‘Why don't the real police arrest them?’ How the Moscow authorities crushed Saturday's anti-Putin protest
On May 5, thousands of Russians across the country protested against Vladimir Putin’s upcoming inauguration. In Moscow, where demonstrators did not get a permit from city officials, the police detained more than 700 people (almost half of the 1,600 protesters detained nationwide on Saturday), including the campaign’s organizer, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny. Arriving at Pushkin Square, demonstrators encountered members of the pro-Kremlin “National Liberation Movement” and men dressed as Cossacks, who antagonized and attacked them. Meduza correspondent Irina Kravtsova attended the protest and witnessed the day’s events.
In a crowd of protesters near the fountains at Pushkin Square, girls and boys stood around wearing cardboard crowns — some handmade and some from Burger King. A few yards away, however, behind the Pushkin monument, there were a hundred people who clearly hadn’t come to rally against Vladimir Putin. These men were dressed in military uniforms, they wore Cossack hats, and patriotic St. George’s ribbons were pinned to their chests.
“Navalny’s cattle are a disgrace to Russia! [We are] for Putin! For Russia!” shouted one of the “Cossacks.” When asked by Meduza’s correspondent to identify himself, the man said he was a “concerned citizen” but refused to give his name. “I’m against a repeat of Maidan, and that’s why me and my guys are going to rough up everyone who comes to make trouble against Putin, although I have some questions for him myself. Everyone who came here for Navalny is breaking the laws of Russia and Moscow,” the man explained.
The crowd of detractors consisted of more than just “Cossacks.” Armed with their trademark St. George’s ribbon flags, the activists from the ultra-conservative pro-Kremlin “National Liberation Movement” were impossible to miss. They seemed to be working in concert with the “Cossacks,” shoving and shouting in unison. Meduza’s correspondent saw one young man ask his partner to leave the crowd, saying that the National Liberation Movement activists had just started “beating oppositionists with a whip.” An elderly woman told Meduza that the men posing as Cossacks were also from the National Liberation Movement. She says she knows this because her brother is a member in the group and she came to Pushkin Square “to tag along.”
“Get out of here and don’t embarrass yourselves!” one man shouted at the “Cossacks.” In response, the men dressed as Cossacks started shoving him and yelling that he should worry about “his own behavior.” “Why’d you come here today?” the men in hats screamed, adding, “If you want to change the world, start with yourself, and then you can bother officials with your whining.”
“Well of course Putin is good, and all the other officials are the rotten ones,” joked someone in the crowd of protesters.
In what’s become a tradition at Russian protests, two young men climbed a street lamp and started shouting, “We won’t be slaves!” Before long, a group of riot police officers walked up, and one of them said, “Come on down, boys, or you might slip.” When they didn’t budge and instead began chanting, “We want to live in a free country!” the officers started shaking the lamppost. One of the boys tried to climb higher, but he fell. Lucky for him, his friends below caught him. The other young man climbed down on his own.
A police officer casually announced through a megaphone that law enforcement would use “physical force and special means” against any demonstrators who “interfered with pedestrian traffic.” “What pedestrians are you worried about, comrade?” asked a young man holding a sign that read, “Putin is no tsar, and we are no slaves.” “Haha! At first I thought your sign said, ‘We want some raves,’” laughed the officer, before turning to his colleague and saying, “Lyokha, take this one.” The man with the sign was led into a police van, as the crowd chanted, “Disgraceful!” Afterwards, riot police started detaining anyone chanting slogans or holding a banner.
Alexey Navalny, the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and the activist who masterminded the “He’s No Tsar to Us” rallies, arrived at Pushkin Square a little after 2 p.m. He found a slightly raised platform and addressed his supporters using a megaphone. When they heard that Navalny had come, people on both sides of the square started clapping and whistling, and tried to move closer. Activists from the National Liberation Movement standing near the Pushkin monument formed a human wall to try to keep at least some of the crowd from reaching Navalny.
Navalny tried to move closer to the statue, but police officers surrounded him suddenly and carried him off to a police van. At the same time, protesters broke through the wall of pro-Kremlin activists, enraging the men dressed as Cossacks, who started shoving demonstrators. When a protester fell to the ground and dropped his mobile phone, one of the “Cossacks” immediately stomped it to pieces. Other pro-Kremlin activists danced around the fallen man, threatening to kick him. “Cossacks” and protesters traded blows, with the men in hats winning most of the fights and the demonstrators mostly stepping aside.
“What are you guys really?!” a man in a purple t-shirt yelled at the “Cossacks,” saying, “Has nobody in your families ever been railroaded by the Putin regime? Why do you like putting up with this?” The counter-protesters shouted back: “Russia is Putin!” and “Putin is our president!”
“God you guys suck! At least tell us how much they’re paying you!” the protester yelled back. At this, a big “Cossack” walked up to the man and quietly punched him in the gut. “Tell him they gave us each 300 rubles, if it makes him feel any better,” joked another “Cossack.” Standing a few feet away, a police officer watched the whole thing happen. He didn’t lift a finger.
As this scene unfolded, a reporter from NBC News asked Meduza’s correspondent if the men in Cossack hats were “official law enforcement.” When she learned that they weren’t, she asked why the “real police” didn’t arrest them.
Carrying a yellow rubber duck (an anti-government symbol in Russia), an elderly woman tried to reach the Pushkin monument, but an officer intercepted her and escorted her into a police van. “Sonny, I’ve got a right to be heard,” she told him. “Move it! Move it!” the officer muttered. “Grandma, move your ass already. Look around and see how many people there are here ‘with rights.’”
Around 2:30 p.m., a helicopter appeared over Pushkin Square, and suddenly the cellular service started failing.
Soon there were more clashes between protesters and pro-Kremlin activists. As a rule, the “Cossacks” bullied demonstrators and started the fights. Members of the National Liberation Movement surrounded the Pushkin monument, unfurled a giant St. George’s ribbon, and started chanting pro-Putin slogans. From the crowd of protesters, a paper airplane flew out at them and bounced off the eyebrow of a tall man wearing a Cossack hat. Frightened, the man jumped up and doubled over.
Meanwhile, a woman wearing a silver crown wandered the square. “My name is Larisa and I came in a crown to show everyone that I’m my own tsar,” she told Meduza’s correspondent, and started collecting the paper airplanes and dropped signs on the ground. “At the end of the day, I came here because Navalny called people here. If he says we need to come, it means we need to come. He knows best,” she explained.
Another young man climbed a street lamp and tossed a paper airplane that landed on a police officer’s cap. The officer looked up, yelled, “Come here, you little shit!” and started shaking the lamppost.
An hour after the rally’s official start, after dividing the crowd and detaining several people, riot police began clearing out the square entirely. (The pro-Putin activists left on their own — exactly when the police started moving in on demonstrators. Officers reportedly detained just one “Cossack,” and Meduza’s correspondent didn’t see the police respond in any way to violence from counter-protesters.) Small groups of anti-Putin activists remained, however, near the underground passages and at Strastnoy Boulevard. A riot cop’s walkie-talkie crackled, “Well, have you cleared out all these bitches?” “We got ‘em all!” the officer reported with a satisfied laugh. Fifteen minutes later, the same radio ordered them to “boot out the rest.” Once again, officers dragged demonstrators to police vans. Looking back at the blocked-off road, an elderly woman asked a policeman if the city buses were running. “Only if you’re okay with a police van, mother!” the officer said, smiling.
While the riot police were busy catching people near the underground passages, they got news that protesters had once again filled Pushkin Square, and they had to hurry back to divide, disperse, and drive out the crowd all over again. This time, they took anybody they could get their hands on, not limiting themselves to the demonstrators who were chanting or waving signs. The officers even grabbed a young boy, who started crying and begging their forgiveness. Shocking photos of the police detaining adolescents later went viral online, though the people at Pushkin Square were of all ages, and teenagers made up the smallest group.
While two officers dragged a protester to a police van, one of them crashed into another officer running by. Enraged by the collision, the officer turned to his captive and bashed him in the head. “This is because of you, you insect! Navshitny brought you all here, but I’m the one who has to clean it up,” he said unhappily.
Near the police vans, a confused woman who looked about 50 was rushing about. She babbled nervously on her phone, saying, “Sweetie, where are you? You’re in which car? I’ll find you, honey. Don’t worry! Don’t argue with anyone! Tell them that you’re not even eighteen!” A minute later, she’d also been shoved into a police van.