Russia protests: The experience of taking to the streets

Photo by Кирилл Жаркой on Unsplash

CN: police brutality and violence

The January protests

On 23 January, the front doors of central Moscow were open. However, it was not just the first floors of residential buildings that became hiding spots from the police on that day. The McDonald’s on Pushkin Square was also a popular place for hiding from the police. Some people distributed tea, while others held the doors for protesters who were running away. On 31 January, the same McDonald’s witnessed the self-immolation of a man during another protest. His motives were unknown and thankfully, he lived, but a rose was laid on the concrete floor for three days after the incident as a memory of what had happened.

In January, a series of protests took place in Russia after the famous anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, considered to be leader of the opposition, was arrested and detained when coming back to Moscow after nearly dying in a nerve agent attack.

Whilst this may have triggered the wave of rallies and protests, Navalny is not necessarily the main reason that people went out onto the streets in those days. To some extent, people are protesting for similar reasons they have been protesting throughout history. The protests of 2021 focused on free, honest elections and the change of government. After all, jokes about Vladimir Putin being a modern ‘tsar’ are popular for a reason.

Governmental politics is undoubtedly a crucial part of this conversation but it is important to focus on the fundamental reason why the protests started in the first place - a general lack of trust in the authorities. It is not a secret that Russia has many political prisoners, such as Azat Miftakhov, an anarchist and mathematician detained for 6 years for a broken window in an office of United Russia, Russia’s current ruling political party.

Recently, after the protests in January, the police simply ran out of places to put arrested and detained people in: they put up to ten people in a cell made for four, with no regard for any sanitary or Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines. However, many detainees did not lose hope. Some filled the yard of the special detention facility ‘Sakharovo’ with singing and playing ‘ring-around-the-rosy,’ shared their coats because the police did not provide them with blankets or other items despite the winter, and even created a small lecture hall inside their cell, each individual sharing knowledge with others.

Almost everyone who went out to protest in January was aware of the possibility of being detained or facing physical violence from the police. However, unlike previous protests, these turned nationwide, and many even created innovative methods of protesting. One of the peaceful actions that took place on 14 February was called ‘Love is stronger than fear’ and involved people going out to the streets and lighting their flashlights as a way of showing solidarity and reminding each other that they are never alone.

Some who didn’t protest found other ways to support the political action, such as donating to ‘OVD-Info’ and ‘Apology of the protest’, both legal organisations supporting political prisoners and victims of police brutality. A charity livestream on YouTube hosted by Ekaterina Shulman, a political scientist, raised almost six million rubles (around £58,836) for those nonprofits. Another project was called ‘Peredachki’ and focused on ensuring that those detained and arrested had everything they needed - food, clothes, water. The volunteers brought supplies to police stations or jails, sometimes spending several hours in a line or waiting in the cold until after midnight in order to help someone they had never met.

'Russia will be free': A firsthand account of protesting

In order to fully understand the motives and the experience of protesting, I asked Eugenia*, who was arrested in January, to share her experiences and thoughts.

When asked about her reason for protesting, she smiles. “I think it’s quite obvious - I’ve been going to protests since 2017. I remember my first protest like it was yesterday - I had pink hair and we were on the Pushkin Square. I knew that what I was doing was very dangerous, but even being 15 I knew it was worth it,” she shakes her head. “I left quite early though because the protest turned quite violent very quickly and I got scared.

“My motivation was clear. I wasn't interested in politics but I was interested in people and their destiny. You know, I was an idealistic kid who believed in greater good. I still do, I think,” she laughs. “We have an opinion and we have to express it. I knew that if I wasn’t there I would have regretted it later. I knew it when I was 15 and I still know it to this day.”

Eugenia tries to remember the faces she saw at her first protest. “There were a lot of adults there, even though all of the governmental channels were saying that the protestors are mostly ‘stupid kids’. I remember people being 30, 40, even 70 years old. There was also a lot of media and we were trying to stand closer to them because that way there’s a smaller chance of being arrested.”

She chuckles once again, mentioning that there is something poetic in a way that she and others learned how to avoid police violence at protests from the age of 15. “I had a feeling we were all together and that we knew what we were doing, which was not particularly true, but, you know, we all shared the same goal. I was small, and people smiled at me. And even though I was scared we all felt united.”

Eugenia’s face falls when asked about the January events. “23rd January, what a day!” she says. “I was surprised at the amount of people because it was freezing! But I also kind of knew there was going to be a lot of us.

“The protest was going to be big and we were all terrified. For the first time in my life I felt scared about protesting, but we had to go. It didn’t feel like a choice.

“There was a lot of snow and it calmed me down somehow, and yes, it was very scary but I decided I will joke my way through it. Jokes really do help the spirit, especially when you hear someone else laugh at them as well.” Eugenia also focuses on the people and mentions that they were all different - young, old, retired - yet shared similar ideas.

She also mentions that there were provocateurs as well and sometimes it was difficult to distinguish who was on which side and who can you trust, but, in general, the peaceful protesters outnumbered them. “We were all connected in one way or another,” she mentions, “even though we could differ in some points of views. I had a feeling the whole Russia was on the streets that day.”

Another protest, a more violent one, took place on 31 January. Eugenia did not go because the whole city was shut down, including the underground stations, but she could not just sit inside while people were out protesting. “I couldn't stay at home, so I decided to stage a solo protest, which is, actually, the most legal form of protest in Russia. I had a white poster with ‘Russia will be free’ written in red.”

“I managed to stand there for an hour or so - it was snowing. People smiled at me and waved,” she says. “One bus driver even stopped and offered me help. After that a black car with no signs approached and somebody took a photo of me - that was where I started getting concerned.” Eugenia mentions she noticed the police before they started approaching, and even thought about leaving. “But then I realised that what I was doing is completely legal and there was no reason for me to feel like a criminal.

“There were about eight police officers - bearing in mind, I was alone and only nineteen. They approached me and started asking questions and taking photos. I showed them my passport and they took it away even though that’s illegal. They also specifically asked me not to film them, not that I had any possibility of doing that,” Eugenia says. She also mentions that the first thing she did after being arrested was to call OVD-info who offered her legal help. However, she understood that at that moment there were over 1000 arrests in Moscow already, so she declined and said that she would manage by herself.

“The officers were not exactly nice,” she says, smiling like this is self-explanatory. “They laughed at me for my stuttering, took my fingerprints even though they were not legally allowed to do that if I had my passport with me. Which I had. Through all of that I felt constant anxiety, and I think a lot of people are suffering from paranoia and anxiety after the protests and being detained, but I don't regret a single thing. I knew that I was right, I knew that it was for a good cause, and if you are truly doing something good, you don’t specifically need the approval of the authorities.”

Eugenia mentions that there is a possibility that Russian people will need to wait to be fully ready for continued protesting. “But I am ready to do that,” she adds. When asked if she has a final message, she nods. “I want people to stay kind despite everything. I want people to take care of each other, because the world will try to make this whole thing feel very difficult in both mental and physical ways. Russia will be free, and most importantly - it will be happy.”

*names have been changed.

This article has been written as part of a series on the protests in Russia.

Read the other articles in the series here:

"Russia Protests: Is Alexei Navalny the man to take down Putin?" by Georgie Andrews,

"Russia Protests: Is Covid-19 to blame?" by Katherine Seymour.

"Russia protests: Why TikTok is Putin's biggest fear" by Elizabeth McBride