Russians Protest Putin’s Crackdown

Crowds of anti-Putin activists turned out on Tuesday as police raided the homes of opposition leaders. Anna Nemtsova reports from Moscow.

Leonid Lebedev / AP Photo

The opposition activist Mariya Baronova, a 26-year-old attractive single mother, felt concerned that something scary would happen to her or to her 5-year-old son, Sasha, this week. Putin was rumored to have lost his temper and commanded the arrest of leading opposition activists in order to intimidate others who planned to turn out for a major protest on Tuesday. The activist packed up her son’s toys and moved with him away from Moscow to a country home.

As it turns out, her instincts were right. After she’d left town, Baronova started receiving phone calls from friends telling her about a massive crackdown in progress—and the list of political prisoners was growing longer, they said. Then Baronova got a call from her son’s babysitter, an elderly woman who had stayed behind in Baronova’s apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. The babysitter told her that men in uniform were climbing onto the balcony of Baronova’s apartment on the fifth floor and ordering the woman to open the door, or else they’d break it down with an electric saw. After she’d hung up the phone and opened the door, the woman later told Baronova, the men knocked her down on the floor, handcuffed her, and searched the house. Among the confiscated property: three laptops, antigovernment agitation banners, a video of Baronova when she was pregnant, and a book published by another opposition activist called Putin—Conclusions, which illustrated cases of alleged corruption by Putin and his friends.

Baronova also discovered that she’d been listed on a tally, drawn up by more than 150 investigators from the prosecutor general’s office, of activists who had launched a campaign of organizers of a previous May 6 protest and who had been accused of fighting with riot police and pelting the officers with stones and pieces of asphalt.

But on Tuesday morning, instead of heading to the prosecutor’s office for questioning, Baronova joined thousands of other activists who were waving anti-Putin flags and banners, and wearing T-shirts for various opposition parties and movements. It was a holiday—the “Day of Russia”—and Muscovites marched against Putin’s politics along the city’s boulevards. Baronova distributed materials, including a manifesto for a nonregistered liberal political party called December 5th, which was named after the first date of the opposition’s uprising this past winter. “Putin left people like me with two options: one is to quickly run, with whatever we have time to pack up. The other is to protest against him, make him and his gang pack up and get out of Russia,” Baronova said, looking nervously over her shoulder at a police captain who was following her and reminding her about the prosecutor’s investigation.

Baronova’s home wasn’t the only one targeted in the run-up to Tuesday’s protest. Over the past week, police detained around a dozen activists and seized property at the homes of both ordinary citizens and celebrities. “At about 8 a.m., people broke into my apartment, did not let me dress up, robbed and humiliated me,” tweeted Ksenya Sobchak, a TV-reality star and passionate revolutionary who has been called “Russia’s Paris Hilton.” Sobchak, the 30-year-old daughter of former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, grew up in a family with strong ties to Putin and was considered by many to be little more than a party girl. But Sobchak has recently become an outspoken critic of Putin, and has even taken as a paramour one of Putin’s most aggressive detractors, Ilya Yashin.

Earlier this week, after prosecutors left Sobchak’s home with a notification to arrive for questioning on Tuesday morning, she furiously tweeted to her 443,000 followers, “I would never have imagined we’d ever return to such repressive times.”

Meanwhile, Putin loyalists have become angered by media reports that opposition leaders have compared the Kremlin’s repressive measures to Stalin’s crackdowns in 1937. “Oh, this is just a game—our opposition loves to dramatize and compare themselves to Soviet dissidents,” commented Robert Schlegel, one of the youngest deputies in Putin’s United Russia party and a former pro-Kremlin youth-movement organizer. “They lost the sense of reality. It is necessary to punish a few of them with criminal sentences for confronting the police.” Schlegel said that the law against participating in nonsanctioned opposition rallies, which carries a $9,000 fine upon conviction, is “much softer than laws they apply against the opposition in France.”

The mood in the opposition has grown increasingly tense after the authorities’ crackdowns. On the eve of Tuesday’s protest, opposition organizers stayed away from home and discussed ways to keep the revolution’s momentum intact in case they all ended up in jail. “The Kremlin has made a decision to crack down on us. But they still have not confiscated deputy mandates from at least three Parliament members leading the opposition,” said the semi-retired colonel deputy Gennady Gudkov. A week earlier, police had raided his family’s private-security business and banned the company’s activity. His son, Dmitry Gudkov, is a Parliament member and an activist of the Just Russia party. The younger Gudkov said that the “decision to deprive the family business came from the very top.”

“Business repressions, confiscations, new laws, and arrests will not help the Kremlin prevent people from coming into the streets,” Gudkov said on Tuesday morning to a crowd of thousands, as they chanted, “Russia without Putin! We are for a free Russian without a Tsar!”