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How Alexey Navalny decided at the last minute to send protesters against Moscow's police

Meduza
A participant at the June 12 protest at Sakharov Prospekt in Moscow, allowed by the city
A participant at the June 12 protest at Sakharov Prospekt in Moscow, allowed by the city
Sergey Savostyanov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On June 12, supporters of opposition politician Alexey Navalny descended on Tverskaya Street for a political demonstration, but this wasn’t the plan for the past week. Hours before the protest, Navalny and his team of organizers suddenly changed the venue to Tverskaya, the main road in Moscow leading toward Red Square, abandoning plans to hold a rally at Sakharov Prospekt, where the city had granted them a demonstration permit. In the end, Moscow police detained more than 800 protesters on June 12, grabbing Navalny outside his home, an hour before the event even began. Later that night, a court sentenced him to 30 days in jail for violating the city’s permit laws. Meduza examines Navalny’s last-minute decision to ditch the scheduled rally and send protesters against Moscow’s police.

Why the protest was moved from Sakharov Prospekt to Tverskaya Street (according to the organizers)

Leonid Volkov, Alexey Navalny’s campaign manager, told Meduza that the decision to relocate the demonstration to Tverskaya was made at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 11 (just 18 hours before the event was scheduled to begin). Initially, organizers say they thought the chances of moving the protest were low. They say they tried to find stage equipment for the demonstration, but “the mayor threw a monkey wrench into the works and banned contractors from renting to us.”

“There are hundreds of contractors [in Moscow], but only a few companies actually own the equipment configuration we needed: big screens, 150-kilowatt speakers. Most of the firms are intermediaries that know where to rent lights, sound and stage equipment, and so on. Some of them — maybe 100 firms — refused immediately to work with us. Another 10 companies rejected us after speaking to their management. There were two or three firms that accepted prepayments, but then they returned the money,” Volkov explained. “Near the end, we had big screens from Ryazan and a stage from Nizhny Novgorod, but there were still problems. For example, in order to bring a stage on delivery trucks to Sakharov [Prospekt], you need special permits. Until the last minute, we were still counting on holding a big parade demonstration there. We’d printed out a bunch of signs, flyers, and a lot of other beautiful stuff. On Sunday morning, we thought everything would be fine, and we even mailed out our newsletter. At 8 p.m., though, the last remaining equipment contractor sent us a rejection, and we decided to call everyone to Tverskaya Street, even though it meant big financial losses and problems with getting the word out.”

As a result, an impromptu protest against Moscow’s planned apartment renovations took place at noon on Sakharov Prospekt. The initial permit for the rally had been issued to Roman Rubanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, and he never officially canceled the event. When Rubanov arrived at Sakharov Prospekt, he discovered that someone had set up a small stage and some speakers. He suspects this was the work of the Mayor’s office. 

How Moscow city officials reacted to the unsanctioned protest at Tverskaya 

The Mayor’s office has declined to comment on its negotiations with the June 12 demonstration organizers. A day after police detained hundreds of protesters, Mayor Sergey Sobyanin called the demonstration at Tverskaya Street a “vile and dangerous provocation,” saying it was “a miracle that no one was hurt.”

On June 12, a few hours before the protest got underway, Moscow officials announced that Navalny’s supporters were welcome to attend the holiday festival at Tverskaya Street, but they would not be allowed to chant political slogans or carry banners. “If citizens walk calmly down the street and display a sense of solidarity with the majority of the people who come to celebrate Russia Day, then everything will be fine,” Vladimir Chernikov, the head of the city’s regional security and anti-corruption department, told reporters.

Mayor Sobyanin, who wasn’t at Tverskaya Street and instead attended a holiday reception at the Kremlin, initially refused to comment on the clashes between protesters and the police.

Chernikov says the crowd that joined the opposition protest in Moscow (about 5,000 people, by the city’s official tally) was but an “insignificant percentage” of the total number of people in Moscow who turned out for holiday festivities (more than 3.5 million, according to the police). Chernikov also stressed that the authorities kept the situation at Tverskaya Street completely under control and succeeded in preventing any unsanctioned demonstrations.

“A certain number of citizens who came to the beginning of Tverskaya Street unfortunately [tried to] spoil the holiday,” Chernikov reported, adding that Navalny’s supporters behaved inappropriately.

The Moscow security chief also concluded that the protest was “100 percent a provocation by imbalanced people who didn’t accept responsibility for their actions or their words,” and he thanked police officers at Tverskaya Street for working “surgically and professionally.” “The operations of the police are calibrated like a clock,” he stated.

Ahead of the rally, Moscow police officials also warned that they would detain anyone at Tverskaya Street who committed a “provocation.” On June 13, the Moscow police force declined to answer Meduza’s questions about the previous day’s demonstrations. Vladimir Chernikov initially promised to speak to Meduza, but later stopped responding to phone calls. 

Who demonstrated at Sakharov Prospekt and why

Up to 2,000 people ended up coming to Sakharov Prospekt. Many of them left right away, after being informed by volunteers from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation that the rally had been moved. By the time the demonstration got started, about 1,000 protesters remained.

The first speaker to address the crowd was Violetta Volkova, a controversial lawyer who has defended anti-Kremlin darlings like Pussy Riot and leftist activist Sergey Udaltsov, but more recently has become a vocal critic of the opposition. Roman Rubanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, quickly disconnected Volkova’s microphone, resulting in his immediate detention by police. He would later be charged with the same crimes pinned on Alexey Navalny: disobeying law enforcement officers and violating Russia's laws on public assemblies. At the time of this writing, Rubanov was still awaiting trial, though Leonid Volkov said the court might return the case to the police.

“Violetta Volkova is a professional provocateur,” Volkov told Meduza. “If someone finds a copy of her résumé, I’m sure you’ll find the whole story there. That’s her social role, and it’s how she makes a living. Her appearances in films on NTV and Ren-TV and her little speech yesterday are all links on a single very obvious chain. Everything that happened yesterday and the day before yesterday was a provocation by the Mayor’s office.”

Violetta Volkova, who for better or worse led Monday’s demonstration at Sakharov Prospekt, told Meduza that the stage equipment mysteriously available for her speech was already in place when she arrived at the rally. Volkova says she hadn’t even planned to attend the protest, and was merely walking by the area, while in Moscow for work.

“I heard some noises from over there, saw a stage, and I spontaneously got the wild idea to come to the rally. Remember that Navalny recently came to a protest against Moscow’s planned renovations, and he was asked to leave, and the organizers were later demonized savagely. I felt sorry for them, and I decided to repeat this feat, approaching the stage and asking to come on stage. I was certain that they’d turn me away,” Volkova said.

Volkova claims that she reached an agreement with some of her police officer acquaintances that the protest would take place as an open-mic event. The authorities apparently agreed, on the condition that she would be considered the demonstration’s organizer.

The people who eventually addressed the crowd were mostly opponents of Moscow’s renovation plans and critics of Alexey Navalny. For instance, Lev Ponomarev, the co-chairman of the “For Human Rights” movement, accused Navalny of “screwing over the protest movement.”

“It was a sufficiently intelligent protest,” Volkova said. “People went after the president and the mayor, and even managed to rip into [former oil tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. People got the right not just to listen, but to be heard and to talk about their own problems. They never would have been allowed near the microphone at [any other] rally. Do you think Navalny would have let them on stage?”