“We, the Russian citizens, have waited a long time for this kind of massive protest to occur”, says Ekaterina Dudakova, a 20-year-old student from Yekaterinburg. “If you ask five different people for the reasons they went to the protests, they will tell you five different things. But the primary adversary we are uniting against can be summarised in one word: ‘Putin’”.
Protests erupted across Russia after Alexei Navalny, a high-profile opponent of Vladimir Putin, was arrested upon arrival at Sheremetyevo airport on January 17th. His immediate detainment prompted a call for nationwide demonstrations, of which hundreds have erupted in towns and cities, from Russia’s far-east and Siberia to Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Currently standing as the longest serving Russian leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Putin’s tenure as president has faced a number of protests and demonstrations, including the 2011 ‘March of the Millions’. Ekaterina tells us: “this occurred because people started realising the current government was becoming a dictatorship”.
Having been hospitalised after being exposed to a Novichok nerve agent, Navalny has only recently been able to return to Russia from where he was recuperating in Germany. Previously, he has spoken fervently on issues relating to anti-corruption, a point of contention for Putin’s governmental loyalists. “I do not agree with many aspects of Navalny’s political views”, says Ekaterina. “He is a right-wing politician who has previously made misogynistic statements and is fond of nationalism. But he is still human”.
Protests focussed upon a demand for the politician’s release and an official investigation into his assassination attempt. Navalny has accused Putin of being responsible for his poisoning, with the European Union claiming the incident could only have been authorised with the express consent of the Presidential Executive Office. Russian prosecutors refused to open an official criminal investigation, claiming they found no evidence a crime had been committed. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the incident.
Ekaterina comments on this possibility of state collusion: “considering the fact the investigation was never started, people began to assume the poisoning was organised by the government and the president. This incident has only fuelled distrust towards government officials in Russia”. She emphasises the importance of giving a platform to different perspectives: “if this is what happens to a famous person with an oppositional view, there is no guarantee for the personal freedoms of each individual in this country”.
A fear of detainment spreads to all corners of Russian society. In the arts, feminist activist Julia Tsvetkova faces a jail term of between two and six years for posting drawings of female genitalia to social media. Accused of spreading pornography, Julia maintains she is the victim of a “witch-hunt”.
In 2019, Russian reporter Ivan Golunov’s guilt could not be proven on a drug charge thought to be commonly used by the Russian state to silence opposition figures. His lawyers said substances had been planted as a consequence of his coverage of the censorship of journalists.
The Khachaturyan sisters stabbed their father to death in 2018 after he abused them physically and psychologically for years. More than 300,000 people signed a petition calling for their release, condemning the complete lack of legislation protecting victims of domestic violence in Russia.
Student activist Yegor Zhukov was given a three-year suspended sentence in 2019 for writing blogs and publishing videos criticising Putin as a “dictator and a tyrant”. Zhukov has since fallen victim to a vicious physical attack in late 2020. Ekaterina remarks: “How many others are there that we are unaware of?”
As of 2020, Russia ranked 149th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index. According to Ekaterina, Russian state-sponsored media promotes the manipulation of information, known as ‘Information Autocracy’: “Because all the main federal channels on TV are sponsored by the government, they are able to broadcast propagandistic news, interviews, and shows”.
She adds: “All the information is carefully selected by specialists and presented in a way that is convenient for the president and the current government”. As a result, protesters are vilified by the media: “all the ‘inconvenient’ activists, journalists, protesters, women who fall victim to domestic violence, and others are portrayed as disturbers of peace and even terrorists”.
On January 23rd, Ekaterina took the decision to participate in a protest of around 3,000 people in her home city: “Everyone marched in -30ºC frost to the central streets around the river and ended up on the square in front of the regional government building. We stood and screamed different slogans there, while someone was playing Russian music about freedom and time for change”.
Though protests have gone ahead, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll: “I think the turnout in Yekaterinburg would have been much higher if it was not for the Covid-19 anxiety and weather conditions”, adding: “I also think people were not social distancing because there were just too many of us in the crowd”.
She describes Yekaterinburg’s protests as lucky in their peaceful outcome. However, there were minor incidents in which people provoked police and threw smoke bombs: “There were a few times we had to run towards the frozen river from the soldiers”. In other cities, such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the protests took a violent turn.
Scenes of police brutality have been widespread, with a particularly brutal video depicting a soldier kicking a woman in the stomach, causing her to fall to the ground. Speaking on such violence, Ekaterina says: “what seems ridiculous to me is the amount of police and soldiers sent to this kind of peaceful protest… I guess that shows the scale of how much the government is afraid of their own citizens”.
Despite the danger, Ekaterina tells us: “when I went there and yelled those slogans, I was not afraid, because I knew there were so many other passionate, patriotic, and devoted people around me. All that mattered was the cause we were fighting for. Together”.
In order to organise peaceful demonstrations in Russia, local officials must be consulted, meaning political demonstrations are often suppressed before they have even begun. Navalny’s representatives requested permission for protests to occur following his arrest, though this was denied due to the political nature of his case. As such, his team called for demonstrations without government consent.
We enquired as to how Ekaterina felt about attending the protests: “to be completely honest, I was very anxious. Not just because it was illegal, but because I knew that if I had bad luck and got recognised there, I could get detained, and that could endanger my family afterwards”.
So far, Putin, who is also under pressure from the West to free Navalny, has responded to the protests, saying: “all people have the right to express their point of view within the framework of the law. Everything that goes beyond the framework of the law is not only counterproductive but also dangerous… this is not how politics is done, at least not a responsible politics”.
Ekaterina acknowledges Putin’s role in the modernisation of Russia: “our economy would never have survived the fall of the Soviet Union, especially after the many crises which erupted throughout the first decade of the 21st century. That is a fact. However, that said, enough is enough”. She emphasises the legitimacy of Putin’s rise to power, citing the clear economic vision of his party. However, she is keen to point out his validity was soon questioned following the realisation that the majority of politicians in Duma were coming from his own party.
Inspired by the global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ekaterina realised “anything becomes possible when you bring global attention to a cause you are passionate about”. She adds: “I believe that by bringing awareness to the state in which my country is in right now, I will help make it possible to bring different cultures together to fight for justice and what we all care about most: freedom… There is nothing more powerful than multicultural unity”.
Having prior knowledge of the way in which the political system fluctuates in Russia, Ekaterina is not expecting immediate changes to be implemented any time soon. However, this does not deter her from holding hope for a brighter future for her home country: “one day it will become impossible to edit the truth in the media and the need for reformation will prevail… The dial for revolutionary change starts moving when there is a shift in human hearts, a shift these protests have already begun to demonstrate”.