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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