Beyond Golunov How Moscow and St. Petersburg protested against police overreach and political repressions on June 23
On June 23, demonstrators gathered around Russia to protest political repressions and police fabrication of criminal cases. In central Moscow, a march organized by the Libertarian Party and the Union of Journalists and Media Workers attracted between 1,800 and 3,900 people according to police and organizers, respectively. Six protesters, including artist Artyom Loskutov, were arrested at the end of the event. In St. Petersburg, protesters had not received a permit from local authorities, and three of them were arrested. Sasha Sulim and Pavel Merzlikin observed the day’s goings-on in Moscow and St. Petersburg, respectively.
Moscow: Raging onstage
The Russian capital’s third protest in support of Meduza journalist Ivan Golunov began around 4:00 PM on Sakharov Prospect. This time, the journalist’s name was more difficult to find among the demonstrators’ posters. Instead, members of Russia’s Libertarian Party, which co-organized the event, joined ordinary citizens in holding posters dedicated to Anna Pavlikova, Yuri Dmitriev, Oleg Sentsov, the Khachaturyan sisters, and a dozen other less widely known journalists and activists who have been arrested or convicted in Russia.
As the demonstrators passed through metal detectors on their way to the protest site, Libertarian Party volunteers passed out red rectangles to be raised on command so the crowd could “give a red card to the regime.” Alongside posters featuring photographs of jailed activists and journalists, slogans like “What about the rest?” “Open Justice’s eyes,” “Free the Ivan Golunovs,” “Freedom isn’t free,” and “Against persecution, repression, and phony cases” were sprinkled through the crowd. One particularly creative sign can be translated roughly as follows: “If the po-po smacks their clubs or plants a bag of dope on me, there’ll be one less freethinker in this jolly old country.”
The author of that jingle, 14-year-old Yaroslav, told Meduza he came to the protest because he wants to live in a free country. “I don’t like Russia without civil rights, and I feel that absence everywhere: in school, on the street, when I talk to my friends,” he explained. Yaroslav said his parents did not oppose his choice to come to the protest but that he was not able to join the ‘individual pickets’ activists held outside Moscow’s police headquarters while Golunov was in custody. “I’ve already gone to an unsanctioned protest against [raising the retirement age] and gotten arrested, so I only go to protests that have permits now,” the teenager said.
Entrepreneur Valery Tsaturov, a mainstay at most all Moscow protests, came to the event in his signature black trench coat embellished with the word “corruption” despite the hot summer weather. This time, 67-year-old Tsaturov also brought along a bouquet of roses. “Police brutality is blossoming in this country just like these roses,” he explained. “The police covers up for criminals who extort money from honest businesspeople. I’ve been going to protests for nine years now, but our president doesn’t listen to me.”
A 20-year-old student named Madina carried a sign that merged the line “Putin is an unreal fuckwit,” which got its author fined in April for insulting the government, and the patriotic World War II slogan “Thank you, grandfather, for the victory!” to make “Thank you, unreal grandfather, for making sure I can live in a free country.” She said she came to Sakharov Prospect to protest recent measures that would enable the isolation of the Russian Internet as well as last year’s ban on the Telegram messaging app. She also hoped to support Ivan Golunov and other independent journalists. Sixteen-year-old Mikhail, who came to the protest with his father, took interest in the event when he saw a tweet from Libertarian Party leader Mikhail Svetov. The teenager said this was his first protest and called Golunov’s release “a victory for [Russian] civil society.”
While protesters gathered on Sakharov Prospect, songs by the satirist pop star Monetochka, “We’re Ice Under the Major’s Feet” by Civil Defense, and a number called “Meduza” by A Constellation of Cuts issued from the main stage.
The first speaker to emerge there was Alexey Kovalev, the head of Meduza’s investigative division. He thanked the protesters on behalf of the entire outlet, declaring “Vanya’s freedom is a victory by and for all of us” to applause from the crowd. He also promised that Meduza would continue writing about cases of police brutality that have come to the newsroom’s attention in a wave of recent reader emails.
Kovalev also addressed state TV journalists Edward Petrov and Denis Novozhilov, who created a now-infamous segment on Golunov’s arrest: “That segment was full of slander and lies, and nobody has apologized for it yet. I hope you’re ashamed of yourselves! Vanya has been cleared, and now it’s time for you to take responsibility for your words.”
The Meduza editor was followed by Yulia Pavlikova, whose daughter Anna has been targeted in a widely discussed extremism case surrounding the online group New Greatness. She reminded attendees that Anna has been under house arrest for almost a year while other defendants in the New Greatness case have awaited trial in jail, all while the FSB agent their attorneys say created the group remains free. Pavlikova asked protesters to support the defendants and write them letters. “Don’t forget them,” she urged.
Igor Yasin, the co-chair of Russia’s independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers, asked the crowd whether Russia needs fearless journalists and people who are willing to stand up for the interests of civil society. Having received a resounding “yes,” he listed a number of other journalists who are currently in pretrial detention on unjust accusations of corruption, justifying terrorism, or belonging to a banned terrorist group. He pointed specifically to fabricated cases against journalists in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, two Russian republics in the Northern Caucasus. Yasin invited onlookers to join the Union of Journalists and create their own organizations to make sure “there will be no more Golunov cases.”
Speakers also called attention to the cases of Azat Miftakhov, a Moscow State University mathematics student accused of attacking a United Russia party office; Open Russia activists Anastasia Shevchenko and Yana Antonova, who were both charged under Russia’s law against “undesirable” organizations; Dagestani journalist Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev, who stands accused of financing a terrorist organization; and the activists in Arkhangelsk Region who are protesting landfill construction in residential areas.
Protesters also had the opportunity to support independent Moscow City Duma candidates by providing signatures they need to get their names on the ballot. Two of those candidates, Lyubov Sobol and Ivan Zhdanov, also addressed the crowd from the stage. Sobol emerged to what may have been the loudest cheers of the evening. She reminded demonstrators that defending their rights would require returning to the streets and promised that she would fight to the end without giving in to provocations (the day before, attackers had poured fecal matter onto activists as they collected signatures for Sobol). A chant of “Sobol! Sobol! Sobol!” rang out in response.
Ivan Zhdanov warned those who say they are not interested in politics that politics can interfere in anyone’s life of its own accord.
Libertarian Party leader Mikhail Svetov issued several predictable calls for ridding the government of corrupt officials during his speech. He also commented on Meduza’s documentary short about Ivan Golunov, saying the film makes clear that “we weren’t the ones who got Golunov out — it was the people who were able to make all the right phone calls.” Svetov then called for universal justice and reminded the crowd that they were all fighting “the leviathan who has dug in at the Kremlin.”
Blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky, who spent months in pretrial detention for catching Pokémon in a cathedral through the Pokémon GO app, spoke last. He called Putin the Justin Bieber of politics for having so many dislikes on the video of his recent call-in event and encouraged protesters to fight for political prisoners.
Libertarian Party Chair Sergei Boiko brought the protest to a close by reading a declaration for the event. Here, the “red cards” handed out to demonstrators finally came in handy. A majority of those present used them to “vote” against free speech limits, for the repeal of two Russian criminal statutes on drug possession and extremism, for granting amnesty to those convicted on drug charges, and for judicial and law enforcement reforms. The crowd dispersed to the sounds of two traditional chants: “Russia will be free” and “Putin is a thief.”
St. Petersburg: Graduation and disruption
“Poplar fluff, heat, July!”, sang a group of street musicians, crooning a classic summer hit on St. Petersburg’s central Nevsky Prospect. A few blocks away, another musician covered the beloved Soviet band Kino while a young woman in a modest dress churned out Michael Jackson hits on a violin nearby. Meanwhile, hundreds of passersby squeezed past. Elderly European tourists took selfies with the city’s biggest landmarks in the backdrop as hired bands of locals tried to sell them tickets to guided tours. Knots of young people chattered about their freshly received EGE results, which will determine where many of them will go to college and which majors will be open to them. Just 50 yards away from that typical Petersburg summer scene, about 30 demonstrators gathered by the city’s historic Gostiny Dvor shopping center to protest police brutality. They stood in a straight line holding photographs of political prisoners from the New Greatness suspects to the historian Yury Dmitriev.
The St. Petersburg protest happened to coincide with the Scarlet Sails festival, an annual celebration for the city’s high school graduates. The festival was initially scheduled for June 22, but it was moved back by a day so that it would not clash with the anniversary of the start of World War II.
Acting St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov had previously expressed concern that the protest might affect the Scarlet Sails event. He asked municipal officials to come to an agreement with organizers from the Vesna (Spring) opposition movement to move the demonstration to another day, effectively offering them a lower risk of arrest. “[Scarlet Sails] is important, and it’s the right thing to do for our children. It’s a citywide celebration. Ask them to meet you in the middle. I’ll also contact the parties and organizations in question so that they can rethink their plans — so they can treat our children with respect, so they can have a fun, safe time without other events casting a shadow over the holiday,” Beglov said.
City officials had actually fulfilled Beglov’s request to consider a compromise before the governor even made it: they simply refused to grant organizers a protest permit for any location in central St. Petersburg. Every possible venue turned out to be unavailable, they claimed, either because an event was already scheduled there or because of road repairs. Nonetheless, Vesna decided to hold a people’s assembly right on Nevsky Prospect. Bogdan Litvin, the movement’s coordinator, told Meduza that when activists had used that format to hold unsanctioned events several years before, they were able to avoid arrest.
However, arrests began on June 23 even before the St. Petersburg activists could begin their protest. Vesna activist Valentin Khoroshenin was arrested just as he left his home, and Navalny team member Olga Guseva was arrested shortly afterward. Guseva had recently taped a video that Navalny campaigners said showed people attaching fake signatures to Alexander Beglov’s election petitions. Both Guseva and Khoroshenin were later released without charges.
The event itself began when Timur Bulatov, a pro-regime activist who also calls himself a “gay fighter,” showed up on the scene. He is known for getting multiple teachers fired by outing them as LGBTQ. Bulatov emerged on Nevsky Prospect wearing a white wife-beater with a Russian cat meme reference on the front and a pair of shorts printed with cat faces. He was carrying nearly a dozen signs. Some called Ivan Golunov a “liberast,” a twisted version of a common homophobic slur. Some called other political prisoners pedophiles. Another was emblazoned with the phrase “Kitties or die” in large print.
Thirty or 40 protesters gathered across from Bulatov. Most of them held black-and-white photographs of political prisoners, and some carried copies of the Russian Constitution. One activist wore a T-shirt with a picture of Vladimir Putin and a black ribbon with the words “1952-2019. We won’t forget, and we won’t forgive!” One of the many police officers who watched the event initiated a brief spat with the activist: “Do you need some detention? Go get ready to go to work tomorrow — do something useful.”
Several police cars and one Russian National Guard truck gathered on Nevsky Prospect, and immediately after the protest began, police officers began calling on the group to disperse and threatening them with arrest and violence if they did not.
The first to be arrested was Vadim Kazak, an activist known for his creative protest actions. After the activist Martin Kochesoko was arrested, Kazak walked into central Petersburg with his hands chained together. This time, he was wearing what appeared to be a wooden guillotine over his own head. When Kazak was arrested, he shouted “Russia will be free!” from inside the police van.
A couple of minutes later, the protesters began walking out to Nevsky Prospect, which was closed off for the Scarlet Sails event. Police threw one protester whose sign said “Vladimir Putin is a usurper” onto the asphalt of the street and dragged him to a police van. Another protester shouted “Bitches!” at their backs, leading one police officer to turn around and ask menacingly, “Who did you call bitches?” The activist answered “No one” and slipped into the crowd. A wave of musicians carrying drums and bagpipes was passing by, and upbeat music rang throughout the street. One protester danced the twist in a T-shirt that read “Putin’s not forever.”
At around 7:00 PM, the protest died down. Passersby occasionally approached the activists and asked them about the political prisoners whose photographs they carried and expressed surprise that there were so many political prisoners in Russia. Older Russians began arguing with the protesters who called Vladimir Putin a thief. One passerby said outright that the topic had nothing to do with him because nobody would arrest “ordinary people.” Nearby, a man stood with his arms extended forward, holding an imagined protest sign. He told those walking by that he could be arrested even for an invisible protest, but he ultimately was not.
Meanwhile, Deputy Police Chief for St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast Dmitry Baranov arrived on the scene. Fontanka reported that he took a look at the activists and told police not to arrest those who “hadn’t done anything.”
Only one person was arrested after that. He was an activist named Alexey Solovyov whose poster read “Pudding — lor,” a play on “Putin — vor” (“Putin is a thief”). Before Solovyov’s arrest, the “gay fighter” Bulatov approached him and began pestering him, asking why he thought Putin was a thief. Solovyov answered calmly that his poster had nothing to do with Putin. Bulatov walked away, disappointed, but the activist was arrested only 10 minutes later. Police did not explain why they had chosen him; instead, they simply grabbed his arms and pulled him toward their van.
By 8:00 PM, almost none of the protesters remained, and more cheerful high school graduates arrived in their place. Nonetheless, Nikolai Boyarshinov still stood outside a subway entrance. Boyarshinov’s son Yuly was arrested in the Set’ (Network) case. The elder Boyarshinov’s poster read, “Congratulations, graduates! I hope you will be able to control your own fate. I hope your future will not be destroyed by those who plant drugs, weapons, and other evidence.”
“Today’s action was very timely for a graduation festival, in fact,” Boyarshinov told Meduza. “I want to use this poster to express my wish that the graduates won’t encounter people who falsify criminal cases and bring absurd charges, but some of them could end up in the shoes of political prisoners like my son.”
Another activist told him, “You should have said it directly. You’re 18, and there’s nothing left now to soften the blow.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen