EGOR ZHUKOV, a student in Moscow, published a video blog on August 1st in which he described how the siloviki (members of Russia’s security services) had seized power in Russia, using protests over local elections in Moscow as an excuse. “Russia will inevitably be free,” he said, “but we may not live to see it if we let fear win, because when fear wins, silence comes...a silence that will be disturbed by the screeching brakes of a black police wagon and the deafening ring of a doorbell that divides life into before and after.”Coming from a 21-year-old student, in prettified and bustling Moscow, with its hipster cafés and cycle lanes, the associations with the darkest days of the Soviet 1930s seemed like hyperbole. Eight hours later, in the middle of the night, the security services rang Mr
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EGOR ZHUKOV, a student in Moscow, published a video blog on August 1st in which he described how the siloviki (members of Russia’s security services) had seized power in Russia, using protests over local elections in Moscow as an excuse. “Russia will inevitably be free,” he said, “but we may not live to see it if we let fear win, because when fear wins, silence comes...a silence that will be disturbed by the screeching brakes of a black police wagon and the deafening ring of a doorbell that divides life into before and after.”
Coming from a 21-year-old student, in prettified and bustling Moscow, with its hipster cafés and cycle lanes, the associations with the darkest days of the Soviet 1930s seemed like hyperbole. Eight hours later, in the middle of the night, the security services rang Mr Zhukov’s doorbell. At 2.05am, he sent a text message to a friend: “They’ve come for me.” A few hours later, he was led away and charged with involvement in “mass disturbances” during the summer protests. The charge was fabricated. Not only were the protests peaceful but Mr Zhukov was misidentified in a video used by the police. The only acts of violence during the protests were committed by the police and the security services.
But the arrest of Mr Zhukov, and of many of his fellow activists, has been met with anything but silence. Students and academics have signed open letters and picketed police headquarters. Bloggers and rappers came to support him in court. And at the next big protest, on August 10th, some 50,000 people came out onto the streets. Stars’ Secrets, a tabloid about the life of celebrities, published a two-page spread about police violence.
On September 3rd, after a month in detention, Mr Zhukov was released and placed under house arrest, the initial charge of “mass disturbances” replaced by a somewhat softer one of “extremism”. Five other detainees, also charged with “mass disturbances”, were released without charge. At the same time, though, four other men who had tried to resist police violence during the summer protests were sentenced to two and three years in prison.
The Moscow protests, the largest since 2012, have demonstrated that Vladimir Putin is running out of non-violent means of sustaining himself in power. However, they also showed that ordinary Russians are no longer prepared to put up with being terrorised—and this shift in the public mood makes it harder for the Kremlin to terrorise them. The current crisis was triggered by the government’s fear of losing in local elections due on September 8th across the country, with the vote for Moscow’s city council especially significant. The council has little actual authority, but symbols carry enormous political weight in Russia. To many Russians, the fight for the Moscow council has turned into a proxy battle for the Kremlin itself.
This was partly the doing of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, who urged his supporters to vote for candidates whom he identified as being most able to defeat the Kremlin’s nominees. The Kremlin used bogus excuses to disqualify not just Mr Navalny’s associates, but all independent candidates, including the more moderate ones. This sparked the large-scale protests.
The Moscow authorities initially showed restraint. But when a couple of tents went up in central Moscow, officials fretted that this might be the start of a Ukrainian-style uprising. The siloviki came rushing in to crush it. They beat up unarmed protesters, including women, arrested some 1,400 and threatened to take away children from parents who brought them to protests. “We wanted to set a small fire and fry up United Russia [the ruling party]. But then the Kremlin dumped a canister of petrol into it,” says Mr Navalny.
What started as a protest against electoral shenanigans turned into a broader movement for human rights. The initial slogan dopuskai “let [the candidates] in” changed into otpuskai, “let [political prisoners] out”. Kirill Rogov, an analyst, says that the one thing that independent-minded Russians can agree on is that they should be allowed to demonstrate without being beaten up.
“Society is no longer prepared to put up with violence,” says Grigory Okhotin of OVD-Info, a human-rights group that monitors and provides legal help to the victims of repression. In recent weeks the group has seen an eight-fold increase in voluntary donations and a doubling of the number of volunteers, most in their mid-20s. “They are intolerant [of] repression and don’t want to wait for Russia to turn into a normal country. They want to live in a normal country now,” says Mr Okhotin.
In a poll by the Levada Centre, 41% of Russians (and half of Muscovites) said they thought the state’s use of force was excessive and cruel; only 32% deemed it justified. Many people who once saw the state as a guarantor of stability and growth now see it as a threat. Hoping to de-escalate the crisis, the Kremlin has apparently transferred control of the Moscow streets back to civilians. The most recent protest on August 31st ended peacefully.
This tactical retreat may be followed by more repression. But the summer protests showed that brutality has costs. As Mr Zhukov wrote in his letter from prison, the regime’s fall could be as sudden as his own arrest, the ring of history’s bell dividing Russia’s life into before and after. ■