Special Report“Putin is a Thief”The Russian PeopleRise Up
From the Far East to St Petersburg, Zarina Zabrisky documents the unprecedented demonstrations across Russia and talks to protestors about their demands
Mass protests against Putin’s regime rolled over Russia on 23 January, 2021 in support of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny in 90 cities around Russia after Navalny was arrested and imprisoned on his return to Russia after recovering from an assassination attempt.
Everyone is tired of lawlessness. We, pensioners, have only one solution: either we will save the youth, and then the youth will save Russia, or we will all perish for the sake of restoring truth and decencyRetiree from Cheboksary
Carrying out the plan for a national protest was a challenge. Protests were not sanctioned by the Government. Fifty of Navalny’s aides and allies and his Anti-Corruption Fund team members were arrested several days before the protest and sentenced to 10–15 days in jail so they could not coordinate the events. At the request of the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office, some social media networks blocked and removed calls-to-action and information about the protests.
With temperatures ranging between -4F and -58F and 20,000 new cases of COVID-19 daily, protestors faced extreme weather, the risk of contracting the virus, arrests, and police brutality. Nevertheless, from East to West, a wave of demonstrations hit the streets and rolled across the country, tsunami-like. According to the BBC, 122 cities participated in the protest.
Russia has eleven time zones; the protests started at 2.00 pm in each time zone. A day of unprecedented mass protests started in the Russian Far East.
Sub Zero Protests in the Far East
In Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, fur- and fleece-clad people set the tone to the country, by marching past ice-sculptures and snow-covered monuments to Lenin, chanting “Off with the Tsar!” “Putin, resign!”, “We are the power here!”, “Go away!”, and “Putin is a thief!”
The last slogan was a reference to the exposé of Putin’s secret Versailles-like palace in a YouTube video released by Navalny’s team after his arrest. The luxury palace, estimated to cost $1.4 billion, officially owned by Putin’s relatives and childhood friends, is located in Gelendzhik, an economically challenged town by the Black Sea, where local residents suffer from daily hot water shortages and malfunctioning sewage.
The video, alleging extreme corruption, had received 70 million views by Saturday and propelled people all over Russia to take to the streets. A toilet brush became one of the popular props: journalists reported that Putin’s palace was equipped with $2,000 toilet brushes. Protestors marched downtown Magadan, an iconic Gulag city, and in Yakutsk, dozens clashed with police – breaking the police lines in -58F amidst the snow blizzard.
One by one, as the time zones changed, big and small cities in Siberia joined in the protests.
Siberia: Toilet Brushes versus Police Batons
Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Orsk, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk, Ufa, Chelyabinsk, Gorno-Altaysk, Novokuznetsk, Perm, Tumen chanted, “Putin is a thief!” and “Freedom to Navalny!” Cars drove by, honking in solidarity.
The responses of the authorities varied along the way. In Chita, a number of police officers refused to arrest people. In most cities, however, police, riot police, and the National Guard used brutal force.
In Vladivostok, police brutally attacked the demonstrators, using batons. In Krasnoyarsk, the protestors were dragged along the ice-covered street. Analysts suggested that aggressive arrests in the Russian Far East were meant to deter people in European timezones from coming out to the streets. According to some reports, police arrested activists and social media influencers along with random protestors to stop the rebellion from growing. However, these preventive measures failed to stop Russian citizens from expressing their outrage at their Government and the President.
If my elderly mother and a teenage nephew hit the street in Vladivostok, I couldn’t stay at homeA protestor in St.Petersburg.
Over the next hours, the wave of protests reached the European part of Russia. Observers expressed astonishment at the number of relatively smaller towns participating in the protest. Ivanovo, Samara, Magnitogorsk, and Lenin’s hometown Ulyanovsk, Saratov, Astrakhan, Volgograd joined the movement.
Typically, in Russia, protests – sometimes referred to as “elite revolutions” – happen in Moscow and St.Petersburg while provincial towns tend to be less involved. But on 23 January the dynamics changed dramatically.
Protestors in Yaroslavl, Bryansk, Belgorod, Penza, Krasnodar, Arkhangelsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Voronezh, Tambov, Sochi, Syktyvkar, Novorossiysk, Lipetsk chanted “Freedom!” and “Russia without Putin!”. From the South to North, Russia was chanting: “Putin is a thief! Russia will be free!”
What started as outrage at the injustice suffered by Alexey Navalny turned into a much bigger anti-Government and, in particular, anti-Putin expression of sentiment. In towns with a 10,000–90,000 population, people stepped out into the streets for the first time in modern history, shaking toilet brushes at the city halls.
The small town of Kineshma had its own procession, with people playing “Changes!”, a 30-year-old song by a Soviet underground rock singer, Victor Tsoi. Nizhny Tagil had its first protest, with over 500 attendants. In Cheboksary, where the number of protestors ranged from between 1,000 – 1,500 (a local record), a retired man said in an interview: “Everyone is tired of lawlessness. We pensioners have only one solution: either we will save the youth, and then the youth will save Russia, or we will all perish for the sake of restoring truth and decency.”
The majority of protestors around the country, however, came from a younger demographic. People from the age group 15–40 receive most their information via the internet and social media – instead of the state-funded TV – and so understand the level of corruption of the Russian authorities.
As in the Far East, in the European part of Russia, the authorities used force and detained dozens of people. In Kazan, riot police used batons to beat up protestors.
Towards the close of the day in the Far East, the traditional centres of unrest located in the Western part of Russia – Moscow, and St. Petersburg – joined the rest of the country with massive and peaceful marches that had almost a playful undertone. Many were inspired by the courage and determination of their compatriots in the Eastern regions.
“If my elderly mother and a teenage nephew hit the street in Vladivostok, I couldn’t stay at home,” said a protestor in St.Petersburg.
In Moscow, according to Reuters, 40,000 protestors walked down the streets.
Moscow: Snowballs, Football and Toilet Brushes
Following the Far East and Siberia, crowds in Moscow picked up the hit “Changes!” as the protest anthem – adding “Putin is a thief” and “Murderer!” to the mix.
Arrests started about two hours into the protest and riot police turned violent. Navalny’s wife, Julia, who had to spend a night in hiding and arrived at the protest in a mask, was identified and detained but was released after three hours. Navalny’s mother and brother stayed with the protestors. The Moscow protest ended with a big procession walking towards the jail where Navalny was kept, chanting, “Freedom to Navalny!”
It is reported that over 70 children were detained in Moscow
Called Sailor’s Silence, the jail has 40 solitary confinement cells, a grim history, and a murderous reputation. Sergey Magnitsky, a tax advisor who has uncovered the Russian Government’s crimes – such as fraud, theft, and human rights violations – was killed here.
Access to the jail was blocked by street-cleaning trucks, and riot police attacked and arrested several dozens of the protestors outside. One detained person was kept with his face pushed into the snow and there were several reports of severe beatings.
Although tanks were observed moving towards Moscow, they were not used to suppress the demonstrations.
Over 200 people were arrested in St.Petersburg
St Petersburg: at Boiling Point
In St. Petersburg, nicknamed “the cradle of revolutions,” between 5,000 and 10,000 blocked the main street, Nevsky Prospect, and broke through the police lines, chanting “Putin is a thief!”
People carried the text of the previous, unchanged Russian constitution, toilet brushes, and brought their children along. According to some reports, titushki – paid provocateurs and undercover police officers – started fights in order to depict the protestors as dangerous and justify the police’s presence and reaction Riot police, the National Guard, and law enforcement used brutal force. A 54-year-old woman was hit into the stomach and suffered a concussion.
“If there were no detentions, people would have dispersed peacefully. Aggression comes from the police, riot police, and the National Guard,” said Ruslan, 32, an auto repairs expert from St Petersburg, arrested during the protest. “Clashes occurred because the police pushed back and interfered with the procession,” he told Byline Times
Ruslan was detained at around 2.30 pm, at the very beginning of the protest. A police officer and two officers in riot police uniform apprehended random people in the crowd to fulfil the arrest quota, without reading them accusations or rights.
A police van took about 35 protestors, aged 15 –35, to a remote police station where their documents were confiscated without any explanation. They were informed that they violated Government mask regulations, despite the fact that most people wore masks and kept in a waiting hall for three and a half hours so they could not get back to the protest site. Some protestors were kept overnight.
The Voices on the Street
“Our protest is not just in support of Navalny,” Ruslan told Byline Times. “We want justice and laws for all and freedom for political prisoners but, mainly, we want to show that we are tired of Putin’s regime.”
“Until now, each one of us watched Navalny’s YouTube videos at home alone but yesterday we realised that all of us see the lawlessness and corruption,” Ruslan continued. “The quality of life in Russia suffered greatly under Putin: the taxes got higher, the cost of living rose while the wages fell. We want to breathe and speak freely. Currently, we can be imprisoned for a social media post. People have reached the boiling point and can start destroying everything in their way.”
“This is not just Navalny – it is all of us,” said a young woman at the protest in St Petersburg.
“Anger is higher, as never seen before. People finally start to understand that they are fighting with the mafia,” said another interviewee, who preferred to remain anonymous.
Ludmila M., a 52-year-old restaurant-owner in Moscow, said in an interview that she did not support Navalny and called the protests “a circus” but agreed that Putin’s regime was corrupt.
Sergey, a web designer from Novgorod, said in an interview that he was concerned with Navalny’s history of nationalism and participation in nationalist Russian marches but recognized Navalny’s personal courage and dedication to the struggle for justice. “Enough is enough, and we all should unite,” said Sergey.
At 7 pm Moscow time, hundreds of thousands of protestors in all the major cities and towns in Russia chanted, “Putin is a thief!”
A Summary of the Protests and Arrests
Overall, 3,893 people were arrested in 112 cities, a record number for Putin’s regime. Dozens of activists and journalists were injured and arrested.
State-funded TV channels minimised the scale of the protests and blamed Navalny’s team for involving teenagers in activism and risking their safety. Representing the Kremlin’s position, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov stated that participating in any unsanctioned protest is a crime. Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said that the West needs Navalny to destabilise the situation in Russia.
Navalny’s allies called for more countrywide protests next weekend, 31 January. Navalny sent a message from jail through his lawyer, warning of possible murder attempts, saying that he didn’t “plan to either hang himself or cut his veins or throat” and that he was in perfect health.
Support Around the World
Across the globe, immigrants from former Soviet Union showed support to the Russian people, along with Western nations. Demonstrations took place in Berlin, Milan, Paris, Prague, Tokyo, Melbourne, New York, San Francisco.
In 2013, the Kremlin hired political technologists who claimed that Navalny is an anti-Semite and placed paid content with fake quotes in the Jerusalem Post. Despite the Kremlin’s smear campaign against Navalny, Tel-Aviv and Haifa stepped out into the streets.
The new US administration of President Joe Biden strongly condemned the Kremlin’s suppression of protests and the new national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, tweeted a demand for Navalny’s release.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the US Embassy decision to post the times and locations of protests went beyond caring for citizens in Russia and will be interpreted as incitement and interference in internal affairs.
Demands for Meaningful Action
The leading voices of the Russian opposition in the West held a news conference on 23 January to demand that Western governments freeze the bank accounts and seize the Western-based assets of Putin and his allies.
The speakers included Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch and political prisoner in Putin’s Russia, and leader of the opposition group Open Russia; Garry Kasparov, global human-rights activist and a former world chess champion; Vladimir Kara-Murza, a twice-poisoned Russian opposition politician and the vice-president of the Free Russia Foundation; and Bill Browder, the head of Global Magnitsky Justice campaign
They noted that economic sanctions on the Russian economy hurt the Russian people and not the regime – demanding that personal sanctions should be imposed on the perpetrators of illegal orders and political repression, including judges, security officials, prosecutors, intelligence services and the sponsors and asset holders of Putin’s inner circle.
Protestors told Byline Times that economic sanctions on the Russian economy harmed the population and not the Kremlin. They called on the West to act, so the burden doesn’t fall on the Russian people.
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