As pro-democracy protests hit central Moscow this summer, student vlogger Egor Zhukov promoted peaceful resistance to his 100,000 followers on YouTube. Violent clashes on the city’s streets — which have seen armour-clad, helmeted riot police pin down unarmed protesters on stone pavements as their colleagues beat their knees with batons — showed Russia’s security services doling out “political repression”, he said.
“Life is a struggle for power,” Mr Zhukov said in a video uploaded last week. “People with no power are fighting to have any at all. People who have any power are fighting for it to be absolute.”
The protests have seen armour-clad, helmeted riot police pin down unarmed protesters on stone pavements as their colleagues beat their knees with batons © MAXIM SHIPENKOV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A few hours after the video went live, police raided the 21-year-old’s apartment, interrogated him for five hours and dragged him off to court, where a judge sent him to jail facing charges of participating in “mass disturbances”. If convicted, he could spend up to eight years in prison.
“They’re picking up random people and offering no explanation of what they did in court. And they send them to jail,” says Sergei Smirnov, editor of Mediazona, an independent news site that covers Russia’s criminal justice system. “Investigators are taking people hostage with the approval of the country’s political leaders.”
Not since 2012, when thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest against Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, has Russia’s capital seen such a brutal crackdown on demonstrations as that witnessed during the past fortnight. Police trucks packed with young Russians and rows of baton-wielding troops have shown the brute force available to Mr Putin and his willingness to use it.
Lyubov Sobol is arrested in Moscow. The opposition activist has led calls for a follow-up protest this Saturday © Reuters
But the continued defiance from the tens of thousands who have taken to the streets this summer has underlined the depth of the disaffection at a 20-year-long regime that has failed to deliver economic growth or rising living standards for much of the past five years. And the dearth of ideas inside his administration to reverse its sliding popularity.
Portrayed in foreign capitals as a powerful and belligerent geopolitical actor whose military interventions have given him increased global clout, Mr Putin’s domestic support is foundering — down a third since 2017 — after years of economic malaise that have left average Russians feeling poorer and less confident about their future. Real incomes have fallen for five of the past six years, and are about 10 per cent lower than in 2013.
That domestic gloom has eroded trust in what was once a dependable unspoken agreement between Mr Putin and the Russian people, who traded political and social freedoms for rising prosperity and national pride. As the fruits of those promises sour, many Russians are increasingly pushing back against what they see as over-reach from a government seeking to maintain total control over the country.
The latest protests were called after opposition activists were banned from competing in Moscow council elections in September. Though only 11 per cent of Muscovites showed any interest in the upcoming elections when asked about them two months ago — according to Kremlin pollster Vtsiom — the vote and subsequent police violence have become a focus for broader anger against Mr Putin.
“It’s not about the city council any more,” says Evgeny Ocharov, a friend of Mr Zhukov. “There are more reasons to protest. People came to support the independent candidates and there was violent reprisal. Their friends and relatives were beaten and arrested. If people were chanting ‘Let them run!’ before, now they’re chanting ‘Let them out!’”
Thousands of riot police have sealed off key road junctions and turned central squares into fortresses of metal barricades manned by baton-wielding officers on the past two Saturdays.
Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who has become a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin © AFP
Almost 2,400 people have been detained. Videos of riot police beating protesters have gone viral on social media, prompting officers to cover their faces and remove their ID badges at last Saturday’s protest. One man on a bicycle was beaten to the ground, then carried by half a dozen policemen to a police truck while still atop the bicycle.
Though police claim protesters attacked them and blocked traffic, they have committed the vast majority of the unprovoked violence, say activists. When Konstantin Konovalov, the graphic designer who created the Moscow metro’s current logo, went for a jog past the site of a planned protest hours before it began, police beat him so badly they broke his leg — then charged him with disturbing the peace.
Such a violent display of police power has led many to conclude that the Kremlin has run out of patience after an outpouring of discontent across Russian society forced a trio of U-turns.
Mass protests in Ekaterinburg — Russia’s fourth-largest city — forced local authorities to shelve plans to build a major new Russian Orthodox cathedral on the site of a popular park. Construction of a sprawling rubbish dump for Moscow’s waste in forests close to Arkhangelsk on Russia’s northern coast has also been delayed after protests. Then, in June, investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, was detained on drugs charges he said had been fabricated to prevent him releasing reports into police corruption. He was released, the charges thrown out and two senior Moscow police chiefs were sacked.
“We see a growing sense of fearlessness,” a senior foreign diplomat in Moscow says. “Instead of specifics, increasingly there is a sense of injustice . . . now it’s the principle that is upsetting them.”
The heavy-handed police treatment in Moscow illustrates the lack of alternative levers available to the Kremlin, as trust in Mr Putin falls to a six-year low.
For most of his rule, which began in 2000 and included a four-year period as prime minister to satisfy a term limit prescribed in the constitution that he subsequently altered, Mr Putin has broadly managed Russian popular opinion with a cocktail of economic growth, triumphalist military expansion and nationalist rhetoric.
The investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained on drugs charges he said had been fabricated to prevent him releasing reports into police corruption © AFP
But there has been barely any growth in the inefficient, state-heavy and sanctions-hit economy. An increase in value added tax in January further eroded spending power, and a change to the pension rules means Russians now must work five years longer before they can retire at 60 for women and 65 for men.
It appears that cash-strapped households have sought to make ends meet by taking out personal loans which last year grew by 46 per cent to Rbs8.6tn ($130bn). Russia’s economy minister warned last month that the country is facing a recession in 2021 that could see gross domestic product shrink by 3 per cent on a surge in loan defaults.
In addition to the economic gloom, the Kremlin’s popularity boost achieved after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 has evaporated, as the conflict in eastern Ukraine rumbles on. Promises of military success in Syria have also been quietly forgotten, as the Russian army becomes ever more bogged down in the country’s civil war and the number of servicemen killed continues to rise.
Now, analysts say, the regime is left with nothing but the truncheon.
“The essence of this response is the attempts of the institutions of power to individually prove to Putin their ‘political responsibility’ and ‘trustworthiness’,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R. Politik, a political consultancy. “As the saying goes, ‘those who can protect themselves, save themselves’. This is the erosion of the regime.”
Many of those who took to the streets of Moscow in the past two weekends were young, liberal-minded Russians. Last Saturday they were spoilt for choice: A festival headlined by the British band The Cure had already sold thousands of tickets. And then with just three days’ notice, city authorities put on a show in Gorky Park featuring several top Russian rock bands.
This scramble to seemingly distract the city’s hipsters from the demonstrations highlights just how much the protest movement has driven a wedge between Moscow’s creative middle class, which forms the core of the opposition, and city mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who spent years trying to court it.
Environmental activists protest against the construction of a waste recycling plant near Moscow © Sergei Bobylev/TASS
An enormous urban renewal programme in recent years has transformed central Moscow into a modern European capital. Those urban spaces are now becoming regular battlegrounds for clashes with police.
Mr Sobyanin is the most senior Russian official to have taken on the opposition at the ballot box in Mr Putin’s era. In 2013, he defeated Alexei Navalny — the anti-corruption campaigner who has become a prominent Putin critic — for mayor after the Kremlin abruptly released the activist from prison in what appeared to be an attempt to make the elections appear legitimate.
The Moscow mayor portrays the protesters as a violent minority. Last week, he said “anarchy, disturbances, and chaos” would “end in tragedy”, adding: “We don’t live in Zimbabwe!”
Most of those detained, which included 80 children and 14 journalists, were held for most of the evening. Many describe being interrogated, photographed, forced to hand over their mobile phones and having their fingerprints taken without a lawyer present.
The majority will be charged with an administrative offence for “violations of the established order of conducting public events” — a crime that carries a fine of between Rbs10,000-20,000 or community service of up to 40 hours. But in one case Moscow prosecutors have sought to strip a couple of their parental rights after they brought their one-year-old child to the July protest.
For those the authorities deem to be the ringleaders, far stricter punishments are threatened.
Vladimir Putin in the Gulf of Finland during the recent protests in Moscow © AP
Mr Navalny was detained three days before the first Saturday protest and jailed for 30 days, on charges of encouraging people to attend an unsanctioned protest. His Anti-Corruption Foundation is being investigated for allegations of laundering Rbs1bn, punishable by as much as seven years in prison. He has claimed he was poisoned during the first week of his detention, a charge that the doctors at the state-run hospital he was treated in have denied.
In addition to Mr Navalny, several other opposition activists who attempted to take part in the September council election were also detained before the marches.
Moscow authorities have approved some protests and banned others in an apparent attempt to keep opponents guessing. Yet activists who are still at liberty appear unbowed. Lyubov Sobol, an ally of Mr Navalny, led calls for a follow-up protest this Saturday that is likely to deviate from a location sanctioned by city authorities and prompt another police response. Ms Sobol — who was briefly detained last weekend — is in her fourth week of a hunger strike in protest at not being allowed to run for office.
Mr Putin himself is yet to comment publicly on the protests. Last month, as police began to contain protesters with riot shields and batons, he was descending to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland in a special mini-submersible, to observe the wreckage of a Soviet submarine sunk during the second world war.
“The current criminal prosecution of the opposition resembles the protests of 2012 [against Mr Putin’s return to the presidency]. However, there is a fundamental difference — then Putin was personally involved in the promotion of this response . . . It was clear that this was a matter of principle for him,” says Ms Stanovaya.
“This means that criminal prosecution [now] will not necessarily be ‘holistic’ and thoughtful, but rather chaotic and conflicting,” she adds. “After all, it is one thing to not let [the opposition] take part in the polls, and quite another to sweep away all the unwanted people into police trucks.”
Kremlin response plays on fears of foreign meddling
Viewers of Russia’s main television channels, tightly controlled by the Kremlin, have seen next to no coverage of the protests over the past few weeks. But while President Vladimir Putin has yet to publicly comment on the unrest, Russia’s government has not been silent.
The response has followed a tried and tested textbook: portray those involved as rioters seeking to destabilise the country, and blame western powers for stirring up the dissent.
“As for Saturday’s strolls, the Embassy of the United States was most closely involved in that activity,” said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry. “I think that the US leadership will be very surprised at how their diplomats meddle in Russia’s internal affairs.”
Foreign support for popular demonstrations has long been one of the Kremlin’s deepest fears, after watching the so-called colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine during Mr Putin’s rule — uprisings that he has long blamed on western finance, support and encouragement.
Mr Putin directly accused former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton of backing the 2011 protests against his presidency and has consistently railed against western governments for seeking to destabilise Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Before last Saturday’s rally, the US embassy in Moscow posted an alert on its website warning US citizens to avoid the protest due to an increased threat of violence and potential arrest.
But the notice also included details of the meeting points and times for protesters to assemble and a map — in Russian — outlining the protest route.
“As we understand it, 90 per cent of that information appealed to people to join the event,” Ms Zakharova said this week, adding that Moscow would submit a formal complaint to the US government.