More and More Russians

hongkong.jpgAccording to organizers, at least 1.7 million people attended a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong today, August 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of HKFP

More and more Russians seem to be breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line. Increasingly, they just do what they deem important, and the authorities deal with the consequences. We are all much more used to the reverse relationship, which is why Russia’s new situation is hard to grasp. People in Russia are only now learning to peer into themselves, not into their television sets, searching for clues to what will happen next.

This does not mean that the Kremlin has suddenly become more transparent or less authoritarian. It only means that Russian society has started to realize that it may, in fact, be an originator of political and societal change, not just on the receiving end.

For how long this new situation—or an impression of it—will last is unclear. The Kremlin is at war and wants everyone in Russia to be at war too. Russians seem to be drifting away from this belligerence. The question is whose pull, the Kremlin’s or Russian society’s, is stronger. I am afraid the Kremlin’s is stronger but will be happy to be mistaken.
—Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ask Not What Will the Kremlin Do Next,” The Russia File, 16 August 2019

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What does the phrase “more and more Russians” mean, in the essay quoted above? How does Maxim Trudolyubov know they are doing anything at all, much more “breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line” and doing “what they deem important” (whatever that means)?

If its organizers are to be believed, a pro-democracy in Hong Kong was attended by 1.7 million people. According to Worldometers, Hong Kong’s population, as of today, was almost 7.5 million people, meaning that nearly 23% of Hong Kong’s residents marched today in support of the city’s autonomy and democratic rights.

Meanwhile, back in the capital of the Motherland, Moscow, “up to 60,000 people” attended an “authorized” pro-democracy rally on August 10. It was, apparently, the biggest opposition rally in Russia since the fair election protests of 2011–2012.

World Population Review estimates Moscow’s population as slightly over 12 million people.

If the figures for the August 10 rally and Moscow’s population are to be credited, then, 0.005% of the city’s populace came out for an “authorized” rally—meaning an event where they had much less reason to fear a police crackdown than at the “unauthorized” rallies at which riot police and Russian National Guardsmen detained thousands of protests over the last month or so.

When you are trying to get your collective point across to an authoritarian government, the numbers do matter, just as they matter in non-authoritarian countries.

As I have argued in many different ways many different times, the Russian opposition, especially its self-declared leaders in Moscow, is woefully bad at two things: mobilizing ordinary pro-democratic Russians to make their numbers know to the regime, and meaningfully allying itself with the grassroots pro-democracy movement beyond Moscow.

In fact, at the very same time as a tiny minority of brave, smart Muscovites have been doing battle with the Moscow City Elections Commission and the security forces to defend their constitutional right to vote and run for office, an even tinier and, perhaps, braver minority of Petersburgers have been fighting to get a small slate of independent candidates onto the ballot for elections to the city’s municipal district councils, chronically underfunded entities with almost no power to do anything more than making cosmetic improvements to the neighborhoods they represent. Just as in Moscow, the would-be candidates themselves have been harassed, beaten, and arrested, along with some of their supporters.

Typically, when the Petersburg pro-democratic opposition held an authorized rally on August 3, only two thousand people showed up. Sadly and hilariously, Deutsche Welle described it as an “event in support of candidates not allowed to run in the elections to the Moscow City Duma.” In reality, Petersburgers rallied in support of their own beleaguered opposition candidates, in solidarity with Muscovites, and against the upcoming pro forma election of acting Governor Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin’s third satrap in the city, on September 8.

But the real story was too complicated for Deutsche Welle. It was, apparently, too gnarly for the vast majority of Petersburgers as well. World Population Review estimates Petersburg’s population as nearly 5.5 million. (I suspect it is actually much higher than this, but that is another conversation.) So, proportionately, even fewer people in Russia’s “cultural capital” are worried about their rapidly vanishing constitutionally guaranteed rights than their comrades in Moscow and their Chinese frenemies in Hong Kong: 0.0003%, to be exact.

In the face of these real numbers, which he signally fails to mention, Trudolyubov cites public opinion polls, notoriously unreliable indicators in a highly manipulated authoritarian society like Russia, and his own vague “impressions.”

He also makes an assertion that is debatable and a promise he probably has no intention of keeping, to wit:

“Russian society is turning into a much more active player in Russia’s public life. Importantly, it is not limited to the political protests that have been taking place in Moscow for the past several weeks. The protests are just the most visible part of the change. There is exciting new art, there is a new wave of independent journalism, there is an entire universe of YouTube and other social media channels that are completely free of both pro-Kremlin and strictly oppositional politics (all of those trends deserve a special take, which we will provide).”

I will have been reporting on these “other Russias,” as I have dubbed them, for twelve years come this October. I know them as well any “outsider” can know them. I will keep writing about them and translating dispatches from these other Russias as long as I am able.

Despite my interest in the other Russias and Russians, however, and my endless admiration for the sheer courage, tenacity, and intelligence of many of the real-life heroines and heroes who have made appearances on this website over the years, I knew the fair elections movement of 2011–2012 was a non-starter almost as soon as it kicked off, even though it was a nationwide grassroots movement, unlike the 2019 fair elections movement, which has been practically limited to Moscow.

I knew that for two reasons. First, the numbers of anti-Putinists showing their faces in public at protest rallies, “authorized” and “unauthorized,” were also minuscule as percentages of the general populace. Second, the “movement” was managed lackadaisically, with huge gaps between “authorized” rallies.

In Moscow, at least, there does seem to be a greater sense of urgency and intensity this time around, but the numbers of people showing up for rallies have been halved. Paradoxically, however, those people have been more willing to face police crackdowns, but I am not sure this is necessarily a good thing, politically and strategically.

Like Trudolyubov, I am happy to be mistaken. Unlike Trudolyubov, I have no sense that Russian society has become a bigger player than it was seven years ago. There was also a lot of new art, independent journalism, and social media savvy on the margins then as now.

The sad truth is that, unlike countries and territories populated by people of color, such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, Russia gets way more credit for every tiny gesture towards democracy, autonomy, and independence made by its supposedly “white” people, even though Russian society punches way below its weight when it comes to every possible measure of official and popular support for democracy, minorities, civil and human rights, progressive environmental policies, engaged art, cutting-edge education, grassroots-driven urban planning, you name it.

What Russia does have a lot of is flag twirlers who have ensconced themselves in plum jobs at western news outlets and think thanks, places where, correspondingly, you will not find a lot of people of color and people from the formerly colonized parts of the world. So, even though the Kremlin has made xenophobia, anti-Americanism, rampant homophobia, Islamophobic, anti-westernism, anti-liberalism, Russian Orthodox obscurantism, and aggressive covert and overt interventions into the affairs of other countries planks in its unwritten ideological platform, and Russia’s opposition has said almost nothing about any of it, much less organized protests against, say, the Kremlin’s criminal military involvement in the brutal ongoing murder of Syria’s pro-democracy movement, the so-called west, at least as represented by places like the Kennan Institute and media organizations like the BBC, has way more time and sympathy for all things Russian than it has for anything happening in countries and places dominated by people of color.

It would be strange of me, of all people, to argue for less interest in grassroots politics and culture in Russia, but a genuine curiosity should also involve being able to tell the fibbers and crypto-nationalists from the truth-tellers and democrats. // TRR

Thanks to the fabulous Mark Teeter for the heads-up. I am nearly certain he would have a different take on Trudolyubov’s essay, but in my Facebook newsfeed it ended up cheek by jowl with an article about today’s truly massive protests in Hong Kong.

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Vrio!

brail-1.jpg

Alexander Beglov was appointed the acting governor of Petersburg or vrio (to coin the acronym for such officials who “temporarily carry out the duties” of one office or another) on October 3, 2018.

His appointment immediately sparked speculation the Kremlin had put him in charge of Putin’s hometown not only temporarily but also so he could run for the post “legitimately” in the upcoming gubernatorial election, scheduled for September 8, 2019.

As luck would have it, the seven-year reign of his predecessor, the dull but mostly inoffensive Georgy Poltavchenko, was blessed by relatively snowless winters.

Petersburg, however, is the northernmost major city in the world and, unsurprisingly, it sometimes snows a lot there in the winter. The “anomalous winter” of 2010–11, during which the local authorities could not get a handle on cleaning relatively heavy snowfalls from streets, pavements, and roofs, spurring wild popular discontent, famously led to the dismissal of then-Governor Valentina Matviyenko and her replacement by the quieter Poltavchenko.

Like all members of Putin’s clique of made men and women, Matviyenko was not punished for her failures. Instead, she was “upmoted” (my term) to the much cushier post of speaker of the Federation Council. There she has been instrumental, I suspect, in persuading the press and the public she presides over a “senate,” peopled by “senators,” not a rubber-stamp entity filled with repellent losers too big to fail who have been rewarded generous sinecures in exchange for total loyalty.

In any case, today’s would-be Russian “senate” is a far cry from the feisty and, at times, mildly separatist Federation Council of the nineties, whose members would never have been so obnoxious as to style themselves “senators” and then get everyone else to go along with this sycophantic malarkey, including opposition activists, reporters, and academics who should know better.

The winter of 2018–19 was another “anomaly,” apparently, and vrio (interim governor) Beglov made it even worse by behaving even more brazenly and clumsily than Matviyenko had done during her own “snow apocalypse.”

You would think the Kremlin would not be so provocative as to shove Beglov, who looks remarkably like Mel Brooks in his salad days, playing the “villain” in one of his hilarious film parodies, down the throats of Petersburgers on Election Day 2019, but that is the plan. All the stops have been pulled out, including a total purge of opposition candidates attempting to run for seats on the city’s district municipal councils, although these underfunded, powerless bodies that have zero say over the Smolny, Petersburg’s city hall, where Beglov and his team call the shots.

The Kremlin is willing to make Beglov the city’s “legitimate” governor over everyone’s dead bodies, as it were, alienating even more otherwise apolitical Petersburgers from the regime.

Finally and, perhaps, apropos of nothing, has anyone ever remarked on the fact that both Beglov and Poltavchenko were born in Baku in the mid-1950s? Does it snow there in the winter?

The picture, above, was taken by Kseniya Brailovskaya in downtown Petersburg during the height of the municipal collapse this past winter. As another heat wave envelopes Europe, you will probably see more of these snapshots in the coming days, especially since I have a post or two in the works about the flagrant purges of opposition candidates in Petersburg. They have mirrored similar purges in Moscow, but without sparking spontaneous unrest of the weekend before last or the heavily attended protest rally that took place in the capital on Saturday{TRR}

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Rotunda
Telegram
July 16, 2019

A friendly meeting between the heads of over twenty Petersburg media outlets and acting Governor Alexander Beglov took place in the Smolny. The meeting was cast as a campaign event at which heated discussions were not welcome.

During the first hour, Beglov cheerfully talked about all the problems he had solved. He said his priority has been to combat depression among Petersburgers. Beglov thanked, in all seriousness, the opposition for keeping him on his toes and informing him about hotspots.

Then followed several questions from the attendees. The most pointed question was, “How can we help you?” or something like that. Despite being a candidate in the gubernatorial race, Beglov was not taken aback by this offer and spent another hour outlining his plans for the near term.

The only question that knocked the vrio off his high horse had to do with the scandals surrounding the elections to the municipal district councils. Beglov said he could not intervene since he himself was a candidate.

As the meeting drew to a close, the heads of the city’s media outlets asked whether Beglov would be willing to meet with reporters in a similar format in the future. Beglov said he would definitely talk with everyone but only after September 8.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Petersburg: Russia’s Window on the West

windy petersburg“One day windy Petersburg won’t let me light a cigarette and I’ll give up smoking on its advice.” Graffiti, Petersburg, July 19, 2018.  Photo by the Russian Reader

Rotunda
June 17, 2019

While Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and the Kremlin were trying to spearhead protests and organize their own rally in support of [the briefly arrested investigative journalist] Ivan Golunov, Petersburg’s acting governor Alexander Beglov missed the political bandwagon once again. Today, during a session of the governor’s so-called inner cabinet at the Smolny, he was told by his underlings the Vesna (Spring) Movement wanted to hold a rally against the persecution of journalists on June 23. Beglov ordered city officials to reach out to the organizers and move the rally to another date since, otherwise, it “would ruin the celebration for school leavers.”

When Beglov gave this order, he was likely unaware city officials had already taken care of the kids. The Smolny turned down Vesna’s request to approve their rally by making up literally a million excuses. For example, a source in the Smolny reported a military band would be playing on Lenin Square (one of the city’s specially designated so-called Hyde Parks, where, theoretically, protesters do not need the city’s go-ahead to hold rallies) on June 23. It also transpired that urgent repairs of heating mains, buildings, pedestrian crossings, etc., were underway at all the other venues in the city center where protest rallies could be held.

Rotunda (Rotonda) is a Telegram channel, covering city politics in Petersburg and written by reporters Maria Karpenko and Ksenia Klochkova. Translated by the Russian Reader

Suing the Opposition into Oblivion

The Lash and the Pocketbook: Petersburg Tests New Scheme for Punishing Opposition
Sergei Yeremeyev
Zaks.ru
December 14, 2018

The prosecutor’s office has estimated that two Petersburg parks sustained 10.9 million rubles [approx. 144,000 euros] in damage during the He’s Not Our Tsar protest, which took place on May 5, 2018, in Petersburg [and other Russian cities]. Two people, Denis Mikhailov and Bogdan Livtin, will be held responsible for all the protesters, police officers, and ordinary Petersburgers who walked on the lawns that day in the vicinity of Palace Square. Law enforcement agencies have identified the two men as organizers of the protest rally.

IMG_5092.JPG (349 KB)

Saving the Grass from Provocateurs
Suing for damage to municipal property is the Russian state’s new know-how when it comes to intimidating the opposition. Like certain other innovations, for example, repeated arrests for involvement in the same protest rally, it is being tried out on Alexei Navalny’s supporters.

The authorities decided to start big. The prosecutor’s office has estimated the city suffered nearly 11 million rubles in damage from the He’s Not Our Tsar rally. According to members of the Navalny Team in Petersburg, the 300-page complaint claims opposition protesters damaged the greenery in the Alexander Garden and the garden next to the Winter Palace. Allegedly, they trampled the lawns, flower beds, and roses, and damaged the dogwood and lilac bushes.

The complaint states the cost of restoring the vegetation in the two green spaces, as provided by the city’s municipal amenities committee. According to the committee, it cost 3,651,000 rubles [approx. 48,000 euros] to repair the damage incurred by the May 5 rally.

The prosecutor’s office multiplied this amount by three, citing a municipal regulation on the amount of compensation to be paid when greenery has to be replaced. The regulation states the amount of damage caused to green spaces protected by the city’s Committee on the Use and Preservation of Landmarks (KGIOP) must be multiplied by a factor of three.

DSCN0254.jpg (303 KB)A giant rubber duck emblazoned with the logo of the Vesna (“Spring”) Movement floats in a fountain in the Alexander Garden on May 5, 2018.

Ivan Pavlov, lawyer and head of Team 29, a group of civil rights lawyers, fears the lawsuit against Litvin and Mikhailov is only the first of similar penalties.

“I am concerned by the direction the prosecutor’s office has taken. This would set a very dangerous precedent. Precedents are usually tried out in other regions of the country, but this time they are starting with Petersburg. Fines are one thing, but civil liability is a whole new level of impacting people’s desire to protest,” Pavlov told Zaks.ru.

Leonid Volkov, project manager at the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), argues that if you follow the Petersburg prosecutor’s thinking to its logical conclusion, you could also punish the organizers of authorized rallies.

“If they tell us that the rally organizer should be punished for trampling the law rather than the person who trampled the lawn, it makes no difference whether the rally was authorized or not, right? Let’s imagine we have organized an authorized rally. The prosecutor shows up and tells us organizers he is suing us for a billion rubles. It would sound completely insane,” Volkov said.

Downtown Petersburg is often used as a venue for large-scale events, including official celebrations. For example, this past summer, the Smolny reported that, during the annual Crimson Sails celebration for school leavers, when young Petersburgers and out-of-towners party all night long, approximately 600 cubic meters of rubbish were removed from the downtown area. It is unknown whether the city inspected the condition of its bushes after the school leavers’ party.

The New Governor
Litvin, federal coordinator and press secretary for the Vesna Movement,  actually applied to the Smolny for permission to hold the May 5 rally. He proposed a march down Zagorodny Prospect, following by a rally on Pioneer Square. The city’s law and order committee found a reason to turn down his application, just like the other applications submitted by Navalny supporters. The city told the opposition to hold its rally in Udelny Park, a large green space in the north of the city that looks more like a forest. Insulted by this suggestion, Navalny supporters announced the rally would take place on Palace Square.

Three months later, on August 2, the October District Court fined Litvin 20,000 rubles for organizing the unauthorized He’s Not Our Tsar protest rally per Article 20.2 Part 1 of the Administrative Offense Code. Petersburg City Court subsequently overturned the lower court’s ruling. The case will be reheard in the near future.

Mikhailov, the Navalny Team’s Petersburg coordinator, has already been punished twice for the May protest. First, the Smolny District Court sentenced him to 25 days in jail, and then the October District Court fined him 300,000 rubles [approx. 4,000 euros], a record fine for opposition political activism in Petersburg. The fact that Mikhailov was on the air on the internet channel Navalny Live during the event, answering the questions of his comrades in Moscow, was considered proof he organized the protest.

“I was covering the event, because the major national media were not there. At such a huge event! In Petersburg, 10,000 people marched on the Nevsky,” replied Mikhailov.

He now recalls an interesting conversation he had on the sidelines of one of his court hearings.

“There was a certain law enforcement officer at one of my court hearings. He told me the prosecutor’s office was planning to file suit, because the damages incurred by the city were too large. Nothing came of it. Judging by the complaint, this past summer, they really did carry out inspections and corresponded on the matter, but then it fizzled out. But in November, when Alexander Beglov was appointed acting governor [of Petersburg], the officials involved resumed their correspondence and the lawsuit was drawn up. Putting it simply, Beglov came to power and gave them the green light,” Mikhailov told Zaks.ru.

Maxim Reznik, a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, has also noticed the new governor’s shadow looming over the lawsuit. Reznik argues the Smolny is using such cases to intimidate the opposition in the run-up to the 2019 elections.

“They strike us with the lash, and they hit us in our pocketbooks. It’s directly connected with the new governor. Because he is either involved in what is happening or he has no control of the situation. Why he would want that? The regime is showing us its teeth. It doesn’t want there to be any protests whatsoever. [Beglov] needs things to be quiet so he can bring happiness to the city, while anyone who intends to agitate the people should know their place,” said Reznik.

Supernatural Stupidity
Maybe ten thousand people did not attend the May 5 protest, but there were clearly more than two thousand people on the streets, as was claimed by the Interior Ministry’s local office. Originally, no one had planned to march on Nevsky Prospect. Since a celebration for bikers and rehearsals for the May 9 Victory Day military parade were taking place on Palace Square, the protest rally was hastily moved across the street to the Alexander Garden. When the Alexander Garden was teeming with people who wanted to express their displeasure at the policies of the old-new president, Vladimir Putin, voices in the crowd called for the rally to move to the Nevsky, and people spontaneously rushed into the city’s main street.

The Navalny Team did not immediately join the march. Initially, the rally’s Telegram channel broadcast requests not to heed people urging protesters to leave the Alexander Garden. Volunteers sporting “20!8” pins made the same request in person, until they realized there was no holding people back. The crowd stayed on the sidewalk for awhile, but when it encountered a segment of the Nevsky closed to traffic for repairs, it went onto the roadway. At approximately the same time, Mikhailov, who was in the midst of the crowd, went on the air on Navalny Live.

The first arrests occurred at the corner of Marat Street and Nevsky, where a police barrier awaited the demonstrators. Seeing what happened, the bulk of the crowd turned around and headed in the opposite direction, walking down the Nevsky and parallel streets. In none of the court hearings in the cases of Litvin and Mikhailov was any evidence presented that suggested either of the men had encouraged the demonstrators to return to Palace Square.

Most of the arrests took place outside the Hermitage. Police dressed in riot gear gave chase over the lawns to anyone chanting slogans. They caught some of these people, dragging or escorting them to paddy wagons parked on Palace Passage. The proceedings were videotaped and photographed by bloggers and reporters. No one had the time to look where they were walking.

Two men, however, will be held liable for damaging the lawns and other vegetation. One of them, Litvin, never even made it back to the Winter Garden: he was detained near Gostiny Dvor when the demonstrators headed in the opposite direction.

Attorney Arkady Chaplygin call this method of singling out guilty parties a supernatural stupidity.

“The lawsuit makes no sense whatsoever. The Russian Civil Code prohibits seeking monetary compensation for damage from persons who did not cause the damage. The law requires the individual who caused the damage to be identified. This lawsuit is a PR stunt on the part of Governor Beglov meant to intimidate the opposition. It is a stupidity supernatural in its scope,” argued Chaplygin.

The Frunze District Court will try and make sense of the botany of the city’s parks and the prosecutor’s arithmetic after the New Year’s holidays. A preliminary hearing in the case has been scheduled for January 10.

Photos courtesy of Zaks.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

RUS-2016-Aerial-SPB-Field_of_Mars
The Field of Mars is in the center of Petersburg, but it is conveniently isolated from well-populated residential neighborhoods and high streets. Unless they are extremely well attended, most political rallies held on the famous former parade grounds and revolutioanry mass burial site go unnoticed by the vast majority of Petersburgers. Photo courtesy of Andrew Shiva and Wikipedia

Up the River: The Smolny Will Expand List of Venues for Political Rallies
Mikhail Shevchuk
Delovoi Peterburg
December 4, 2018

As soon as he took up his duties as acting governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov announced plans to amend the law on political rallies.

“We need to make changes and introduce order, so there were will be no violations on either side,” he said at a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in October.

The Smolny has now drafted amendments to the law. The principle of “Hyde Parks,” that is, of specially designated places where Petersburgers can vent their indignation without prior notification of the authorites, remains in force. However, the Smolny has proposed establishing a minimum number of such places, eight in all.

The current law on political rallies does not specify the number of venues. City hall publishes the list of political rally sites in an ordinance. Originally, in 2012, the Field of Mars (or, rather, a small part of it) was designated the city’s “Hyde Park.” Two years later, four more venues were added: Udelny Park, Polyustrovsky Park, Yuzhno-Primorsky Park, and 30th Anniversary of October Gardens. The Field of Mars was struck from the list last year.

uppYuzhno-Primorsky Park is located in the far southwest of Petersburg. It is four kilometers from the nearest subway station, and three kilometers from the nearest suburban railroad station. Map courtesy of Yandex

Theoretically, it is possible to organize demonstrations in other places, but city hall usually refuses to sanction the rallies under various pretexts, suggesting to organizers they use one of the designated “Hyde Parks.” As a matter of principle, however, the opposition avoids the “Hyde Parks,” which are all situated in the city’s outskirts. Instead, they prefer to assemble at such traditional sites for political rallies as Lenin Square, Pioneer Square and, sometimes, even Palace Square, although they risk fines and forcible dispersal by police.

The maximum number of people who can attend a political rally held without prior notification of the authorities would range from 200 to 500 people under the amended law. As under the old law, State Duma MPs, members of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, and members of the city’s municipal district councils would be able to hold meetings with constituents on the streets.

Officials would now calculate how many people can attend a political rally at a particular venue according to the norm of one person per square meter. Lenin Square and Pioneer Square would thus be able to accommodate rallies attended by as many as 10,000 people. Organizers would also be obliged to inform officials of canceled rallies under the threat of a fine of 5,000 rubles for individuals and 100,000 rubles for legal entities.

“It’s not the number of sites that matters,” said Andrei Pivovarov, leader of the local office of Open Russia. “And no one has ever been fined for going over the maximum number of attendees. One venue would be enough for us, but as long as it is in downtown Petersburg. If the venues are going to be in the outskirts, city hall could give us a dozen such places, but we would try to protest downtown anyway.”

However, Pivovarov said that if the new list included the Field of Mars, Lenin Square, and Pioneer Square, the opposition would be quite satisfied and make use of these venues.

St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly member Maxim Reznik also named the two squares. He said the number of people attending a rally and the convenience of Petersburgers were more important than a particular place. The opposition was always ready for dialogue, he said. However, if the regime made a point of tightening the screws, dissenters, Reznik said, would choose the paddy wagon, that is, they would choose to attend an unauthorized rally rather than cancel it.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yevgenia Litvinova: October 28, 2018

october 28Petersburg democracy activist Pavel Chuprunov, holding a placard that reads, “‘Yes, we tasered them, but it wasn’t torture. We were doing our jobs!’ Admission by the Soviet NKVD Russian FSB, 1938 2018.” Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg, 28 October 2018. Photo by Yevgenia Litvinova

Yevgenia Litvinova
Facebook
October 29, 2018

October 28 was the day chosen for publicly supporting people accused of extremism and locked up in jail, i.e., the suspects in the Network and the New Greatness cases. Petersburgers had no choice but to be involved in this international event, since some of the suspects in the Network case are from Petersburg.

The day before, I had listened to Yekaterina Kosarevskaya and Yana Teplitskaya’s brilliant but very heavy report about the use of torture in the FSB’s St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region Directorate. In particular, the report recounts how the young men accused in the Network case were tortured. All we can do is constantly talk about these people publicly, about what happened to them over the last year (they were arrested nearly a year ago), and what is happening to them now.

The rally in support of the young folks locked up in remand prisons on trumped-up charges was not approved by the authorities, although the organizers—Open Russia, Vesna, and Bessrochka (Endless Protest)—suggested a variety of venues in the downtown area. Everywhere was off limits.

You can protest in Udelny Park, in the far north of Petersburg, that is, in the woods. It’s a great place to have a stroll and get some fresh air, but who would be there to see your protest? The squirrels? This proposal is better than the garbage dump in Novosyolki, which the authorities always used to suggest as an alternative venue, but it’s not a suitable place for a political rally.

All that remained was the only form of political protest that doesn’t require prior approval from the authorities: solo pickets.

The protesters had different placards, but all of them were quite persuasive. They got to the heart of these frame-ups, which crush and maim people in order to earn promotions for the policemen and security services officers who dream them up.

Solo pickets had always been safe in Petersburg, unlike in Moscow, Krasnodar, and so on. That was why many people found them monotonous and boring.

“Oh, solo pickets again,” people would complain.

The plan was to take it in turns to stand holding placards on the corner of Nevsky and Malaya Sadovaya. But the folks from NOD (National Liberation Movement) read announcements for the upcoming protests and got there early. We had to move away from Malaya Sadovaya and closer to the pedestrian underpass to the subway. It’s an uncomfortable, narrow spot.

NOD has been a little sluggish lately. What happened to their weekly vigils? When there’s no money, there’s no NOD. But suddenly they had reappeared, which meant they had been asked to take to the streets by people whose offer you can’t refuse.

Recently, solo pickets have ceased to be “boring,” but there’s no reason for rejoicing. Solo pickets started becoming a staple of news reports around a month ago, when Alexander Beglov was appointed Petersburg’s acting governor. Since then, police have made a habit of detaining people at solo pickets. They make up excuses for their actions on the fly.

I knew this, of course, but I naively counted on logic and common sense winning the day. I compiled and printed out a number of laws proving that I and other “favorites” of Lieutenant Ruslan Sentemov, a senior police inspector in the public order enforcement department of Petersburg’s Central District, had to the right to speak out via solo pickets. I was planning to hand these papers to Sentemov on camera. But I didn’t see him at the rally. I thought he hadn’t come at all. Nor did he see me.

I got lucky. Because what logic had I imagined? What common sense? What laws? What right to hold solo pickets?

Sentemov did see another of his “favorites,” Dmitry Gusev. He pointed at him and said, “Detain him.”

Dmitry was not holding anything at all, much less a placard. He had no plans to be involved in the picketing. But that was that, and now he is detained at a police precinct, like dozens of other people. I counted over thirty detainees. But Alexander Shislov, Petersburg’s human rights ombudsman, writes that around fifty people were detained. Around one hundred people were at the protest.

Several detainees were released without charges, while others were charged with violating Article 20.2 Part 5 of the Administrative Offenses Code, but most of the detainees will spend the night in police stations. They have been charged with violating Article 20.2 Part 2, which is punishable by jail time.*

The detainees were dispersed to different police stations, some of them quite far away. They needed food, water, and toiletries. Police stations usually don’t have any of these things, although they are obliged to provide them if they detain someone for more than three hours.

Over ten people who were present with me at the protest traveled the police stations to check on the detainees. The rest came from the Observers HQ at Open Space. We constantly called and wrote each other, makingsure no one had been left without assistance. I hope that was how it worked out. The detainees should have everything they need for this evening, overnight, and tomorrow morning.

Natalia Voznesenskaya and I had planned to go to the 28th Police Precinct, but all the detainees there had been released.

We went instead to the 7th Precinct. The internet told us it was near the Kirovsky Zavod subway station. We wandered for a long time amidst the nice little houses built after the war, supposedly by German POWs. We arrived at the police station only to find that its number had recently changed. It was no longer the 7th Precinct, but the 31st Precinct.

We went to the real 7th Precinct, on Balkanskaya Street. Elena Grigoryeva, Dmitry Dorokhin, and two other men were detained there. (One of the men had been taken away by ambulance.) Unexpectedly, the 7th Precinct was a decent place. It was no comparison with the 76th and 78th Precincts, in the Central District. The police officers on duty there accepted our food packages and spoke politely with us.

We ran into Alexander Khmelyov at the station. Wielding a power of attorney as a social defender, he had come to see what kind of mattresses and linens had been issued to the detainees. There were no bedbugs. What was more, the police officers brought the detainees supper from a nearby cafe. They were obliged to do it, but their colleagues at other precincts never do it, and detainees usually don’t even get breakfast.

So, now the stomachs of the detainees were full, and they could take the food we had brought with them to court. Court hearings can last eight hours or more, although it happens that fifteen minutes is all the time a judge needs. There is usually no difference. The court’s rulings have been written in advance.

Before leaving the house to go the protest in support of the suspects in the New Greatness and Network cases, I listened to a program on Echo of Moscow about the case of Elena Kerenskaya, sister of Alexander Kerensky, chair of the Provisional Government in 1917. Kerenskaya was executed by the NKVD in Orenburg on February 2, 1938.

I don’t want to blow things out of proportion, but it has become easier and easier to under how the trials of the 1930s happened the way they did.

* Article 20.2 of the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code covers “violation[s] of the established procedure for organizing and holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets.” Part 2 stipulates punishments for people who organize or hold rallies without notifying the authorities in advance. They can be jailed for up to ten days or fined up to 30,000 rubles (400 euros).

Translated by the Russian Reader