2021 winter protests in Russia: the view of a Ukrain­ian human rights activist

© Sergei Bobylev / Imago Images
© Sergei Bobylev /​ Imago Images

The nation­wide mass rallies since Alexei Navalny’s incar­cer­a­tion are being observed in Ukraine as well. A polit­i­cal inter­ested minor­ity shows sol­i­dar­ity with the Russian pro­test­ers. They deserve more support by the expe­ri­enced Maidan-Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, writes Olek­san­dra Matvi­ichuk. A comment on the Russian protests by a Ukrain­ian human rights activist.

A German version of this comment can be found here.

Events unfolded quite rapidly after the return of Alexei Navalny to Russia. Three mass protests swept across the country between January 23rd and Feb­ru­ary 2nd. The Kremlin tried to put them down as best as it could. TV chan­nels warned that the rallies would be bru­tally dis­persed and crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings would be insti­tuted against the pro­test­ers. Activists in various cities were detained and fined on the eves of the protests. The stu­dents were sum­moned to police sta­tions in retal­i­a­tion for orga­niz­ing TikTok flash mobs where they tore the por­traits of the Russian pres­i­dent off the walls. Parents shared warn­ings in their kinder­garten chat groups about teenage par­tic­i­pants in the protests being taken into custody. Just before the rally on January 31st seven metro sta­tions in Moscow’s center were closed at once and all the streets close to the Kremlin and the Federal Secu­rity Service build­ing were blocked. But people came out.

Portrait von Oleksandra Matviichuk

Olek­san­dra Matvi­ichuk, Head of the Board of the Center for Civil Lib­er­ties (Ukraine).

The Kremlin’s offi­cial figures on the number of pro­test­ers differ sig­nif­i­cantly from orga­niz­ers’ esti­mates and infor­ma­tion from inde­pen­dent observers. The cal­cu­la­tion is com­pli­cated by the fact that pro­test­ers were scat­tered in par­tic­u­lar in Moscow, due to the block­ing of streets and squares. Inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists esti­mate the number of par­tic­i­pants to be in the tens of thou­sands, which would mean the most massive unau­tho­rized actions in recent years. However, special atten­tion should be paid to the sig­nif­i­cant expan­sion of the geog­ra­phy of protests. Accord­ing to OVD-Info deten­tions took place in 125 cities of Russia already at the rally on January 23. Even in Yakutia people protested despite tem­per­a­tures of ‑51 degrees below zero.

The author­i­ties responded harshly to the protests. 

The number of arrests broke all the records of the pre­ced­ing nine years. At least 11,000 people were detained. Police severely beat peace­ful demon­stra­tors, used tear gas and stun guns and abused detainees in paddy wagons and at police sta­tions. The victims of police vio­lence were also passers-by, who just hap­pened to appear in the center of the city that day. In Moscow, the courts received 4,908 admin­is­tra­tive cases for alleged vio­la­tions during peace­ful rallies, 972 people were arrested and 1,232 were fined. After the sen­tenc­ing of Alexei Navalny, the police intro­duced the so called “Fortress Plan” in Moscow, and more than 1,200 detainees at the Feb­ru­ary 2 protests were simply barred from access to lawyers. It is too early to esti­mate the number of opened crim­i­nal cases — several dozen are known — but the author­i­ties can at any time reclas­sify the actions of pro­test­ers from “vio­la­tion of san­i­tary stan­dards” to more serious crimes and sig­nif­i­cantly expand the circle of accused.

During the Rev­o­lu­tion of Dignity, I coor­di­nated the Euro­maidan SOS ini­tia­tive, which brought together several thou­sand vol­un­teers. For three months, we worked around the clock to provide legal and other aid to per­se­cuted pro­test­ers through­out Ukraine. Hun­dreds and hun­dreds of the beaten, arrested, tor­tured, abducted, accused of fab­ri­cated crim­i­nal and admin­is­tra­tive cases people passed through our hands then. But we never had to deal with the arrest of several thou­sand people at the same time in one day.

I have to mention this, because since the protests in Khabarovsk in 2020, I have read a lot of “arro­gant teach­ings” from Ukrain­ian activists on social media, as well as what they think Russian pro­test­ers should do.

I’m afraid these people just do not under­stand the scale of the repres­sion and the power of the state machine that was used against the pro­test­ers in Russia. 

The pain and trauma of the war, which has been going on for the seventh year in a row and has been brought to us by Russia, now speak through many Ukraini­ans, saying that we do not care at all what is hap­pen­ing there. This is a rea­son­able posi­tion, but short-sighted. YetAc­tu­ally, a lot depends on it.

After the Orange Rev­o­lu­tion in 2004, Ukraini­ans were not very inter­ested in the sit­u­a­tion in Russia. Fright­ened by Ukraine’s expe­ri­ence the Kremlin orga­nized a fake “spy rock” scandal, through which British intel­li­gence allegedly exchanged data with Russian human rights orga­ni­za­tions. Then the Russian State launched an attack on its own civil society, took control of the entire media and edu­ca­tion and built a cen­tral­ized ver­ti­cal. When the “threat to democ­racy” came close to Russia’s borders after the fall of the author­i­tar­ian regime and the escape of ex-Pres­i­dent Viktor Yanukovych to Russia, Putin decided to stop the Ukrain­ian state on the path of demo­c­ra­tic trans­for­ma­tion. This was one of the reasons why the Kremlin occu­pied Crimea and started a hybrid war in the Donbas.

Soci­ol­ogy records a new drop in Vladimir Putin’s approval rating, which is exac­er­bated by fatigue from the restric­tions imposed as a result of the COVID 19 pan­demic and the con­tin­u­ing decline in Rus­sians’ incomes. Accord­ing to the VCIOM (Russia Public Opinion Research) Center, the indi­ca­tor of con­fi­dence in the Russian pres­i­dent has already fallen below the level of the times of the rather unpop­u­lar pension reform in the summer of 2019 which increased the retire­ment age dras­ti­cally. So far, the Russian gov­ern­ment is strug­gling with it through the intro­duc­tion of new repres­sive laws and pop­ulist eco­nomic mea­sures to control food prices. Thus, now it is unknown what will be the next “Krym­Nash”, through which Putin will try to divert the atten­tion of Rus­sians from domes­tic issues.

For me, such as the fol­low­ing “human moment” sit­u­a­tion with its human dimen­sion is crit­i­cally impor­tant in all this.

I well remem­ber one of the long assaults on the Maidan on the night of Decem­ber 10–11, 2013. The men stood around the square, clasp­ing their hands so that the police could not break through the line and get to the stage and tents inside. Online broad­casts showed the Maidan sur­rounded by a sea of secu­rity offi­cers in gleam­ing black helmets. The Euro­maidan SOS members were waiting to see if mass beat­ings and arrests would start again. Our work began when we found people in hos­pi­tals and regional depart­ments, rep­re­sented their inter­ests in the courts decid­ing on the issues of deten­tion, etc. But the sit­u­a­tion did not change for several hours, our people kept stand­ing in the square, and we were all quite scared. At that moment, mes­sages like “France with you”, “Sweden with you”, “Germany with you” came to the Euro­maidan SOS Face­book page. And we knew we weren’t alone, that late night many people around the world were watch­ing those broad­casts with us, sup­port­ing and empathiz­ing with us.

Among them were mes­sages from people in Russia. That means a lot. 

Among the Rus­sians who went out during the recent protests and even more among those who pro­vided legal and other aid to the victims were a lot of like-minded people who at the begin­ning of the war pub­licly marched for peace, con­demned the annex­a­tion of Crimea and all these years held rallies in defense of Ukrain­ian polit­i­cal prisoners.

At the time, those people sup­ported us. They went against the mil­i­taris­tic hys­te­ria of the major­ity and put them­selves at great risk.

To walk through the center of Moscow with a huge poster “Hands off Ukraine!” is not com­pa­ra­ble to protest in front of the Russian embassy in Kyiv. The cases of Daria Poli­u­dova, Denis Bakholdin and other Rus­sians who were impris­oned for sup­port­ing Ukraine are an elo­quent con­fir­ma­tion of this.

I wrote these lines during the protests in the summer of 2019, which began after the Central Elec­tion Com­mis­sion of the Russian Fed­er­a­tion refused to reg­is­ter oppo­si­tion can­di­dates to run in the Moscow City Duma elec­tions. Nev­er­the­less, we have such a sit­u­a­tion now that it is worth retelling.

I do not share Alexei Navalny’s atti­tude to solving the problem of the Russian-occu­pied Crimea, which Ukraini­ans remem­ber as the metaphor­i­cal “Crimea is not a sand­wich”. I also con­sider his state­ments during the Russian-Geor­gian war inad­mis­si­ble. But Russia is not only the country of Putin or even Navalny, Russia is also the country of Sakharov. And this is worth remembering.

Above all, Ukrain­ian inter­ests must be pro­tected by Ukrain­ian politicians. 

It is strange to pass our prob­lems on to someone else and rest all hopes on Navalny. Ukrain­ian politi­cians need to do it faith­fully, using their best efforts. Then the politi­cians of other coun­tries will take us into account.

In the current con­di­tions, Russia’s path to freedom and democ­racy will be hard. It requires patience and courage. And being honest with oneself to over­come impe­r­ial ambi­tions. To defeat the author­i­tar­ian regime, members of the non­vi­o­lent resis­tance need the support of still indif­fer­ent or pro­pa­ganda-obsessed cit­i­zens. Russia is going to face the Duma elec­tions and a new wave of protest activ­ity in the fall. So now the strug­gle is not in the streets with the police. The strug­gle is for the hearts and minds of Russian cit­i­zens. I sin­cerely wish them success. “Russia will be free!”




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