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The Chilly Moscow Summer of 2019

The past month has seen a string of protests in the Russian capital over city council elections. The authorities' crackdown has only consolidated the movement

Published in: openDemocracy

Moscow, August 10, 2019.  © 2019 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch
Rain and protests. Protests and rain. Since mid-July, Moscow has been flooded by rain and engulfed in public protests, sparked by the authorities’ cynical exclusion of viable opposition candidates from the upcoming city council election. What should have been sunny weekends and picnics in the parks, this summer is all about work, leaking shoes, and squabbles over child-care. My husband, who is in a similar line of work, also reports on every major protest, and our nanny has weekends off. So, we’re at each other’s throats as to who’ll be watching the kid, and when.

On August 3, when police arrested over 1,000 people and beat dozens in the city center, I worked for the first two hours, observing the unsanctioned protest, and then picked up our six-year old from my husband, next to the boulevard ring, flanked by police snatching random protesters and bystanders from the crowd. With “Daddy” off to do his job, my son and I walked toward the metro holding hands. Dozens of riot police in full protective gear, armed with thick black batons, stood next to a blue bus with covered windows parked on the sidewalk.

Mesmerized, my son stopped. In their oversized helmets and visors, they looked remarkably like the space-travellers from one of his computer games. “Mommy, what are they?” – “These are police officers,” I reluctantly replied. “They are? And what are they doing?” – “Detaining people.” – “Bad people?” – “No, just people.” – “But why?” Unable to come up with a child-friendly explanation, I pulled on his hand, “Come on, let’s go home and grab some ice-cream on the way.”

A few days later, the prosecutors petitioned a court in Moscow to strip a young couple of their parental rights because they took their 1-year-old baby to a protest, allegedly exposing the child to harm and neglecting their parental duties. Police searched their house late at night. Both parents received interrogation summonses and, as they had no child-care arrangements lined up, they ended up bringing the baby to the interrogation. The investigator was unfazed. Apparently, while bringing a small child to a peaceful protest is against the child’s best interests, being present while his parents undergo a criminal interrogation is perfectly fine.

Moscow, August 10, 2019. © 2019 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

At the same time, the prosecutor’s office also opened a probe into any incident involving minors in the protests, which, under a new law, will most likely lead to administrative charges against protest leaders and neglect warnings against parents. Thinking back to my son lingering next to riot police officials, I found a sitter well in advance of the protest scheduled for Saturday, August 10.

On August 9, the country’s chief investigative agency issued a public warning in connection with the protest planned for the next day, reminding those intending to participate of possible sanctions, including criminal liability. The litany of criminal cases opened against protesters over the past few weeks is ominous.

The authorities have already arrested 12 people in connection with the investigation they opened into “mass rioting,” a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail, over the protest of July 27 – that very peaceful protest, at which police in Moscow had set a chilling record detaining сlose to 1400.

Law enforcement has interrogated and searched the homes of some of the opposition candidates who planned to run in the city council elections and their particularly active supporters, implicating them in a criminal investigation into alleged “meddling in . . . citizens’ election rights and the work of election commissions.” Authorities also targeted the Anti-Corruption Fund with money laundering accusations. The group is led by Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician, and has repeatedly called on people to protest the recent exclusion of opposition candidates.

Also on August 9, the city administration announced a “hurricane emergency” would be in place Friday through Saturday. Despite the forecast hurricane, which never materialized, and the rain, which was relentless, the city organized a free barbecue festival at Moscow’s Gorky Park for the same day as the protest, in an apparent attempt to divert Muscovites from the protest.

They called the festival “Meat&Beat.” Given that dozens have suffered bruises, abrasions, fractures and head traumas at the hands of police officers at protests in recent weeks, the peculiar name comes across as possibly snide, but definitely, intentionally ill-suited. In another mind-boggling stroke of coincidence or absurdity, the penitentiary department scheduled its third annual paddy wagons race for August 10 to mark Corrections Transportation System Day, the next day.

Moscow, August 10, 2019. © 2019 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

It rained hard all night and on the morning of August 10. Organizers feared that the foul weather and crackdown would mean a low turnout at Sakharov Avenue for the rally the authorities had grudgingly sanctioned. But in defiance of hostile weather and the even more hostile political climate, between 50,000 and 60,000 mostly young adults gathered to demand free elections and an end to political prosecution.

Hiding my camera under a slicker, I looked at the bright faces around me and saw no fear. When the rally was over, the sun suddenly made a long-awaited appearance, and unsanctioned protest “walks” through the city center commenced. Groups of young people marched in the streets, gleefully passing hordes of riot police and Russian Guard servicemen chanting, “We’re the power! Russia will be free.”

Two steps away from the presidential administration at Kitai Gorod, police detained dozens of protesters, but more groups of young people stood their ground and continued chanting, all while their mates were dragged into police vans. By nightfall, lush grass and colorful flower beds at the Kitai Gorod Square were all but destroyed by police boots. And 256 people had been detained, facing hefty fines and short-term arrest, but the protest’s spirit remained unbroken.

What happens next remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: the authorities’ strong-arm response of these recent weeks has ended up bringing together rather than intimidating those Russians who are fed up by exclusion and repression.

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