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‘We just want Russia to be better’ Meduza looks back on the January 31 opposition protests in a dispatch from St. Petersburg

Source: Meduza
Valentin Yegorshin / AP / Scanpix /LETA

Protesters across Russia took to the streets for the second weekend in a row on January 31, to oppose the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Once again, the city of St. Petersburg emerged as a focal point of the demonstrations, in part because of the violent actions of local police. In addition to beating up protesters, police officers used tasers while detaining demonstrators and arrested more than a thousand people in total. In a dispatch from St. Petersburg, Meduza looks back on the day’s events.

“Either the city is already occupied, or it’s preparing for an enemy invasion.” That’s how Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition leader in the city duma, described the situation in St. Petersburg on the eve of the protests. 

As early as January 30, hundreds of police officers and dozens of special vehicles were spotted on the city’s streets. Fences were erected on the downtown Vosstaniya Square, and the entrance to Palace Square through the arch near the Hermitage Museum was blocked by orange water cannons.

The next day, the police completely occupied the city center. By 10:30 a.m., 90 minutes before the protest was scheduled to start, no one was allowed onto the main thoroughfare, Nevsky Avenue, without presenting ID — or a ticket to the Hermitage, since visitors were being allowed into the museum. One member of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (which is located near the Hermitage), was permitted to pass through the cordon without showing ID, since he was carrying his balalaika.

‘What a fuss’

As in Moscow, where the city center was also blocked off, Navalny’s supporters in St. Petersburg had to relocate the starting point of their protest. Instead of meeting on Nevsky Avenue, they gathered in front of the Bryantsev Youth Theater on Pionerskaya Square.

Riot police in helmets and full combat gear arrived at the same time as the first protesters. “What a fuss,” one of the officers observed, while climbing out of a truck. The police marched toward the theater and stood opposite the protesters, who between 200 and 300 people at the time. The protesters held signs saying: “Russia will be free because Alyoshka [Navalny] is with you,” “I am tired of counting your billions,” and “Russia is in the hands of fascists.” Protesters holding signs were the first to be detained.  

“What, are you going to hit me?” one of the protesters screamed as he was dragged away by his arms and legs.  

“Who needs you?” one of the officers retorted.

As more people gathered near the theater, the police response grew harsher. People were dragged from among the demonstrators and journalists were knocked down. Some people fell in the muddy snow and crawled away. Members of the crowd shouted, “We are not afraid!” And they threw snowballs.

At one point, a cluster of protesters stood in front of the police line and called out, “Why are you hitting us? We just want Russia to be better! Your mothers live on 10,000 rubles [about $132] a month, you are satisfied with this?” The riot police didn’t reply. Behind their fogged-up visors, you could see their stern young faces.

“I came to the rally on January 23,” said a 20-year-old student named Maria, who was standing in front of a line of riot police. “Last time the police hit me in the leg with a truncheon and pulled me by my hair. But I’m still not afraid. I came here because it’s my city and my country. And I don’t like what’s happening [here].”

Almost all the protesters interviewed by Meduza explained that they were motivated by social and economic problems: low salaries, corruption, or mistrust of the judicial system. Navalny’s name was hardly mentioned, although it was often shouted out by the crowd.

 “I started going to rallies just this year,” said Inna, a 33-year-old protester. “Now more people are coming to the protests. And this means they won’t all be detained.”

‘Don’t retreat!’

At about 1:30 pm, someone in the crowd shouted “Let’s go to Sennaya Square!” The protesters started heading towards Zagorodny Avenue, occupying the roadway. Some drivers honked to signal their support for the protesters, while others demanded that they move out of the way. 

Soon, the street was blocked by riot police, and the protesters began scattering onto nearby streets. Groups of officers surrounded them and grabbed them one at a time.

“Let Nikita go! He didn’t do anything, I love him!” one girl screamed as her friend was taken.

“What an abomination it all is,” a 70-year-old woman said quietly as she watched the arrests. Then she added: “How do I get home now?” 

Because of the mass arrests, not all the protesters reached Sennaya Square. And even more of them were detained once they got there. Russian National Guard troops raised their grey shields and began pounding on them in unison, before marching toward the protesters with their batons. 

Demonstrators who tried to defend those being beaten up and detained by the security forces were tasered. According to several media sources, the police also used tear gas and stun grenades. Police officials later denied these reports.

“Do not retreat, do not retreat!” the protesters shouted. A few of them ran toward the guardsmen and riot police, pushing them aside. At that point, an officer pulled out his service pistol and pointed it at a group of demonstrators .

The protesters briefly pulled back, but then approached the officer, shouting, “Leave!” Fearful of turning his back on the crowd, he slowly backed away surrounded by three or four riot policemen. A few minutes later he finally put away his gun. I think even the police officers were happy about that.  

Later, the Interior Ministry stated that the policeman’s actions had been “justified and legal,” as they were prompted by “aggressive illegal actions” that created “an obvious threat” to the officer. Criminal proceedings have already been initiated in connection with the protesters accused of the “illegal actions.”

Dmitry Lovetsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA
Olga Maltseva / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
 Anton Vaganov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

‘Down with the tsar!’

From Sennaya Square, the protesters moved on to the Mariinsky Palace, where the city’s Legislative Assembly is located. Hundreds of people stood on the steps of the palace and chanted: “One-two-three, Putin leave!” and “Down with the tsar!”  

The arrests started up again. One young man was hit in the head with a truncheon. Blood poured into his eyes, flowing through his fingers as he tried to wipe it away. “Call an ambulance!” shouted the crowd.

Around 15 buses had been parked on the square, and police began loading protesters into them. Some were taken calmly, but others had their hands forced behind their backs or were dragged along the ground. Members of the crowd shouted insults and threw snowballs at the police. 

Within about an hour, the square in front of the palace had been cleared. The protesters moved back, first to Sennaya Square and then to the square in front of Bryantsev Youth Theater. This was the route Navalny’s local headquarters suggested on their Telegram channel.

The largest group of protesters — some 2,000 to 3,000 people — walked along Gorokhovaya Street. They held up their phones, flashlights illuminated, as if to greet each other and say thanks.

Other protesters marched towards the theater by way of the Military Medical Museum. Loudspeakers outside of the museum invited people to attend an “anatomical theater” starting at 6:00 o’clock — the protesters made grim jokes in response.

The mass detentions continued unabated. In total, more than 1,000 people were detained in St. Petersburg. Among them was Russian rapper Oxxxymiron, who attended the protests on his 36th birthday (he was later released without charges.) Several journalists were also detained, despite the fact that they were wearing orange vests and armbands that said “Press.” Some of them were beaten up with batons and even tasered along with the protesters.  

About 300 to 400 people reached the theater, which Navalny’s supporters had designated as the end point for the protests. They were met by about 200 riot police officers and National Guard troops, who rounded up 20 to 30 people and held them until empty police vans arrived.

As buses filled with protesters left for local police stations, the protesters shouted, “Hooray! We’re with you!” From a passing car came the sad sound of lyric from a famous protest song by Viktor Tsoi: “We’re waiting for change.”

Story by Katerina Dementyev with additional reporting by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Carol Matlack

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