As a few thousand people marched through the southern Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu last month, local schoolteacher Alexander Ryabchuk posted videos of the protest on his Instagram page.
The following week, the directors of the two schools where Ryabtchouk taught called him to their offices, warned him that “very serious people” had complained about his activity on social networks and fired him on the spot. -field after refusing to delete messages.
One school warned him about the complaints, and in the other a “serious” person came forward to pressure him. Within days, the police raided Ryabchuk’s apartment and arrested him; a court jailed him for five days, apparently for blocking traffic during the protest.
“They obviously wanted to scare me and deprive me of my livelihood,” Ryabchuk, 31, told the Financial Times. “But I think they’re more scared than me. I only obeyed the law and my conscience.
Ryabchuk’s ordeal is a sign of nervousness in the Kremlin over nationwide protests triggered by the arrest of Alexei Navalny, the most important adversary of President Vladimir Putin.
Police arrested more than 10,000 people during protests on consecutive weekends in January, according to independent monitor OVD-Info, including nearly 1,500 on the day Navalny was sentenced to three and a half years in prison last week. Nearly 1,300 of them have been sentenced to brief prison terms in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone, while more than 90 face more serious criminal charges, according to the Interior Ministry. At least 140 protesters were beaten by police according to Apologia Protests, an association of public defenders which represents some of the protesters.
The crackdown shocked many, even in a country that harbored few illusions about the Kremlin’s diminished tolerance for dissent. Riot police closed large parts of central Moscow and St. Petersburg, severely beat protesters with batons and arrested journalists.
Although several of those imprisoned alleged to the FT that the police had falsified the charges against them, the Kremlin accused Western countries of organizing the protests. “There is no repression,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week. “Police are taking action against offenders and participants in illegal demonstrations.”
So far, the harsh treatment of protesters seems to have had the desired effect. Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, admitted this week that “peaceful street protests have been suppressed by unprecedented police violence”.
Volkov postponed further protests until the spring, then called on the Russians to wave their phone lamps outside their doors on Sunday evening, so “the riot police can’t stop him and everyone can come.” Several of Navalny’s other top collaborators also risk years in prison for violating health rules in the event of a pandemic.
Although sympathy for the protests is widespread, many Russians nonetheless oppose the rallies. According to a poll released on Wednesday by the Independent Levada Center, 39% of those polled said they disapproved of the protests, with just 22% approving. Although 43% of those polled said the protesters were motivated by “pent-up anger at the situation in the country,” 28% said the protesters were likely paid to attend.
State television portrays Navalny as a CIA agent determined to destroy Russia, while official pressure on independent journalists has been considerable. More than 80 journalists were arrested in Moscow on January 31 alone, according to a journalists’ union.
In Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, riot police raided the apartment of freelance journalist Gennady Shulga early Saturday morning and filmed a mock interrogation – even though he was only a witness in a case related to demonstrations. The video then mysteriously appeared online, a move that Shulga said he believed was aimed at intimidating him from covering future protests.
The crackdown, however, does little to alleviate the underlying discontent that fueled the protests in the first place, said Alexander Tevdoy-Bourmouli, professor of political science at MGIMO University in Moscow. “There is logic to that, but it is not very rational, because instead of solving the problems, it pushes them into a corner, where they are going to explode into a more serious crisis,” he said. .
Foreign policy scholar Tevdoy-Bourmouli witnessed firsthand the Kremlin’s reaction in January when he and his daughter were arrested after leaving a central Moscow metro station. Police then told the court that he blocked traffic and chanted slogans. Although Tevdoy-Bourmouli insisted that he had done no such thing and that his lawyer tried to present evidence of his type 1 diabetes – which, according to Russian law, makes him ineligible for a short-term detention – a judge jailed him for 12 days.
“It’s not a secret. They automatically stamp hundreds of thousands of documents and have the police sign who did not even make the arrest, ”Tevdoy-Bourmourli said.
As record arrests pushed Moscow’s prisons to breaking point, protesters spent several sleepless nights in crowded cells at police stations. “There were portraits of Putin everywhere. . .[B]being around him was really scary, ”said 23-year-old Maryam Salarzai.
She found herself among hundreds of demonstrators sent to a migrant detention center in Sakharovo, a northern suburb of Moscow. The facility was so overwhelmed by the sudden influx of inmates that as many as 28 were held at a time in cells for four people before the guards moved them. Although Peskov admitted the overcrowding, he blamed the detainees, saying that “this situation was not caused by the police, but by participation in unauthorized demonstrations”.
Some of those detained at Sakharovo told the FT that they were forced to relieve themselves in a hole in the ground in plain sight of other detainees, were denied regular access to water and were given inedible food. Others complained that the guards refused to forward packages sent by friends and relatives.
To keep morale up, the inmates chanted “Putin is a thief!” during exercise hours, sang a protest song and posed for a video in the yard of the detention center. Later, investigators threatened some prisoners with criminal prosecution for insulting government officials, according to OVD-Info.
Authorities have already promised to suppress all demonstrations on Sunday. But Ryabchuk, who was released from prison on Tuesday, remains undefeated. “I teach free democratic ideals, the rule of law and parliamentarism. . . and I have to show examples from outside my country, ”he said. “I realized I had said so much about it before – now is the time to do something about it.