It’s raining snowballs In the past, Russia has charged protesters with felony assault for chucking plastic bottles at the police. What happens to the demonstrators who threw snow last weekend?
This past weekend, large crowds of people across Russia marched to demand the release of the jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny, braving icy weather and warnings from local law enforcement. The largely unpermitted demonstrations ended with more than 3,700 arrests nationwide. Unlike most recent political rallies in Russia, many activists were willing to clash directly with the police. In hundreds of videos shared online, for example, protesters rained down snowballs on groups of riot police. Meduza looks at several questions many people are now asking about these acts of defiance.
Did protesters really throw snowballs at the police?
Yes indeed. The ice was airborne almost all day long in Moscow. They were flying when the police started clearing out Pushkin Square (where the rally began), and there was an uninterrupted stream of snowballs hurled at four riot police officers on Tsvetnoy Boulevard, when the authorities started using force to disperse the crowd and arrest protesters. (The officers barely reacted to being pelted over and over.)
Demonstrators threw snow at a minimum of two vehicles, including a bus packed with National Guard riot police at Strastnoy Boulevard. The protesters shouted “Disgrace!” at the car and started hitting it with snowballs. Officials managed to catch only some of the perpetrators before chasing away the other activists.
Crowds also attacked a second vehicle — a Toyota Camry registered to the Federal Security Service’s headquarters. As the car drove down Tsvetnoy Boulevard, protesters surrounded it and bombarded it with snowballs. Some people also kicked the vehicle and jumped on its hood. The car’s rear window was also shattered. An anonymous source told the state news agency RIA Novosti that the driver suffered a “gouged eye” in the attack, though the outlet TASS later reported (without any details) that he had only suffered an “eye injury.” State investigators say the driver was sprayed with tear gas.
The Kremlin’s office management department has denounced these “acts of aggression” against vehicles outfitted with emergency sirens, claiming that many of these cars have been reassigned during the pandemic to transport doctors to coronavirus patients.
Protesters outside Moscow also threw snowballs at the police. In Yekaterinburg, it began after the authorities started using force to arrest and disperse demonstrators.
Can you hurt someone with a snowball? What if your target is helmeted and decked out, head to toe, in riot gear?
A snowball isn’t an especially dangerous weapon, trauma specialist and orthopedist Oleg Sazhnikov told Meduza, explaining that only a direct shot to the head can cause serious injury. It’s theoretically possible to blind someone by hitting them in the eyes with a snowball, and loss of hearing can happen if the ball ruptures the eardrum. Land a snowball on someone’s mouth and you could cause bruises or even lacerations, says Dr. Sazhnikov.
To sustain an injury from a snowball while in full riot gear, however, an officer would need to have his visor raised (which is rare in an actual crowd-control scenario).
Can the Russian authorities press charges against the protesters who threw snowballs? Will they?
So far, it’s unclear what officials plan to do about the snowball-throwers. State investigators have already opened felony cases alleging criminal damage and property destruction in response to the attack on the car owned by the FSB. Lawyers told Meduza, however, that additional charges could be coming.
According to Valeria Vetoshkina, an attorney with the human rights group “Team 29,” state investigators will presumably study videos showing protesting throwing snowballs at police officers. Where it’s impossible to identify exactly who threw a specific snowball or track that snowball’s trajectory, officials will only be able to establish “the fact that a crime was committed” without naming individual suspects.
Two different criminal statutes guide the prosecution of police officers in Russia (Criminal Codes 317 and 318), and Vetoshkina suspects any investigations would proceed based on the latter, less severe charge for assault without the risk of death or serious injury (which is nevertheless punishable by up to five years in prison). Investigators would need to prove that throwing the snowball was a deliberate act of violence against a police officer. The officer hit with the snowball would also need to testify that he viewed the snowball as an act of violence.
“Agora” human rights group director Pavel Chikov agrees that Criminal Code 318 is in the mix, and he points out that judicial precedent does not require prosecutors to demonstrate that the police officers even suffered any injuries.
Sergey Kolosovsky, another attorney, says the authorities could also prosecute snowball-throwers through Criminal Code 319, which prohibits insulting state officials. If convicted under this statute, any perpetrators could face up to a year of community service. In 2011, Nationalist Bolshevik activist Dmitry Putenikhin was sentenced to seven months of community service under these terms for pouring a bottle of water on state attorney Alexey Smirnov when Smirnov was speaking to journalists after long prison sentences were handed down to suspects in the December 2010 Manege Square riots.
The attorneys who spoke to Meduza hesitated to say if they believe Saturday’s snowballs will lead to felony cases. “In practice, everything’s at the mercy of the Investigative Committee’s imagination,” human rights lawyer Sergey Badamshin said.
Meduza was unable to locate any past felony cases involving snowballs thrown at police officers, though the phenomenon itself isn’t unprecedented. (Rowdy soccer fans, for instance, have armed themselves with snow against law enforcement.)
What if the snowball missed? Can state investigators still go after someone?
Maybe. In the past, Russia’s courts have convicted people of violating Criminal Code 318 for throwing things at the police, despite missing, even when the object in question was relatively harmless (for example, plastic cups and water bottles).
In the summer of 2019, during mass protests in Moscow against local election officials’ refusal to register multiple opposition candidates, a judge convicted Samariddin Radjabov of violating Criminal Code 318 for throwing a plastic bottle “in the direction of the police.” The bottle didn’t hit anyone, but the loud noise it made when it landed supposedly frightened one officer. Prosecutors wanted him imprisoned for 2.5 years. In the end, he was jailed from August 2 to December 24, 2019, sentenced to time already served, and fined 100,000 rubles (about $1,325).
Sergey Abanichev, another defendant accused of assaulting a police officer during Moscow’s summer 2019 protests, was initially charged with throwing a plastic cup “in the direction of the police.” After spending a month jailed in pretrial detention, the authorities freed him and closed their investigation due to a lack of evidence.
Bonus! What has President Putin said about criminal cases like these?
Vladimir Putin is on the record in opposition to throwing anything at the police — even virtually harmless objects like plastic cups and bottles — and he’s warned that perpetrators who carry out these vicious assaults could face prison time.
In 2019, against a background of mass protests in Moscow, Presidential Human Rights Council Chairman Valery Fadeyev told Putin that “throwing an empty plastic cup in the direction of the police shouldn’t lead to a prison sentence.”
In response, the president described a grim world where such attacks go unpunished and the violence escalates out of control: “He throws a plastic cup at a government official today and nothing happens. Then he throws a plastic bottle. Again, nothing. Then he’s throwing a glass bottle and then it’s a stone, and then they start shooting and looting stores.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock