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Thu 29 October 2020
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Sarah Hurst reports on the targeting of Petr Verzilov and how the President is pulling out all the stops to ensure a 1 July vote on sweeping changes to the Russian Constitution goes in his favour

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Russian police used a sledgehammer to smash their way into the Moscow flat of Pussy Riot’s Petr Verzilov at 7am on Sunday – in yet another example of Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on critics ahead of a national vote that would allow him to stay in power until 2036.

Verzilov, who is also the publisher of opposition outlet MediaZona and associated with the Voina performance art group, ran onto the pitch in a police uniform with other members of Pussy Riot – a Russian feminist protest punk rock group – during the 2018 World Cup final, and was subsequently hospitalised in an apparent poisoning. 

He was also detained in a police uniform in mid-April after making a video in which he and other activists mocked the Moscow mayor’s plan to issue digital permits to go outside, with people dressed as workers writing numbers on their bodies. 

Authorities have said that they will criminally prosecute Verzilov for “calls for extremist action” for posting a photograph with a quote from a song “by a Ukrainian performer and supporter of the Maidan [revolution in Ukraine] who has repeatedly allowed himself to make extremist statements aimed at Russia”.

Verzilov also recently tweeted a FaceApp photograph of the Russian President as a woman, with the comment, “our ruler”. A friend of his told the BBC’s Russian Service that, by arresting him, the Kremlin might have been trying to prevent his plan to stand in front of a tank during a Victory parade rehearsal to re-enact the tank man scene from Tiananmen Square in 1989. 

On the same day as Verzilov’s arrest, police in balaclavas also raided the ART4 gallery in Moscow, which was hosting an exhibition of work by opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s brother Oleg, Pussy Riot and Voina. Oleg himself was released from prison in June 2018 after serving a three-and-a-half year sentence in what appeared to be an embezzlement case fabricated to punish Alexei for his activities. Oleg drew horrific scenes of cruelty in the prison camp while he was there. 

Meanwhile, Putin has been giving interviews on Russian state television in an effort to win votes and justify his unashamed power grab. He has insisted that the country needs the stability of his leadership and that, if he could not stand for re-election in 2024, then officials would be distracted by the search for a successor and would not be doing their jobs.

The President has insisted on rescheduling the 9 May Victory parade in Moscow for 24 June, although many other cities across Russia have said that they will not hold parades as Russia is still reporting more than 7,000 new Coronavirus cases a day.

Russians in some regions can already vote early on the sweeping changes to the constitution. Those living abroad have also been encouraged to participate.

Aeroflot passengers have even been told that they can vote at the airport, and one of the cosmonauts in the International Space Station has expressed a desire to vote.

The vote will take place on 1 July, with the outcome a foregone conclusion.


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