Sarah Hurst reports on how the Kremlin, while facing mounting criticism for its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, has been using quarantine to track down its foes.
Taking advantage of a national quarantine, police raided the homes of two well-known Kremlin critics in Moscow and in one of Russia’s most remote regions, Yakutia.
Their stories were very different. Vladimir Vorontsov is the administrator of a popular VKontakte (Russian social media) group called Police Ombudsman, and Alexander Gabyshev is a shaman who had attracted followers during his attempt to walk to Moscow to expel “demon” Vladimir Putin last year.
Recently Vorontsov – a young ex-policeman himself – had been posting about people getting the Coronavirus because of queues that formed on the Moscow metro when senior police decided to check everyone’s temperature. He suggested that police generals should be prosecuted. Authorities first searched his home a few weeks ago in connection with an accusation that he had been spreading fake news about OOVID-19, and then came back to arrest him on an embezzlement charge on 7 May.
Armed special forces broke down the door of his Moscow flat in front of his four-year-old daughter, while others smashed their way in through the window, rappelling down from the roof.
Rank-and-file police, who admire the way Vorontsov exposes abuses at the higher levels, have posted photographs of themselves with signs supporting him. The officers who were supposed to bring him to court refused to do it, so others had to be found. An “I am/we are Vladimir Vorontsov” campaign in solidarity with him started, based on the successful campaign to free journalist Ivan Golunov, who had drugs planted on him by police. Shortly after a judge ordered Vorontsov to be jailed ahead of trial, he was taken to hospital in an ambulance with a flare-up of existing conditions, and subsequently returned to jail.
A few days later, police arrived at the home of 51-year-old Gabyshev, on the pretext that he had refused to take a Coronavirus test.
After the shaman was arrested in Siberia during his pilgrimage to Moscow and briefly confined to a psychiatric institution in his home region of Yakutia, he made a video in which he said that he hadn’t been harmed and was allowed to go home. Police have now taken him to a psychiatric clinic again – a tactic straight from the Soviet Union.
“The OMON [riot police] stormed his house, at least 20 people,” human rights activist Alexei Pryanishnikov told opposition outlet MBKh Media. “In handcuffs, without shoes, hunched over, they dragged him out and took him to a psychiatric hospital. They didn’t show any ID and his lawyer was there but the officers ignored him.” The arrest was recorded on video. Two supporters of Gabyshev – the blogger Sergei Tikhy and his girlfriend – were also detained.
Both arrests took place just before the Russian President announced an end to national restrictions and allowed regional leaders to decide what Coronavirus prevention measures to lift or keep.
Russia has been reporting more than 10,000 new cases of the virus a day for the past several days and Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, now has it. Unemployment is skyrocketing.
The Kremlin continues to round up the usual suspects – but arrests are no cure for the real problems the country is facing.