Source: Ruslan Sukhushin
On Thursday, July 18, Alexei Navalny, a
prominent member of Russia’s liberal opposition and anti- corruption activist,
was sentenced to 5 years in prison after being convicted of financial fraud.
The guilty verdict had been anticipated, and,
a week in advance, the opposition called for a rally on Manezhnaya Square, referring
to it as a “gathering.” This word was purposefully used: Obtaining official
permission for a political rally is problematical, but no one can forbid people
from gathering in the city center. At least, so it seemed.
On the day before the gathering, repair
work began on Manezhnaya Square. By Thursday evening, all the entrances to the
square had been blocked by police and Interior Ministry troops. Tow trucks,
police vans, military trucks, water trucks, the army, special units in full gear—this
was what the city center looked by 7 p.m.
Yet people kept arriving: 7,000, and then
more and more. Okhotny Ryad, Mokhovaya Street, the adjacent stretch of
Tverksaya Street, the space in front of the Bolshoi Theatre to the Lenin Library,
on both sides of the streets—in fact the entire center of Moscow was filled
with people. As a result, instead of a rally, it developed into something more:
a grandiose demonstration.
What was striking was the absence of any
flags, posters or banners. It was a silent confrontation between the crowd and
the police. Only occasionally would somebody shout, “Shame!” or “Not guilty!”—only
to be grabbed by the police and dragged through the police cordon toward a
police bus. A total of 200 people were detained.
There was a cyclist who shouted in support
of the protesters being arrested. First, they grabbed the cyclist himself. Then,
a sergeant asked a colonel, “What to do with the bike?”… “This is his personal
property.” So the bike was arrested, too, and thrown into the bus.
The shouting grew louder. Passing cars
honked their horns in support. Drivers held out the peace sign with their two
fingers, with the crowd applauding; an old woman on crutches broke through the
cordon and crossed her crutches to make a similar “V.”
Students with dreadlocks and iPads, owners
of expensive, foreign-made cars, retirees and managers all stood side-by-side
or strolled back and forth. The crowd included some people who would hardly be
seen together any other time: Orthodox activist and nationalist Dmitry Enteo, next
to Conceptualist poet Lev Rubinstein and, nearby, former Kremlin spin-doctor
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On a building façade stood the young, left-wing radical Matvey
Krylov of the Just Russia party. There were people on all the façades. They
whistled, applauded and took pictures.
“Today, Navalny is the only figure uniting
different segments of the opposition—right, liberal and left,” said Andrei
Lezhnev, leader of the protest rock group IBVZh (Russian acronym for “And a
Rich Inner Life”). “But this is not only about Navalny. By defending Navalny,
we are defending our country against corrupt officials, the mafia and Cosa
Nostra ensconced in the Kremlin.”
On this occasion, the street opposition is
making common cause with the establishment opposition. Opposition deputy
Gennady Gudkov of Just Russia, who took part in the rally, said: “Today, the
authorities promoted Navalny from leader of street protests to a politician of
a bigger caliber.”
“Protest actions, rallies and flash mobs
are necessary, but we should take part in elections and monitor the polling
stations. People have come here to defend their right to fair elections. There
is nothing you can do about them,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the Yabloko
Surprisingly, on Thursday, in spite of the tension,
the mood was festive: many were smiling; somebody attached a poster with the
words “Navalny’s brother” to his back; someone else changed one letter on the
shingle at the entrance to the State Duma to make it read “State Fool.”
“This is our city” is one of Navalny’s
rallying cries. On the evening of July 18, the city center, having been divided
into squares by police cordons and jammed with special forces and vehicles, did
indeed belong to the people and not to the bureaucrats.
The crowd dispersed by 2 a.m. People came
away with a sense of having won a victory. By morning, as it turned out, Navalny
had been released from custody.