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‘The road to the Kremlin is closed due to technical difficulties’ How Navalny's ‘Voters' Boycott’ rally went down in Moscow this Sunday

Alexander Utkin for Meduza

On Sunday, January 28, people across Russia marched in favor of the “voters’ boycott” declared by opposition politician Alexey Navalny. The founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation proposed the boycott when federal election officials rejected his own candidacy in Russia’s upcoming presidential race. Police detained Navalny almost as soon as he set foot on Tverskaya Street, where the rally took place in Moscow (without a city permit). The authorities detained at least another 15 demonstrators in the capital and more than 350 protesters around the country. According to Russia’s Interior Ministry, approximately 4,500 protesters took part in Sunday’s marches. Officials say about 1,000 demonstrators turned out in Moscow, though Meduza’s correspondents estimate that the crowd was actually three times this size.

“I don’t even understand why they didn’t let him into the election!” one police officer said to another outside the Tverskaya metro station. “So what if he would’ve campaigned and got himself like three percent — who cares?”

It was half past one. Police officers scanned Pushkin Square, where about 50 people had already gathered half an hour before Alexey Navalny’s “voters’ boycott” demonstration was scheduled to begin. They didn’t shout slogans or wave banners; only one young woman held a Russian flag twisted in her hands. In the crowd, people discussed the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and argued about Pavel Grudinin — the officially nonpartisan but Communist Party-affiliated candidate — wondering whether it would be “all right or totally lame” to vote for him.

Farther along Tverskaya, near Mayakovskaya station, the crowds were larger. As two o’clock drew nearer, about 500 people gathered outside the exit from the subway. The protesters had arrived: buttons exclaiming “Navalny 2018” and red posters with the words “Without me! #Boycott” flickered among them. They were greeted at the exit by three police officers in full riot gear and helmets. One Navalny supporter attempted to give each one a flower, but the police declined his offer. They asked everyone to return to their homes, as their protest was unauthorized.

Not far from Mayakovskaya, the crowd on Triumfalnaya Square split into groups according to its members’ interests. Teenagers took selfies with police officers in the background and swapped strategies for attracting followers on YouTube, while slightly older marchers debated when and how Putin might abandon his presidential post. “The opposition doesn’t have a leader other than Navalny who could unite the right and the left,” a curly-haired young man (who looked to be about 18) told his friends.

Alexander Utkin for Meduza

Senior citizens also joined the crowd. A pensioner named Vladimir told Meduza that he does not support Navalny but chose to join the protest due to his opposition to the official list of candidates that governs every Russian presidential election. “Putin, Grudinin, [Ksenia] Sobchak — that’s not an election. With them, Russia will have no future,” he said.

The largest group of protesters gathered around Pavel Lobkov, the director of the independent television channel Dozhd. He arrived at the march dressed as Joseph Stalin, complete with a military overcoat and a stick-on mustache. The journalist spoke in a Georgian accent to imitate the Soviet leader (whose surname at birth was Jugashvili). Lobkov praised the Soviet Union and commented on another recent high-profile issue in Russian politics: the ban of Armando Iannucci’s comedy “The Death of Stalin.”

Around 2:15 p.m., the line at Mayakovskaya station had already stretched to 700 people. Most of them moved toward Pushkin Square, where another thousand or so demonstrators had already gathered. There, protesters encircled the statue of Alexander Pushkin that dominates the square and chanted, “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia! Russia!” As in previous protests, teenagers climbed up the streetlights; a girl shouted, “Down with the tsar, youngsters!” from somewhere in the throng below, and everyone applauded. The words “When will Navalny get here?” flitted through the crowd.

Fifteen minutes later, Navalny emerged, though it’s hard to say from where exactly. Among a pack of his supporters, he made his way toward Pushkin Square along the Moskva bookstore three blocks away. But he never reached the crowd. Almost immediately, the police discovered and detained him. Navalny told the protesters not to come to his defense. Police shoved the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation into their van to cries of “Disgrace!” and “Fascists!” One protester shouted at police, “And what if some Caucasians showed up, huh? Would you arrest them too, or would you just stand there?” The police, moving along Tverskaya with arms linked, didn’t bother to respond.

Video of Alexey Navalny's intense arrest in Moscow

After Navalny’s brief appearance and his forceful arrest, the protest seemed to stiffen. In the course of the following hour, the mass of people around the Pushkin monument continued to chant “Putin is a thief!” and “This is no election!” Protesters gave interviews emphasizing that the upcoming elections would be incomplete without Navalny, claiming that Russia’s current president “doesn’t even use the Internet.” No one seemed to know what to do next.

At 3:30, someone shouted, “Let’s march to the Kremlin!” and the crowd met the idea with approval. Hundreds of protesters advanced along Tverskaya toward Manezhnaya Square, which stands just before the Kremlin; the police did not interfere. Chanting “Power to the people!” the protesters marched from one traffic light to the next, crossing on green and greeting the next block of their route with cries of “Down with the tsar!”

“To Manezhnaya!” said a voice from the head of the column.

“A crusade on the Kremlin!” answered someone in the middle.

In the end, like Navalny, the protesters never reached their destination. Police blocked their path to Manezhnaya Square, telling the crowd that the road was “closed due to technical difficulties.” The activists hesitated. Some looked up sadly at the towers of the Kremlin and went home; others planned a return to Pushkin Square; and still others tried to talk those around them into changing paths and heading to Arbat Street. Still arguing, they descended into an underground passageway, where an older woman passing by shouted, “You fools, you fools!” She proceeded to declaim in a tone fit for television about how much these kids must have been paid to join the protest on Tverskaya. But other passersby encouraged the activists: “This is our intelligentsia! Our youth are angry, and they’re right to be!”

Alexander Utkin for Meduza
Alexander Utkin for Meduza

At the exit from the passageway, the protest met its most surprising turn: waiting to meet the marchers was the controversial neo-imperialist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, snug in his warm coat, thick scarf, and fur cap. The presidential candidate and leader of Russia’s Liberal-Democratic Party told the protesters that he, too, had once fought against the powers that be: “I was just like you, 30 years ago. I was arrested on Pushkin Square three times.” (Twenty-some years ago, Zhirinovsky appeared in a political ad wearing a T-shirt from the Soviet trash metal group Hellraiser, promoting the slogan “I’m just like you.”) The protesters responded with screams of “A jester to the tsar!” and started to chant, “Go to hell!” They also recommended that Zhirinovsky remove himself from the presidential campaign.

But Zhirinovsky’s appearance did its job: the crowd dispersed. In the meantime, a few people tried to take a selfie with the politician, others retreated toward Pushkin Square with shouts of “Putin is a reptile!” and the rest headed to Arbat Street as planned.

In the end, a column of several hundred people reached New Arbat Street. The protesters set off firecrackers but still met with no opposition from the police. Taking advantage of their freedom, they turned toward the White House — the towering building that houses the Russian federal government — with shouts of “The government should resign!” and “He’s not Dimon to you!” (the title of an Anti-Corruption Foundation documentary that accuses Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of vast embezzlement schemes). The activists were accompanied by police cars and loudspeakers warning them not to step off the sidewalk into the road. Police vans sped toward the White House, but no mass arrests followed their arrival.

At six o’clock, the hosts of a YouTube livestream on the channel “Navalny Live” declared that the marchers had “a moral right” to go home “with the sense that they’d fulfilled their duty.” The activists, however, didn't hear their call and continued to prepare themselves for a burst of arrests. “What should we do when they start taking people?” “Well, when everyone starts running, you run too,” Navalny’s supporters said to one another.

Alexander Utkin for Meduza
Alexander Utkin for Meduza

The mass arrests never came. By Sunday evening, according to the website OVD-Info, just 16 people had been detained in Moscow — most of them employees of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, including Alexey Navalny (who was later released).

Police also detained Konstantin Saltykov, an activist in the “Moscow in Protest” youth movement, which was founded after mass opposition protests last March. Officers grabbed him at Pushkin Square and reportedly beat him inside a police van, according to the movement “Open Russia.” The authorities later interrogated him for allegedly striking an officer. Both Saltykov and the police officer he supposedly attacked were taken to the hospital for evaluation.

By 7:00 p.m., the protest in Moscow had all but concluded, with just a few participants remaining on Pushkin Square. They sang hymns and yelled, “Strike!” Small groups of Navalny supporters strolled along Tverskaya Street, discussing the day’s events and telling each other — perhaps in jest, perhaps sincerely — that one day “Russia will be free.”

Story by Pavel Merzlikin, translation by Hilah Kohen