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‘Spoiling the holiday’ How Moscow riot police handled Alexey Navalny's anti-corruption protesters on June 12

Source: Meduza
Alexander Utkin for Meduza

Led by Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny, anti-corruption activists staged nationwide protests on June 12, as the country celebrated its state sovereignty on Russia Day. The biggest rally of all took place in Moscow, where Navalny changed venues at the last minute, abandoning a planned and permitted demonstration at Sakharov Prospekt for an impromptu march on Tverskaya Street, where the city was holding a holiday festival. Navalny said the late relocation was necessary because the government allegedly pressured local companies into refusing to rent stage equipment to his team of organizers. On Monday morning, Moscow police vowed to remove any protesters at Tverskaya, and they followed through on that threat, detaining at least 700 of the people who came carrying protest signs and chanting anti-Putin slogans. Police detained Navalny before he ever reached Tverskaya Street, stuffing him into a patrol car outside his home in Moscow, roughly 35 minutes before the protest began. Around midnight on Monday, a court sentenced him to 30 days in jail for calling demonstrators to Tverskaya.

Near the Kremlin

At 2 p.m. near the Kremlin, it was mostly calm and peaceful on Tverskaya Street. The “Time and Eras” historical reenactment festival was in full swing: adults were taking photographs with historical police cars from the USSR; folks were wandering around dressed as Soviet cops and agents in the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB); and children were sticking their heads into faux guillotines. The only thing distinguishing demonstrators come to protest against corruption were Russian flags in their hands and Navalny presidential campaign stickers on their smartphones. In conversations with each other, most protesters seemed to agree that the March 26 demonstration had been a more interesting affair.

At the start of the rally, there were hardly any police and only a few protesters were detained. One of the first people taken away by officers was a 70-year-old man with a long, disheveled beard. Before the police carried him off, he got into an argument with a group of historical reenactors and climbed a prop barricade, shouting from the top, “Putin is a thief and a fascist!” The reenactors then pulled him down and handed him over to the police, as audience members laughed. Not ready to surrender, however, the man resisted his captors and soon fell to the ground. Passersby immediately surrounded him and pleaded with the police to let him go, but the officers didn’t acknowledge them. The man remained on the ground, complaining loudly about the “Gestapo regime.” 

“What are you doing, provoking the police? You think things will be any better under Navalny?” a man in the crowd asked the bearded detainee lying on the asphalt. With that, the police picked the man up again and delivered him to a nearby police van.

Sakharov Prospekt

The rally at Sakharov Prospekt, where the city granted organizers a demonstration permit, got started a bit late. By 2 p.m., about 2,000 people had assembled, but police weren’t letting them through the security checkpoints. Among the crowd there were volunteers from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, warning people that the protest had been moved to Tverskaya Street. 

Without Navalny’s anti-corruption organizers on hand, the activists who came to Sakharov Prospekt decided to protest instead against Moscow’s controversial renovation plans. The police raised no objections to this improvisation, though they refused to allow opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov’s staff to collect signatures for his Moscow municipal campaign. “When they saw that I was standing there with a tablet, they said to me, ‘Get out of here, girly,’” one of Gudkov’s volunteers complained about the police.

People passed through metal detectors and gathered in a circle beneath a sign reading, “No to renovations!” Anyone who wanted to could address the crowd over a loudspeaker. Activists and municipal deputies took turns speaking. People in the crowd chanted, “No to renovations!” and “Fire [Moscow Mayor] Sobyanin!” Most demonstrators carried signs with slogans like “You’re not tearing down [my building] and you won’t ever do it!” and “Kuzminki [District] is against renovations!” 

Protesters gather at a sanctioned demonstration at Sakharov Prospekt against controversial renovation plans in Moscow
Sergei Savostyanov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

At first, there was no stage or shared microphone. Those who came to Sakharov Prospekt wandered in different directions, discussing the renovation scheme and municipal elections set for September 10 in Moscow. Around 3 p.m., the controversial lawyer Violetta Volkova (known for serving as one of Pussy Riot’s attorneys and, more recently, championing Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine) assumed the role of protest organizer, announcing to the crowd that she’d arranged for the protest to receive microphones and other necessary stage equipment. “There was only one person here from FBK [Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation]: [Roman] Rubanov [who was later detained by police], and he blocked the microphone. But I’ve already reached an agreement with the police, since people have already come [to this rally], and they should have the chance to speak freely.”

Several dozen people in the crowd accepted Volkova’s invitation and approached the stage. 

One after another, activists took the microphone, wishing the crowd a happy Russia Day and explaining their opposition to the city’s planned renovations. Police detained just two people at Sakharov Prospekt: demonstrators carrying signs with crossed-out photos of Mayor Sobyanin. One of the final activists to address the crowd was a perplexed woman who captured the spirit of the demonstration, telling the crowd, “I came here for a protest against corruption, but I’ve arrived at a protest against the renovations.” At 4 p.m., Volkova announced the end of the rally and asked everyone to disperse. Within 20 minutes, the area was empty and quiet.

Tverskaya Street

By 2 p.m., Navalny’s supporters started approaching the security checkpoint at Pushkin Square. The lines through the metal detectors soon slowed to a crawl, growing almost to the length of a football field. Police officers started separating groups from the crowd into empty spaces, and admitting them in turns. 

Some in the crowd carried Russian flags, and more still were filming and photographing the scene with their mobile phones, glued to many of which were stickers endorsing Alexey Navalny’s presidential bid. Tired of waiting, people in line began chanting, “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia! Russia!” The moment this started, police stopped admitting people through the checkpoint. Several hundred people suddenly found themselves caught in a vice — not just protesters, but also families with small children, come to enjoy the holiday.

The police didn’t explain the situation to the crowd, though a senior officer announced, “Right now people are viewing the exhibit, and then it’s your turn.” Several police colonels kept stepping away from the crowd to discuss something, periodically talking on their mobile phones. About 10 minutes later, riot police came running into the area. As the crowd chanted “Shame!” and “Disgraceful!” the riot troops interlocked their arms and began pushing people already on Tverskaya Street toward the Kremlin.

This is how the police freed up a new space, into which they started moving the crowd, after a few minutes. The cheering crowd now began to chant even more loudly, rushing to meet the people already celebrating the holiday on Tverskaya Street, but the riot police refused to let them through. “A layer of the people, a layer of the cops — lasagna!” someone in the crowd yelled.

Most of the people who now found themselves surrounded by law enforcement kept chanting slogans against Putin, cheering, and waving Russian flags. The left side of the crowd displayed some particularly impressive harmony. A young man then scaled a small wooden structure that was part of the historical reenactment festival. The crowd applauded him, and soon another few young protesters joined him, carrying homemade “Navalny 2018” banners and waving Russian flags. 

Encircled by riot police, the crowd was still slowly inching its way up Tverskaya Street. “Don’t say later on that we marched on the Kremlin; it was you who pushed us there!” a young man joked, as a police officer guided him along the road. Elsewhere in the group, two young women — both named Anastasia — gave an interview to a foreign TV reporter. “This is my country, and I’m just walking around outside, not shouting anything,” they said. “Of course I’m not afraid that I’ll be detained.”

At this point, more police approached from Kozitsky Alley, led by a waddling man with puffy cheeks wearing a helmet. He started selecting people from the crowd (mostly targeting frail young people), and his colleagues then grabbed those individuals and quietly led them away, back down the alley. Police officers apparently didn’t take a liking to the bright yellow anti-Putin stickers being handed out by Maria Baronova, the coordinator of the opposition movement “Open Russia.” When she saw the police coming for her, she threw out her arms and smiled wide. Officers then dragged her away to a police van.

“And just who are you?!” a man suddenly yelled at Meduza’s correspondent, filming the protest on his phone, and shoving him toward his colleagues on Kozitsky Alley. Seeing the correspondent’s press credentials, the man grew visibly upset and shoved the reporter back to Tverskaya Street, dropping his walkie-talkie along the way. A police colonel standing nearby tactfully averted his eyes.

In the meantime, the crowd now filled roughly a quarter of Tverskaya Street, reaching Glinishchevsky and Leontyevsky alleys. The left side of the crowd was still cheering, chanting, and pushing against the riot police. From time to time, someone was pulled from the crowd and detained.

At the same time, other people still tried to enjoy the holiday, ignoring the protest. Families visited the historical reenactment exhibits, took photos wearing chainmail and holding swords, and asked questions about the massive wooden boat set up in the middle of the street. Nearby, actors performed a staged battle between two Russian knights, as protesters beyond the barricades chanted, “Russia without Putin!” Riot police who weren’t busy detaining people playfully teased the demonstrators, telling the young men in the crowd to find girlfriends instead of protesting, and asking them not to “crush the knights.”

Alexander Utkin for Meduza

“Could you go arrest Putin?” some of Navalny’s supporters asked a group of police officers. 

“You never served in the army? We can’t arrest the commander in chief. We’re with the people — but we’ve got to work, no matter the government in power. Generally speaking, people get the leaders they deserve. For example, I’m for Lenin. Lenin lives,” a riot police officer answered, smiling at the crowd. 

At about 3 p.m., the police suddenly retreated. Demonstrators began chanting, “We’re in charge here!” but riot control was back within 10 minutes, and this time officers had metal fences with them. Tverskaya Street was quickly fenced off between Glinishchevsky and Leontievsky alleys, and members of the crowd were only allowed to exit the area through the alleys, without any way to return. Next, some young people started climbing the old scaffolding across from the “Moskva” bookstore. Riot police soon noticed and started pursuing the climbers, and people in the crowd began yelling, “Don’t come down!” The young people started smashing the windows on the fifth floor of the building, trying to hide inside, but police had them all in custody, within a few minutes. 

By this point, the only people left squeezed in the crowd were protesters. Realizing that the police were about to clear out the area, many young people — most likely older high school students, as well as college students — interlocked their arms and began shouting, “We won’t surrender our own!” The crowd moved toward the police and then stopped a few feet short of them. In response, riot control officers formed a small group and charged the crowd, clubbing protesters in their path. The crowd crashed into one of the structures built for the historical reenactment festival, sending hay flying in all directions and knocking down several wooden objects. A man wearing a marksman’s fur hat held his arms out to protect his tent, while another historical reenactor guarded himself with replicas of medieval shields. Some of the protesters fell to the ground, and despite resisting the riot control officers they were ultimately carried off to police vans. Before long, the row of defiant young protesters had disintegrated. 

Next, more riot police officers arrived from different side streets, and within 15 minutes they began shoving the remaining protesters toward the sidewalks, and then backwards along Tverskaya Street and Strastnoy Boulevard. By 5 p.m., the only people remaining in the space on Tverskaya between the Pushkin subway station and “Moskva” bookstore were police officers, riot control troops, and, yes, historical reenactors dressed in chainmail, who looked around sadly and complained that the protest had “spoiled the holiday for them.”

Nevertheless, the holiday continued. From a stage farther down the road on Tverskaya Street, musicians performed “Kalinka,” while Muscovites munched on shish kebabs and looked quizzically at the protesters being led away down the boulevard by police officers outfitted in full combat gear. “Maybe there was a protest somewhere?” some of the holiday goers asked each other.

A few demonstrators tried to keep the rally going down Tverskoy Boulevard, but they were soon detained, as passersby thanked the police and told the protesters not to “spoil the holiday.” On stage, the entertainers ignored the police and stuck to their holiday show, telling their audience how happy they were that everyone turned out to celebrate.

Russian report by Evgeny Berg, Pavel Merzlinkin, and Alexandra Sivtsova, translation by Kevin Rothrock

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