When large-scale demonstrations take place in Moscow, I try to find out how my relatives and friends there are doing. I take an interest, even though I don’t feel altogether comfortable doing it. After all, I’m ensconced safely in my home in Israel while they’re running risks in the streets. And who knows, all that correspondence might be used against them if it ever finds its way to the police, or to the Interior Ministry’s Center for Combating Extremism.
Still, I write and they reply. They also replied to my questions for the purpose of this article – I hope its publication won’t cause them any harm. I also hope that their voices – the voices of ordinary citizens who haven’t been especially engaged in politics and activism – will help others understand what’s been going on in Russia during the past few years, and more intensively in the past few weeks, since the return to Russia by opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The very question of whether it’s safe to send a message via Facebook Messenger gives me a choking feeling. Is the Putin regime also shackling me to being fearful, even at a distance of thousands of kilometers? Or is it just my own paranoia and over-caution? I don’t think it’s completely paranoia. Even as I’m writing these lines a “push” notification arrives from one of the opposition websites in Russia. It’s about a Moscow resident who was jailed for eight days for making an indirect call to people to demonstrate, in a comment on one of the social media.
The article you’re reading came into being as a result of a similar coincidence. On the eve of the demonstrations at the end of January, two of my relatives and a good friend were visited by police officers: my nephew Danya, my cousin Vera and my daughter’s online guitar teacher, Anya, with whom we’re in close, daily touch. All three live in or around Moscow. They are not part of one social circle. And none is among the ardent supporters of Navalny.
These police visits are part of a Kremlin operation of unprecedented scale intended to suppress the demonstrations that erupted following Navalny’s return a month ago to Russia from Germany, where he was treated after being poisoned with a lethal nerve toxin. The operation involves searches, house arrests, the opening of criminal files, dismissal of teachers and lecturers who have taken part in demonstrations even if they did so on their day off, closure of many subway stations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the massive dispatch of police officers wearing masks and protective gear that have led to their being dubbed “cosmonauts.” And there have been arrests, of course. Thousands of them.
Russia has experienced several waves of demonstrations over the past decade. All were suppressed by means of arrests, fines and in some cases imprisonment of the participants. The first took place starting at the end of 2011, following allegations of election tampering. Subsequent waves of protest occurred between 2015 and 2018. Navalny consolidated his oppositional status against that backdrop.
Navalny’s character – in the past he identified with nationalist forces and called for restrictions on immigration – has generated controversy among the liberal opposition to Putin over the years. He also came under fire for his equivocal stance on the war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Nevertheless, Navalny is perceived as the only politician who posits a clear and organized alternative to the Kremlin.
- The man Putin fears most: Deciphering the Navalny enigma
- Russian police detain over 4,000, including wife of jailed Putin critic Navalny at Moscow protest
The attempt to poison him last summer, widely assumed to have been carried out by the intelligence services has transformed him from well-liked politician to popular hero. What happened in the interim has only heightened admiration for him. First he exposed the network of intelligence agents who had surveilled him for years; then he recorded a thrillingly bold conversation with an agent who acknowledged taking part in the cover-up of the poisoning operation; and finally, after those defiant acts, he didn’t hesitate to announce his return to the homeland, which led to his immediate arrest and imprisonment. After his incarceration he dealt his adversaries yet another blow with the release of a film exposing the obscenely costly and extravagant “Putin Palace.”
This sequence of events has brought people into the streets in even the most distant reaches of Russia: from Yakutsk in the permanently frozen north, where demonstrators braved a temperature of minus-50 degrees Celsius, to Sochi, Putin’s Black Sea resort town, in the country’s far south. Some 10,000 protesters have been arrested to date in this wave; Navalny was ultimately sent to prison for two years and eight months for ostensibly violating parole by leaving the country for treatment after the poisoning.
Paying the fine
Tanya, 67, is the grandmother of my nephew, Danya. She’s a psychologist and he’s a psychology student, in the finest family tradition. Danya, 23, was detained at a Moscow demonstration three weeks ago, and released a few hours later after being charged with the administrative offense of taking part in an “unauthorized event.” It wasn’t his first arrest at a protest called for by Navalny. Two weeks ago, I asked Tanya whether they were planning to participate in the upcoming demonstrations. She replied that they weren’t.
“Danya’s trial is on February 15, but they just came and took him to the police station,” she said then. “An investigator came to the station to ask him for explanations. I’m as mad as a hornet.” (At his trial this week, Danya was fined 30,000 rubles, approximately $400.)
Tanya always defends her grandson. I asked whether she wasn’t allowed to go with him to the station. “I hadn’t intended to go anyway,” Tanya replied. “He’ll be back now and will even buy bread on the way. It’s just stupid bureaucracy.”
Two hours later she was singing a different tune. “Lizke, you were right, I should have gone with him. We’re naïve. Now they’re not releasing him. He was charged with an additional minor offense. They claim he cursed in a public place! That’s of course a blatant lie, because they took him from his house [directly to the station]. He shouldn’t have opened the door and gone with them.”
That story had a relatively good ending. Danya was released later that evening, after about eight hours, during which his grandmother was utterly distraught. In a cell, given nothing to eat or drink, Danya occupied himself by singing and whistling. When other detainees were brought in, he briefed them on how to act in the face of the police-bureaucracy machine.
“The only thing that worries me with all my arrests is how I’ll pay the fines,” Danya told me in a Zoom conversation the next day. “I don’t earn much, and even that’s sporadic. Besides, I don’t want Grandma and Mom to worry. All the rest is of no concern, really. I would even say that the feeling of confrontation with this farce makes me stronger. What I do feel is rage.”
Two days later, on the day of Navalny’s trial, when large numbers of young people took to the streets in downtown Moscow to protest on his behalf, Tanya wrote me that this time she had persuaded Danya to stay home. “Maybe it’s a pity,” she added. “It looks happy there, everyone’s walking around, shouting slogans, and no one is being arrested.”
Apparently the images of the army of police officers beating demonstrators and herding them into buses hadn’t yet reached her.
‘Faces of stone’
Every Friday, Tanya holds a solo demonstration next to a subway station close to her home. She’s been doing it consistently for a year and a half, each time brandishing a different poster of her own making. She started her private protest in the wake of the annual ceremony at which names of the victims of the Stalin era are read out in Lubyanka Square in Moscow.
“I read out the list I got and said, I don’t want a repeat of the Gulag era. When I heard about a certain trial that was taking place – I don’t remember which one anymore – I began to go into the street,” to protest, she said.
The only thing that worries me with all my arrests is how I’ll pay the fines. Besides, I don’t want Grandma and Mom to worry. All the rest is of no concern. I’d even say that the confrontation with this farce makes me stronger. What I do feel is rage.Danya
Tanya hasn’t been feeling well lately and can’t take part in demonstrations that involve long marches. But she can stand in one place. During the summer she stands near the subway station for two hours; in the winter for 45 minutes. She’s alone – but not really: Across Russia there are other activists like her, who have assumed the obligation of staging a weekly protest among the thousands of people who are rushing about their business, holding up a modest sign with texts that some might find irritating. Recently most of Tanya’s posters have been devoted to the cause of Alexei Navalny.
“My attitude toward him has improved,” she told me. “The truth is that I think he himself has improved. People change, they change their views. You can’t say that just because he was once a nationalist that makes him a son of a bitch for his whole life.”
According to Tanya, “most people pass by without looking, with faces of stone. Sometimes there are good days and a lot of ‘likes’: People smile, give a thumbs-up, some come over to say thanks, ask if I’m not afraid. But sometimes people behave aggressively. Once people spat on my sign, sometimes I’m asked how much I’m being paid. People tell me that Putin is good and all the rest [of the leaders] are bad.”
How do you respond to that? It really is scary, no?
Tanya: “I’m not afraid of these things, Liza. I worked 26 years in a psychiatric hospital.”
Despite the problems, she does sometimes go home with the feeling that her demonstration has meaning, especially if she has the opportunity to exchange a few words with sympathetic people: “But the truth is that that’s rare. Usually I stand there simply with a feeling of ‘You have to do what you have to do, and whatever happens, happens.’”
Tanya frequently draws the attention of the police. Sometimes they jot down her ID information, sometimes they just show their presence (“In our neighborhood they’re usually polite”).
But the last time was different for Tanya. Thousands of battle-ready police troops had been deployed in Moscow, making the city feel like an occupied zone. When the officers noticed her at the subway station they recorded her ID details, and this time, when she arrived back home, they were waiting for her.
“And then one of them displayed a bit of determination,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “He grabbed me by the sleeve and started to push me toward their vehicle, trying to persuade me to join them, because ‘the boss wants to talk to you.’ I started struggling to free myself, the neighbors saw what was going on, and in the end those characters let me be and drove off. What is this? Real terrorism!”
Anya, a 41-year-old guitar teacher, doesn’t like Navalny or his aggressive rhetoric. “But as someone wrote: ‘First let them release him, and then I’ll explain why I’m not for him.’”
She lives in a small city outside Moscow and is involved in several social media-based campaigns: For instance, she’s frequently outspoken about the neglect in the local hospital and also defends historian Yury Dmitriev, who has spent decades identify the execution and burial sites of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror, and was recently sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was tried on a charge of sexually abusing his adopted daughter, in a procedure that was roundly criticized in the West.
“In our city, 99 percent of the people prefer to be silent,” Anya told me via Zoom. “They find out what happened through acquaintances, and are helped by acquaintances to obtain [individual] treatment with a good doctor – but not to fight for a common cause. When I discovered Facebook, I thought to myself: Hey, the mayor, the public representatives and the directors of many institutions are on Facebook, so why not ask them questions? That’s all I do: write posts. I’m not an activist and not a member of any party, I’m just a mother.”
Knocks on the door
On January 23, Anya’s picture was taken with about 20 other people in her city’s main square. It wasn’t an actual demonstration; the people in the photo weren’t carrying posters or shouting slogans. But afterward the image was shared on the web above the caption, “Freedom for Navalny, freedom for political prisoners.” Soon afterward, police officers paid three successive visits to Anya at home.
The officers pressed Anya to sign a document ‘concerning the violation of legal norms in organizing public events.’ She refused. When she wrote a few posts about the officers’ visits, it only caused them to step up the pressure.
“We don’t actually know how the police and the state authorities work,” she told me. “In the end, they can do as they please, because we don’t know how to respond when they knock on our door. I’m not afraid of the police officers who work here in our area, but if there’s an initiative from above to make trouble for a person so he’ll stop gathering people around him – that’s scary.”
On the first visit the officers said they wanted to talk with her and said: “Apparently, you didn’t do anything against the law, but when you go out precisely on a day like that – it’s liable to be understood that you’re in favor of all that.” After an exchange of words, Anya said she probably wouldn’t go out next time, but she could make her opinion known in other ways, too, such as on the web.
The next day she got a call summoning her to the police station for a talk. When she refused to go, after consulting a lawyer, there was another knock on her door. A short time later her mother was also paid a visit. Then the officers came back to Anya, on a Sunday morning, right before the start of the second set of demonstrations that followed Navalny’s arrest. They pressed her to sign a document concerning “the violation of legal norms while organizing public events.” She refused. Betwixt and between, she wrote a few Facebook posts about the police’s visits, which only made them ratchet up the pressure and complain, “You’re writing all kinds of things and we’re getting negative reactions to our work.”
Anya didn’t take part in the January 31 protests. Now she has other worries. “In the past few years, I expressed my opinion on social media, and that can’t be erased.” The Dmitriev case showed how the government can settle accounts with someone and ruin their reputation, she added. “They say it’s impossible to imprison everyone, but it’s not that everyone has been demonstrating. The people who went out into the streets are the salt of the earth, and they will be destroyed, just like at the beginning of the 20th century.”
My cousin Vera, 48, was arrested a year and a half ago during demonstrations in Moscow protesting the ban on the participation of independent candidates in the city council election. Vera spent two nights in prison.
It was a traumatic experience, she said: The loss of freedom, even for a brief time, is shattering for the detainee. Since that experience, which ended with a trial and a fine of 14,000 rubles (about $190), she’s been a volunteer on the hotline of OVD-Info, which monitors political arrests and provides legal counsel to detainees. “I know what they’re feeling when they call, and I think I know what to tell them.”
So you’re actually also giving them psychological first aid.
Vera: “I’m afraid that psychological aid is all I can provide. In fact, that’s all everyone provides, including the lawyers, because very little depends on the decisions made by the detainees.”
According to her, “the police officer who came to my house was pathetic.” He gave her a warning, asking her to sign a document saying that she would not “continue to engage in antisocial activity.”
Vera: “He said that they check whether the warnings are conveyed, and that he had already been here eight times before finding me at home. He has to report to his superiors that he visited me and write down the time he arrived – afterward they’ll check it on the security cameras.”
The impression is that they’ve visited everyone – a huge amount of work!
“The scope of the enforcement mechanism is vast. At last they have something to keep themselves busy.”
Despite the warning, you went to the second demonstration [on January 31], too. Do you have doubts every time you go to demonstrate?
“Clearly there are doubts. I tremble with fear each time. The intimidation methods work, they’re frightening. But the decision is still made every time on the basis of the question of whether it’s necessary to go or not. In other words, the same way it was decided before. Only back then it wasn’t scary, and now it is.”
After the second demonstration, Vera returned to her shift on the hotline of the organization where she volunteers. At 3 A.M., she got a call from a woman whose husband and son had gone out to do errands without knowing arrests were being made near their house. They saw the police roadblocks, turned into a side alley to bypass them, ran into officers again and turned around to go back home. But the police caught up with them, beat the son brutally and arrested the father. The physicians in the hospital where the youth was taken refused to give the hospitalization records to his mother and told her that in cases like this everything is transferred to the police.
What struck Vera was the woman’s sincere desire to prove they had nothing to do with the demonstrators. “She said she understands that they’re beating up people who are wandering about shouting things, but what had her husband and son done? I wanted to tell her that that’s exactly why they’re shouting. But clearly that would have been out of place, and I refrained.
“There’s this joke on the web,” she continued. “A kid says, ‘Dad, why are they searching our home?’ The father replies, ‘I don’t know, dear, I am not interested in politics.’ I always thought that it was actually possible not to take an interest and not be harassed, but you see, it seems to be impossible. Stories like that show that the water is starting to overflow the pot.”
Yes, but does that mean we can expect changes for the better?
“For sure there will be changes for the better. The question is, when? The sooner it happens, the less blood there will be.”