At first glance, it might have seemed just another unauthorized Moscow protest: cries for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s removal and a forceful crackdown by so-called “cosmonauts” -- riot police in helmets with visors.
But the July 27 demonstration in downtown Moscow for the registration of independent candidates in upcoming elections to the government-controlled city council proved a record-setter, according to one law-enforcement watchdog.
The estimated 1,373 detainees were the highest number since a brutal 2012 crackdown on a Moscow protest against election fraud and Putin’s presidency, reported the non-profit OVD-Info. Moscow city police reported a much lower number: 1,074.
Overall, police say, 3,500 people took part in the demonstration, billed by organizers as a meet-and-greet with voters outside City Hall on Tverskaya Street, a traffic link to the Kremlin.
Amnesty International, the Council of Europe, European Union, and United States have all criticized Russian law enforcement for the use of excessive force toward these demonstrators. Beatings with truncheons were widespread, with at least one hospitalization reported.
Aleksandr Brod, a member of President Putin’s Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, commented to Gazeta.ru that “naturally, the police had to maintain public order,” but the Council’s chairman, Mikhail Fedotov, conceded that discussions should be held with the Moscow police and the national guard about their conduct.
“I didn’t see any detentions by force, but I saw baseless detentions with my own eyes,” Fedotov told the Interfax news agency.
Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin believes that the police response shows that Moscow feels vulnerable. Protests throughout Russia have become more frequent lately, on topics ranging from media rights to protection of green spaces. In June, the president’s approval rating dipped to 31.7 percent, according to pollster VTsIOM.
“I think that our leaders feel underground tremors,” Oreshkin said. “They’re nervous because they’re losing control of the situation.”
Yelena Lukyanova, a professor of constitutional law at Moscow’s National Research University, cautioned that prosecutions of detainees could follow the scenario of the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protest, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that police had violated many detainees’ rights.
She stressed that the demonstration “shows the level of dissatisfaction with the current authorities is very high.”
With her face smeared with blood and her head wrapped in an even bloodier bandage, 45-year-old Aleksandra Parushina became an instant symbol for this dissatisfaction.
Parushina, an opposition deputy in the city’s Khamovniki district council, told Current Time she was struck in the head by a police truncheon as OMON riot police tried to force demonstrators in a side street away from Tverskaya Ulitsa, the site of City Hall. Though dazed and bleeding profusely, she returned to the demonstration.
Parushina indicated that she may file a complaint with the police about the attack.
One human rights activist interviewed by Current Time, however, questioned how much Parushina, or others like her, can expect the courts to penalize police for their behavior.
“Who to take to court? The Russian Guard? They’ll say we don’t know who did this,” predicted longtime rights defender Sergei Sharov-Delone, referring to national guard troops deployed to disperse demonstrators.
“Yes, it’s possible to go to court, but the result will be zero, unfortunately,” he added.
Ahead of the rally, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced on Twitter early Saturday that “serious provocations are being prepared that pose a threat to people’s security, life and health.”
One 30-something woman in sunglasses, watching the police from the sidewalk on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street, scoffed at the mayor’s warning.
“They provoked [the police] for fair elections. It’s a crime, fair elections in an authoritarian country.”
The state-run TASS news agency claimed that protesters threw explosive dye packs, “tore down” a few “verandas” on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street, and used an undefined gas that injured two police officers.
The fight for registration began on July 14 when the Moscow Election Committee, citing allegedly falsified voter signatures and other irregularities, declined to register 27 opposition candidates for the September 8 municipal elections.
Complaints were filed, but the decision remains unchanged. Supporters of the would-be candidates held a July 20 rally in Moscow that attracted an estimated 20,500 people. Political activist Aleksei Navalny, one of the protest organizers, was detained a few days before the July 27 event in front of Moscow City Hall.
Many of the prospective candidates, whose apartments had been searched, were later detained -- three twice in one day.
Wearing bullet-proof vests, the scores of helmeted, truncheon-bearing OMON riot police at first easily outnumbered those gathered on Tverskaya for what organizers described as a “meeting with voters,” authorized under Russian law.
One 81-year-old passer-by fumed at the police presence. “The police should get out of here. They have no business here. There’s no one here -- neither robbers, nor bandits; not any kind of enemy,” he said.
An elderly woman caught in a courtyard closed off by police simply demanded that media and demonstrators go away.
Aside from detaining protesters and others, police also served a subpoena on the independent internet TV studio Dozhd (Rain) and raided Navalny LIVE, an online broadcast run by supporters of incarcerated opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Navalny LIVE anchor Vladimir Milov was detained on site. Both outlets were broadcasting the demonstration live.
Aleksandra Perepelovaya, the editor-in-chief of Dozhd, told viewers police questioned her “as a witness in a criminal case” about how the station covered the demonstration and how they received information. The police refused to elaborate about the case, she said.
Contrary to usual practice, officials had asked journalists and bloggers covering the demonstration to register with the authorities beforehand. Seven hundred did so, according to law enforcement. Nonetheless, at least four journalists -- Deutsche Welle Russian reporter Sergey Dik, MediaZone reporter Aleksandr Gorokhov, Novaya Gazeta reporter Ilya Azar, and The Village reporter Pavel Yablonsky -- were apprehended. Most were later released.
Pedestrians appeared to become increasingly reluctant to speak on camera as the clashes wore on.
A distraught middle-aged woman on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, however, did not hesitate. She recounted witnessing police beating a girl with a truncheon. “I’ll sponsor Navalny now,” she said.
But Yelena Rusakova, a city council candidate from the liberal Yabloko party, urged Russians to look beyond the violence.
“The main thing is that people came, people insist on their constitutional rights, people demonstrate that there’s no fear, and there won’t be fear,” she commented to journalists during the demonstration. “The most important thing is that people know that there’s law in our country.”
That message appeared to resonate with at least one detainee. A sign posted in the window of a police van read simply: “I have the right to a choice.”