Anticorruption protests took place in dozens of cities across Russia yesterday, the most significant outpouring of public discontent since the 2011-2012 anti-Kremlin protests.
The protests were called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose anti-corruption organization recently released a video alleging unseemly wealth of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. In Moscow, organizers refused to limit their protest to venues proposed by municipal authorities—outside the city center—and urged people to simply come out in the city for a “public promenade.”
An estimated 7,000 took to the streets in Moscow, many of them on Pushkin Square and Tverskaya Street. Police arrested Navalny early in the afternoon, raided his organization’s office, and detained some of his staffers.
By the time I got to Pushkin Square, police had already cleared it. But hundreds, if not more, were still squeezed into an adjacent pedestrian mall. A line of police would advance on the crowd, as a policeman said on a loudspeaker, “Citizens, respect each other, move away,” driving us off the mall and down Tverskaya. A crowd of mostly young people stood fast on an elevated flower bed where they displayed a cartoon with a duck and the words “Corruption is stealing the future.”
Police eventually charged the flower bed and the crowd moved, grumbling, mostly without incident. After police returned to their formation, those in the crowd—now thinning-- would return to their places. At various stages police grabbed young men, roughly, pinning their arms behind their backs, kicking and using their clubs on people who tried to get close, then dragging them away, presumably to be placed in detention. I wasn’t able to see what, if anything, these men had done before the police grabbed them.
One independent group estimated police detained more than 900 – many of whom seemed to do no more than hold posters or shout slogans. This video shows police violently beating someone already on the ground and offering no resistance, and there are numerous other similar reports.
About a half mile from Pushkin Square, police beat the 17-year-old son of an acquaintance before he could even get to the protest. The acquaintance told me they asked for his identity documents, and when he said he wasn’t obligated to carry them, they beat him on the ribs, legs, and face, leaving many bruises.
Police used excessive violence to shut down the massive Bolotnaya Square demonstration, one of the last of the 2012 protests, on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration and detained hundreds, leading to long prison sentences for 13 people and a warped official narrative casting the protests as part of a broad conspiracy to destabilize Russia. The stakes are high for the Kremlin again now, with presidential elections a year away. I can only hope authorities won’t repeat the violence, unfair trials, and myths of the past.