Russian police detained a record 5,135 demonstrators at the second mass protests in support of the jailed anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny on January 31 as thousands took to the streets in freezing sub-zero temperatures and faced down a massive police presence.
The Russian authorities shut down the centres of most of the big cities and made it impossible to move around in an effort to stymie the demonstrations, according to bne IntelliNews staff reports from Russia.
In Moscow the organisers initially planned to rally on the iconic Lubyanka Square in front of the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters, but found all the roads blocked off. The organisers were forced to change location three times, co-ordinating the crowd via social media messaging services even after the authorities began to block the internet in some parts of the city.
The story was similar in St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, where access to Nevsky Prospect, the northern capital’s main drag, was closed to all but residents.
Arrests started early and soared to 5,135 by the end of the day, according to NGO OVD Info, after the organisers called an end to the day’s action. Amongst those taken into custody were a reported 82 journalists despite clearly identifying themselves and being forced to wear press credentials and bright yellow jackets by order of the Interior Ministry.
The new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was quick to react, tweeting: “The US condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight. We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights, including Aleksey Navalny.”
The largest number of arrests were in Moscow, where 1,496 people were taken into custody, followed by St Petersburg with 1,059. Over hundred people were arrested in another four cities across the country, including Krasnoyarsk in the south of the country and the Far Eastern capital of Vladivostok. There were reports that police station cells were full and detainees were taken to immigration detention centres and other facilities.
The police reaction was brutal, with OMON riot police roughly arresting people at random, but the number of clashes were limited and the demonstrators remained defiant and in good spirits.
In one showdown in a narrow street in St Petersburg the OMON formed a phalanx and began clashing their metal riot shields in an attempt to scare the large crowd in front of them. But instead of retreating the crowd began clapping in time with the OMON’s shield clashes and heckling the officers but not retreating.
In one of the more amusing incidents, a crowd in Moscow began jumping up and down, chanting “Aqua Diskoteka!”, a reference to the disco-swimming pool in “Putin’s Palace” that was described in Navalny’s expose of the mansion on the Black Sea.
In at least two incidents posted on social media a protester appeared to have been knocked unconscious by the OMON, who then carried the prostrate victim away. In Krasnoyarsk a group of protesters were made to lie on the ground in the snow until paddy wagons arrived to take them to detention centres.
In St Petersburg a small group of police were surrounded by an angry crowd who chanted “Get out!” Clearly intimidated by the angry demonstrators one of the policemen unholstered his pistol, but did not shoot.
Unusually for a Russian protest, the participants seemed to be less intimidated by the police than usual. Outside the Kremlin two officers tried to arrest a gaggle of women who were clinging to the fence. As the officers began to beat them to make them let go, the women began to scream, employing tactics reminiscent of those used by the “Belarusian Banshees”, where female demonstrators confused the OMON with their shrieking. A passer-by came to the women’s rescue by trying to pull the officers off the women, only to be detained himself.
And in Moscow a man self-immolated. Police and passers-by rushed to put out flames that entirely engulfed the man. At the time of writing the man was reportedly still alive, but in a critical condition in hospital having suffered near 100% burns to his body.
Another protest has been called for February 2 in Moscow outside of the court where Navalny could be sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for breaking his parole terms.
Russian policeman (left) pulls out his pistol when confronted by an angry group of protesters
Some of the most violent clashes between protesters and OMON riot police happened in St Petersburg when phalanx of officers charged and beat the crowd with truncheons
Police officers tried to arrest women clinging to the fence outside the Kremlin in Moscow, who start screaming. A man comes to their rescue and gets arrested himself
A crowd in Moscow jumps up and down, chanting “Aqua Diskoteka!”, a reference to the disco-swimming pool in described in Navalny’s expose of “Putin’s Palace” on the Black Sea.
A video widely shared on social media shows OMON tasering a man who is being lead away but not resisting. “Stop electrocuting me!” has shouts at the officers. Tasers and stun guns were reportedly widely used by police
The number of demonstrators that came out is important as Team Navalny try to build some momentum for a prolonged protest movement that will keep the pressure on the Kremlin. While there were no reliable estimates of the total numbers that demonstrated the consensus is it was less than 100,000 that came out a week earlier and in Moscow less than the 40,000 that demonstrated there. However, the numbers were still signficant across the country.
The authorities so far have been completely caught off-guard by the size and wide geographical spread of the protests – the largest in nearly a decade – and have been forced into “deep defensive” mode as Navalny and his team have completely hijacked the narrative.
At the moment Navalny seems to be trying to replicate the Belarusian model of persistent social disobedience, as the Belarusian weekend protests continued on the same day – well into their sixth month – and are likely to force the Kremlin to sideline Lukashenko sometime this year with mooted constitutional changes.
However, assessing the numbers that turned out in Russia this weekend is very difficult. The official tally for the Moscow protests was a mere 2,000, which is clearly a massive underestimation given that nearly 1,500 were arrested, according to OVD Info.
“Moscow’s police dept claims that just 2k attended today’s protests in the city – incl the journalists reporting from on the ground. An obviously absurd claim, but they’re aiming to lower perceptions from folks who say: 'it’s always midway between what cops say & organisers say',” Kevin Rothrock, an editor for Meduza, tweeted.
The risibly low Moscow turnout estimate is yet another attempt by the authorities to downplay the size of the protest; the rule of thumb in previous demonstrations has been to take the organisers' estimate and the police estimate and split the difference.
The crowds in some of the regional cities such as St Petersburg, as well as Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk – Russia’s third and fourth largest cities – were reportedly larger than a week earlier. In Krasnodar in Russia’s south 2,000 protesters came out, about half as many as a week earlier.
More importantly, the countrywide nature of the protests is probably more significant for the Kremlin than the number of people.
The lower turnout could prove a problem for Team Navalny if it cannot sustain the momentum, as the Kremlin will attempt to grind away at the opposition. The problem for Russia’s opposition is the president remains genuinely popular with a large number of Russians. Although they are tired of Putin and the high-handed way the government treats the population, they also enjoy the highest incomes in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and are afraid to risk the gains they have already won, which limits the scope for a social uprising.
The crowd was mostly younger that usual protest crowds but not as young as the student led protests in 2019; the majority of protesters were around 35 and a large share were protesting for the first time, according to NGO White Counter that questioned over 400 participants on the day.
At the same time, while 22% said they “fully trusted” Navalny a larger 64% said they “somewhat trust” Navalny, highlighting the fact that the protests are more an anti-government protest than protests in support of Navalny per se.
While most Russians respect Navalny anti-corruption work, they are more ambivalent about his prospects as a potential opposition leader or president. But they don't like what has happened to him and are prepared to protest on that basis.
White Counter poll in St Petersburg: Age breakdown for St Petersburg protest today. White Counter polled 446 participants. 76% are under 35
White Counter poll in St Petersburg: 78% are high school graduates or studied/are studying at a university or equivalent
White Counter poll in St Petersburg: 78% are high school graduates or studied/are studying at a university or equivalent: 47% didn’t take part in protests before 2021
White Counter poll in St Petersburg: Trusting Navalny - 22% fully, 64% to some extent
The protests follow on from large demonstrations called by Navalny on January 23 shortly after he was arrested on his return to Russia after spending five months in Germany recuperating from an assassination attempt using the military-grade nerve agent Novichok last August.
That demonstration saw somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people take to the streets in over 100 towns and cities from coast to coast, the biggest numbers in almost a decade. More than 4,000 people were arrested for attending the “illegal” gathering that had not been sanctioned by the authorities.
The Kremlin has been put on its back foot as it has struggled to counter the popular outburst of anger over its handling of the Navalny case. State TV has launched a smear campaign, claiming Navalny is in the employ of foreign intelligence agencies.
And a day earlier billionaire businessman and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close personal friend Arkady Rothenberg came forward to claim ownership of the luxurious mansion in the Black Sea resort town of Gelendzhik that reportedly cost $1bn to build. Dubbed “Putin’s Palace” by Navalny in a two-hour documentary, the investigation claims the mansion was built for Putin, but its ownership is hidden behind a legal façade created by his friends. Rothenberg claims he intends to turn the building into a hotel, “because the coronavirus [COVID-19] pandemic has boosted the domestic tourism business.”
A Moscow court ruled to keep Navalny on remand until a new hearing at the beginning of February, where he faces a 3.5-year jail term after a suspended sentence he received in 2014 may be transmuted to actual jail time after the authorities claim he broke the terms of his parole. Navalny claims the charges and the sentence are politically motivated and denies all wrongdoing.
The authorities worked hard to mute the protests. The days before were marked by an intensifying crackdown against Navalny's allies and family members.
Navalny’s brother Oleg and lawyer and ally Lyubov Sobol were placed under pre-trial house arrest on charges of violating coronavirus restrictions at last week’s protest by calling people out on to the streets.
Authorities also issued an arrest warrant in absentia for Leonid Volkov, a top Navalny aide based in Lithuania, as part of a criminal case on inciting minors to attend unauthorised protests. In the days before the January 23 protests a wave of teenagers took to TikTok to give advice on what to wear to a protest and how to avoid being arrested by police.
Famous journalist Sergei Smirnov, the editor-in-chief of the independent Mediazona news website, was detained for several hours on January 30. Navalny's jailed regional co-ordinator in Nizhny Novgorod urged people not to protest in a video his lawyer says was obtained under duress.
Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was not detained before the demonstration, but was quickly detained as she made her way to join the protests, although she was released before the end of the day.
Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, the World Health Organization (WHO) and climate campaigner Greta Thunberg are among those nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, all backed by Norwegian lawmakers, who have a track record of picking the prize winner, Reuters reports.
Norwegian lawmakers have nominated the eventual laureate every year since 2014, with the exception of 2019, said Henrik Urdal, Director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, as cited by Reuters. “The pattern from recent years is quite stunning.” The submissions to the Nobel committee close next week.
Belarusian activists Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, who ran a joint campaign against Belarus' self-appointed President Alexander Lukashenko in the August 9 presidential elections, were also nominated.