Moscow authorities refused to issue permits for most of the protests that have taken place in the city this summer, and the police and National Guard put them down brutally.
Over the past couple of months, the city of Moscow has seen an unprecedented number of large, confrontational protests, which have been met with unprecedented brutality from the authorities. It’s true that the Kremlin has been cracking down on dissent for seven years, and nothing has qualitatively changed in that time, but the arrests continue to multiply, prison terms grow longer, and the brutality becomes more brutal. Once in a while, the cruelty of the authorities comes into sharper focus. This summer, prosecutors tried to strip two sets of parents of their parental rights because they took children to the protests. This past week, the police took a Moscow man from his home in the evening, leaving a sleeping twenty-month-old child alone. On the whole, though, the process of stamping out political difference is monotonous and repetitive. Things just keep getting worse.
The impetus for the protests is a so-called election scheduled for September 8th. Moscow has a legislature, a rubber-stamping body that effectively reports to the mayor but is, formally, directly elected. This year, thirty-nine people who are not in the mayor’s pocket and do not belong to one of the Kremlin-controlled political parties tried to run for seats in the legislature and were not allowed on the ballot. Each of them had to submit around five thousand signatures. (The exact number depended on the exact population of the district.) Election officials generally threw out the signatures, often claiming that the signatories did not exist, even when these people, some of them well-known in the city, insisted that they had indeed signed the candidate’s petition. In mid-July, seventeen of the candidates who were denied a spot on the ballot called for constituents to meet with them in a central Moscow square—a gathering that would have been protected by law if the city had actually recognized them as candidates for political office. The city, however, declared the planned gathering an illegal protest.
A series of actual protests—pickets, marches, and rallies—followed over the course of the next seven weeks. The city refused to issue permits for most of these protests, and the police and National Guard put them down brutally. On July 27th, Moscow police set an all-time record for the city and the country by detaining at least 1,373 people in one day. Many of those arrested were badly beaten, and many of those beatings were captured on video that circulated on Russian social networks.
As the protests escalated, the city seems to have decided to take the troublemaker candidates off the streets. At one point, eight of them were behind bars. Ilya Yashin, a longtime activist and one of the unrecognized candidates, was placed under arrest five times in a row, for ten days each time: every time Yashin was released from jail, he was picked up by police at the gate, taken to court, sentenced to another ten days’ administrative arrest, and transported back to jail. Another candidate got two arrests, for a total of forty days; another got three arrests, for a total of twenty-five, and so on.
Another series of arrests has clearly been intended to scare people away from the protests. Fifteen people have so far been accused of inciting a riot or of violence against the police during the protests. (On September 3rd, charges against five of them were dropped.) The prosecutor’s office went to court to try to remove a one-year-old child from his parents because they took him to a protest—thereby, according to the charges, endangering his life and abdicating parental responsibility. Another couple faced the same charges for strolling in or possibly near the protest with their three daughters.
The intimidation operation is big. There are reportedly eighty-four detectives involved in criminal cases stemming from the protests. The large team has been rushing cases through at breakneck speed. On September 3rd, a Moscow court handed down a five-year prison sentence in the case of Vladislav Sinitsa, who was first arrested only a month earlier. Sinitsa was arrested for tweeting what the court interpreted as a call to violence against children of law enforcement officials. On September 4th, two men, Yevgeny Kovalenko and Kirill Zhukov, were sentenced to three and a half and three years behind bars, respectively, on charges stemming from the protest on July 27th. On September 5th, a Moscow court sentenced the thirty-four-year-old software engineer Konstantin Kotov to four years in prison for repeatedly violating the rules of protest—a peculiar, rarely used law that allows prosecutors to charge a person with a crime for repeated administrative violations. Kotov was arrested just three weeks ago. In some smaller cases, where the sentence involved only a fine, the courts didn’t even bother with a hearing, according to the human-rights site OVDInfo. Why waste time on speeches and testimony when the outcome is preordained?
Why is the regime unleashing such spectacular and effortful fury on a few candidates for offices with no power and next to no chance of winning in rigged elections? A common interpretation is that the Kremlin is scared. Vladimir Putin’s popularity is slipping, and even a rigged election can stress the system to the point where its rusty structures give. This could well be true, but it is also true that the system Putin has built is so opaque that we will not know how thoroughly it has rusted until it actually collapses. That may happen this year, or in five years, or in ten. Until then, we can be sure only of what can actually be observed: Russia today has more political prisoners than at any point since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., in 1991, and, in fact, many more than it had when the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, decided to release most of them, in 1987. As long as the current regime exists, this number will grow, as will the length of prison sentences and the brutality of enforcers. This is how freedom shrinks: once the vector has been established, there are no turning points, only the movement of the relentless, freedom-eating machine.