solidarity’ Movement, the 5 December Party and other voluntary organisations taking part. They were supported once again by about twenty one-person pickets holding placards with messages such as ‘No to Putin’s patriot-fascism and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’, ‘Russians – Hands off Crimea!’ and ‘Let Ukraine join the the EU!’
Members of NOD attempt to disrupt a single person picket in Samara. (c) Valery PavlukevichThese slogans were however not to the taste of participants in the earlier gathering who were still hanging around the square, and about thirty people surrounded the pickets and started taking photos of themselves in front of them while screaming insults directed at the political leadership of NATO member states. The self-styled patriots also accused the pickets of being traitors and fifth-columnists, but were met by them with calm and self-restraint.
NOD members started grabbing pickets’ placards and trampling them under foot, while others filmed them doing it.
Then some members of the Samara branch of Russia’s ‘National Liberation Movement’ (know by its Russian acronym NOD and chaired by Vladimir Putin) tried to stand next to a picket and display a placard with a pro-Kremlin slogan. This would have created a mass picket, forbidden by law and punishable by a fine unless it has received explicit permission; the civil activists moved away from the provocateurs to avoid this and retain their status as individuals. At which point some NOD members started grabbing their placards and trampling them under foot, while others filmed them doing it. Police officers meanwhile stood by and watched, and local government officials have also declined to condemn the thugs or comment on the incident.
A sign of things to come?
Samara was not the only city where opposition protests were attacked by ultra-nationalists on 15 March. Pickets were also harassed in Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities. ‘These attacks take place with the tacit approval of the regime’, says Yelena Makhrova, deputy leader of the Samara branch of the 5 December Party. ‘The thugs know they’ll get away with it. After all, the people they are harassing are critics of the Kremlin, and the regime doesn’t like them either.’
Pickets were also harassed in Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities.
On 24 March Amnesty International appealed to its members to write to the Russian government, asking it to launch ‘an immediate, impartial and effective investigation into the death threats and incidents of harassment of the peace activists in Samara’ and to ensure the safety of Svetlana Chernova, Aleksandr Lashmankin and other activists.
On 28 March a discussion took place in Samara, chaired by political analyst and editor-in-chief of the online daily Russian Journal Aleksandr Morozov, under the heading, ‘What is happening to Russian society and how is it changing?’ About 50 journalists, opposition activists and civil rights campaigners took part, many of them convinced that the annexation of Crimea would be followed by a general tightening of the screws and intensification of authoritarianism across Russia. There was general agreement that by its actions in Crimea Russia was declaring itself an aggressive state that would seek out the enemy and traitor within, and that pressure on those who did not support the Kremlin’s politics would only increase.