Putin-Backed Crackdown Breaks Up Moscow Protests

Fierce crackdowns on citizen protests in Moscow fail to quell an irate public, Anna Nemtsova writes.

Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty Images

The quickly dispersed protests in Moscow show how Vladimir Putin’s government has taken every precaution against an Arab Spring–style movement after Sunday's parliamentary elections. The center of Triumph Square, a symbolically important space and Moscow’s potential Tahrir, was barricaded months in advance. And a crowd of thousands yelling “Putin is a thief” in one breath made authorities react even more seriously. About 6,000 pro-Kremlin youth activists in uniforms, carrying drums and brought by buses to the square, muted the voices of the opposition. Thousands of police units equipped with chemical irritants and water cannons rimmed the square and all the alleys around it, like a giant octopus of rubber and glass. Considering last night’s clubbing of protesters and hundreds of arrests at a permitted protest, today’s unsanctioned action, called "The Revolution Goes On," seemed to promise violence from the very beginning. Especially since earlier in the day the Interior Ministry’s spokesman announced that special troops were being moved toward the city center, just in case.

Still, thousands of Moscow’s middle class, students, and some pensioners showed up at the square at 7 p.m.; people had learned about the protest from Facebook, the Echo of Moscow (a popular liberal radio station), various news agencies, and LiveJournal blogs. A few minutes before 7, the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi commanded its own large turnout of Putin youth: “Line up!” Loud drumming followed their calls. The cold-looking teenagers—some agreed to yell “Putin!” for a chance to live in Moscow State’s dormitory for a few nights; others got 500 rubles for a few hours of yelling—rehearsed their glorifying slogans earlier today outside the Kremlin. Standing in tight rows with Russian three-colored flags or drumsticks in hand, they faced the arriving groups of opposition activists. The two sides of Russians faced each other all around the square: “Russia! Putin! Victory!” or “Russia! Medvedev! Victory!” yelled the Putin youth, with all the might of their young lungs. “Russia without Putin!” “Shame to be one of the Nashi!” the opposition chanted back, trying to scream above the drumming.

“They look like some tribe of monsters from Star Wars with drums!” Lena Zinchenko, a girl in a thick wool hat and long scarf, said with a smile. “Rather like a nightmare from the years of Soviet collectivization,” her friend Maxim replied. Both said they had participated in the protest of about 7,000 people (by the count of independent reporters) outside Clear Ponds metro the night before.

Some politicians have joined the criticism of the elections. “By lies, scams, falsifications, the regime provokes people to chaotic protests. The chaos has begun—it is too late to stop it. Beatings and more lies won’t help,” said Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov, a member of Just Russia party. Gudkov said he was going to sue police commanders for telling him lies this morning. “I spent an hour at a police station looking for the two opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny and Ilya Yashin, arrested at the protest last night, and I was told lies all that time.”

Gudkov said he would demand an investigation and punishment for police officers who “fooled” him. A former KGB colonel, he was never considered one of those sympathizing with the liberal dissidents. "Today we, Just Russia, communists, and liberals, are all together against the horrifying falsifications of the election results," he said. Just Russia, the No. 3 party by size in Parliament, did not recognize the election results, after finding multiple violations and falsifications of ballots in the St. Petersburg and Astrakhan regions.

As a river of opposition poured onto the square from Brestkaya Street, the pro-Putin youth were swept aside, and for a few minutes the yells of “People do not believe Putin!” sounded louder than “Russia! Putin! Victory!” and the drums. Dmitry Myshkin, a 40-year-old scientist, said he was on the square because “Putin spat in my face.” Myshkin came from the Khimki district of Moscow, famous for its mass opposition movement in defense of a park condemned to make way for a highway. “Khimki could not have possibly had 54 percent for United Russia—it is false,” Myshkin said, adding that it was anger that made him come to a nonpermitted protest Tuesday night, despite the obvious risks.

A white police bus slowly drove right into the crowd. Somebody screamed, “Stop!” A few hundred police in helmets shining in the dark ran fast into the middle of the anti-Putin crowd, crushing clubs over the protesters' backs. A wave of people running away from police got trapped by more police units and buses waiting for them on the corner of the square by the Beijing Hotel. Arrests swept the square—about 200 people were quickly dragged and pushed into the buses; Lena’s thick scarf fell into the puddle as she was swept off her feet by police.

The aftermath of two days of detentions at opposition rallies: most of Russian opposition leaders were locked in Moscow's jails, including a Parliament member, Ilya Ponamarev, the leader of liberal party Yabloko; Sergei Mitrohin; and the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was arrested during Tuesday’s protest. People leaving the square today said they would come back to every protest before next spring's presidential elections. “I am glad they arrest us. Let them march and drum and shoot water cannons at us—these Kremlin actions only set more people’s anger on fire,” said Andrei Velikolepny, a protester coming to today’s demonstration in support of the opposition blogger Navalny, who was sentenced to 15 days in jail today.