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A solo picketer outside of St. Petersburg’s Gostiny Dvor. June 4, 2021.

Going solo The ‘solitary picket’ was once a key method of public protest in Russia. Here’s how the authorities did away with it.

Source: Meduza
A solo picketer outside of St. Petersburg’s Gostiny Dvor. June 4, 2021.
A solo picketer outside of St. Petersburg’s Gostiny Dvor. June 4, 2021.
Elena Ushakova / Kommersant

For many years, solitary pickets have been a cornerstone of public protest in Russia. Whereas protest rallies have long required official permission, holding a solo demonstration was, at one time, a legal way to publicly express one’s discontent. Though the authorities began working to close this loophole following major protests in 2012, the crackdown on individual picketers reached its peak in 2020. Under the guise of combating the spread of COVID-19, the Russian authorities were able to effectively ban not only public gatherings, but also single-person pickets. Meduza breaks down how they did it here.

St. Petersburg’s annual Scarlet Sails celebration for high school graduates took place on June 25. Despite the fact that the city was in the throes of a third coronavirus wave, tens of thousands of people gathered on Palace Square and Nevsky Avenue — social distancing was out of the question and many people weren’t wearing masks.

Be that as it may, St. Petersburg police only arrested two people for violating health and safety regulations — and neither of them were partaking in the festivities. Activists Evgeniya Smetankina and Maria Shiryaeva were detained on Nevsky Avenue for holding solitary pickets calling for the release of political prisoners. Both women were taken to a police station and only released after midnight — once the graduation celebrations had officially ended. 

Covert public gatherings

Solo pickets were once a relatively safe — though perhaps not highly effective — protest strategy in Russia. These solitary protests didn’t require authorization from government officials and were carried out by activists and ordinary citizens alike. But things changed in 2012, when, after rigged parliamentary elections and the re-election of Vladimir Putin for a third presidential term sparked mass protests, the authorities amended the federal law “On Rallies.” These changes enabled the courts to recognize cases involving several solo pickets “united by a single idea and a common organization” as a single public gathering.

In 2013, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that these new restrictions didn’t contradict the country’s basic law, concluding that they were “aimed at preventing abuse of the right not to notify the public authorities about individual picketing.” In other words, according to the Constitutional Court, multiple people carrying out solitary pickets over the same issue, at the same time, and in the same general area, could be considered participants in an unauthorized rally. 

In conversation with Meduza, OVD-Info lawyer Aleks Lokhmutov confirmed that after 2012, the courts began frequently recognizing cases involving multiple solitary pickets as “covert public gatherings” — and punishing participants accordingly. “This legal provision allows the courts to consider a series of individual pickets as a mass event according to the criteria established by the Constitutional Court. But in practice the courts of general jurisdiction ignore these criteria,” the lawyer explained.

This legal provision has been even used to prosecute Putin’s supporters: for example, an activist in Krasnoyarsk was fined 20,000 rubles (about $270) in May 2020 for holding a solo picket in support of the proposed amendments to the constitution. The charges were based on the fact that another one-man picket in support of the same cause was taking place at the same time. 

However, it’s most common for solitary pickets to be “turned into” public assemblies due to instigators, Lokhmutov noted. These poster-wielding (or even empty-handed) provocateurs will simply approach solo protesters and, in turn, the police respond to the apparent increase in the number of picketers and start making arrests. Sometimes the police accuse journalists covering solo pickets of taking part in demonstrations.

What’s more, since 2016, individual pickets involving “the use of prefabricated structures” require permission from the authorities. As has been seen in practice, just about anything can be deemed a “prefabricated structure.” For example, in April 2018, the police detained a solo picketer protesting sexual harassment for carrying a cardboard cutout of State Duma lawmaker Leonid Slutsky — the police deemed the cardboard figure a “prefabricated structure.” 

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Pickets versus the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic brought about a significant crackdown on solitary pickets due to the health restrictions imposed across Russia. “Initially, the bans concerned rallies with a large number of participants, but after a while some regions prohibited public gatherings of any size, including individual pickets. The corresponding regulations were prescribed in the anti-covid orders,” Lokhmutov explained. 

The lawyer said that in practice, this was enforced differently in different regions. For example, in Moscow, solo protesters were consistently detained and put on trial, whereas in the Pskov region there were cases where misdemeanor charges against lone picketers were dropped (local judges interpreted the coronavirus restrictions as prohibiting “mass events” specifically).

As the number of COVID-19 cases decreased, the authorities began lifting restrictions — but this didn’t apply to solitary pickets. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, individual picketers are still detained and fined regularly on misdemeanor charges of violating “quarantine” regulations.

Lawyer Alexander Peredruk from Apologia Protesta, who specializes in helping protesters detained at demonstrations, is convinced that in these situations, health restrictions are simply being used as an excuse to detain opposition activists, and not to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “The fact that individual pickets are much safer than going to the store or attending a large-scale cultural event [...] is of no interest to anyone,” he told Meduza.

OVD-Info also shared statistics with Meduza that demonstrate just how much the crackdown on one-man protests has grown. The number of people known to have been arrested while carrying out solitary pickets in Moscow was 121 in 2018 and 143 in 2019. By comparison, at least 377 solo demonstrators were detained in the Russian capital in the first seven months of 2020 alone. In total, at least 799 people were arrested while carrying out single-person pickets across Russia last year. 

In conversation with Meduza, Alexander Peredruk noted that the punishments for picketing also vary by region. For example, in St. Petersburg, solo picketers are actively fined under the local law on administrative offenses, which stipulates a 4,000-ruble fine ($54) for first-time offenders and a 5,000-ruble fine ($68) for a second violation. However, according to federal law, picketers can also be jailed on misdemeanor charges, and repeated participation in unauthorized protests can lead to criminal charges under what’s known as “Dadin’s article.” In addition, Russia’s law “On Rallies” was tightened in late 2020, allowing the courts to also recognize “picket lines” (where demonstrators take turns protesting) as unauthorized rallies.

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Lawyer Aleks Lokhmutov from OVD-Info, who has analyzed more than 1,000 court rulings on individual pickets from across Russia, told Meduza that he noted another trend — in addition to the constant tightening of penalties, the courts rarely drop misdemeanor charges related to solo pickets. And if they do, it’s usually on formal grounds: “For example, the police officers drew up the protocol incorrectly.” In Moscow, less than 1 percent of cases concerning solitary pickets are dropped. 

Picketmen and Picketwomen 

In July 202, Novaya Gazeta journalist and municipal deputy Ilya Azar (a former Meduza special correspondent) launched a project called “Picketmen” — a website where people can donate money to pay fines handed down to solo protesters and sign a petition calling on the authorities stop prosecuting individual picketers. 

Azar is known for organizing “picket lines” and carries out solitary pickets regularly. He was even arrested for picketing in late May 2020. 

Ilya Azar’s arrest outside the Interior Ministry headquarters in Moscow on May 26, 2020

“What’s happening now with single-person pickets is complete lawlessness,” Azar told Meduza. The way he sees it, in the current situation, helping people pay fines is one of the few ways to show solidarity with those detained for protesting. 

As Azar recalls, in 2019, he and journalist Liza Nesterova organized a similar fundraiser to pay the fines incurred during a protest march calling for the release of Meduza special correspondent Ivan Golunov after he was arrested on trumped up drug charges. “We did this because we were the initiators of that march and we felt that it was our responsibility to help people with the payment of fines. Picketmen is built on the same model — in the sense that I myself organized and participated in many picket queues in 2019 and 2020. Therefore, for me, it’s both a personal story and a responsibility,” Azar explained.

So far, the project has helped raise money to pay fines handed down to 43 activists — Azar calls them “picketmen” and “picketwomen.” Some of them were ordered to pay as much as 300,00 rubles in fines (more than $4,000). That said, the Picketmen project doesn’t have the capacity to help protesters who are fined for participating in larger rallies. “It’s unrealistic to collect money for all the fines,” Azar told Meduza. 

According to the Picketmen founder, the authorities began an active campaign against solitary pickets in the spring of 2020 — after the “picket line” in support of the defendants in the “Network” terrorism case. On this occasion, several hundred solo picketers took turns protesting outside the FSB headquarters on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. “According to the unwritten rules of the FSB this is obviously unacceptable. Because this place is sacred and no protest actions have ever been allowed there. Despite this, the demonstration wasn’t dispersed. But I don’t rule out that [FSB Director Alexander] Bortnikov, having seen hundreds of protesters from his window, decided that it was time to end single-person pickets,” Azar told Meduza. “In the end, everything coincided: the pandemic, pressure from the FSB, and the decision to restrict everything and everyone.”

Following the picket line in support of the defendants in the “Network Case,” any attempt to protest near the FSB headquarters was harshly suppressed. In conversation with Meduza, Azar underscored that under the current conditions, organizing coordinated solitary picketers is pointless because you’re essentially setting people up to be detained and charged. “If in terms of organization and coordination [with the authorities] a ‘picket line’ doesn’t differ from a rally, then it’s not very clear why it should be used [as a protest method],” Azar said. “Actually, this is why they stopped being held.”

That said, OVD-Info lawyer Aleks Lokhmutov believes that it’s too soon to talk about a total de facto ban on solitary pickets in Russia. To support his argument, he cites the case of former activist Inna Nikiforova from Kazan. In May 2021, she was handed misdemeanor charges for organizing a series of single-person pickets against the construction of an incineration plant in Tatarstan — the protesters picketed outside of the regional government building for a month. The police accused Nikiforova of organizing an unauthorized “mass event” using social media. But the activist appealed to the Constitutional Court, arguing that pickets that aren’t held simultaneously “don’t constitute a crowd of people” and therefore can’t be considered a “mass event.” In the end, the Constitutional Court sided with Nikiforova. And according to Lokhmutov, this case could set a precedent that will help to appeal charges related to solitary pickets in the future.

Apologia Protesta lawyer Alexander Peredruk is less optimistic. As he pointed out, nearly all solo pickets end in arrests, regardless of their theme. “There is a general trend toward clearing public space of any public gatherings,” Peredruk said.

Picketmen creator Ilya Azar agreed. “The political regime in Russia has finally succumbed to insanity,” he told Meduza. “In general, it bans, shuts down, and jails anyone and everyone. Undoubtedly, sooner or later, people outraged at what is happening will spontaneously take to the streets, as they did in Belarus and even now in Cuba. But I can’t say how it will end.”

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Story by Alexey Shumkin

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart