MOSCOW, December 15 (RIA Novosti) – A considerable crowd of opposition activists braved subzero temperatures and police cordons to attend a peaceful, unsanctioned rally in Moscow on Saturday, marking the first anniversary of mass protests in Russia.
The event upped the ante for the leading opposition figures, who refused to compromise with the authorities in obtaining permission for the rally as they had done in the past, risking a crackdown.
The police allowed people to gather in Moscow’s downtown Lubyanka Square, only cracking down on the staunch few who stayed on after the main crowd had dissipated.
For about two hours there was a steady stream of people coming and going. They laid flowers at a monument to victims of Soviet political persecution – the formal goal of the event – as the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor to the KGB, loomed across the square bathed in winter sunlight.
The flowers soon wilted – the temperature held steady at minus 14 degrees Celsius.
Police cordoned off the square, but allowed people to move in and out. A droning voice speaking over a loudspeaker informed the crowd throughout the rally that the event was unsanctioned, but went largely unheeded.
Most protesters were not carrying placards or shouting slogans – activities prohibited at unsanctioned events. But many sported white ribbons, a symbol of the year-long protest movement, and most of the flowers laid were also white.
City police put the turnout at 700, about 300 of them bloggers and journalists. Reporters from Ekho Moskvy radio, Russian Reporter magazine and Ridus news website estimated the crowd at between 3,000 and 7,000.
The actual turnout is difficult to establish, because the protesters came and went in a constant flow, most unwilling to linger long in the cold, according to a RIA Novosti correspondent on the scene.
Grigory Komotsky, a 28-year-old mathematician, proudly said that he had been scared of going out and joining protesters on the square, but overcame his fear to show his defiance.
“Freedom is the absence of fear,” Komotsky said. “It’s our victory. We wanted to come here today and we came.”
Yevgeny Apotchenko, a philosophy student who approached the monument carrying two red roses, said he had decided to attend the gathering “for honor and dignity,” even though he expected violence from the police.
Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer-turned-opposition figure noted that none of those who gathered on the square had called for any unlawful actions. “Unlike the government, we respect the law,” he said.
Police moved in to force people out of the square after the crowd dwindled to 300, half of them journalists, according to police estimates, or about 600, according to the media.
At least 69 people were detained at the event, according to OVD-Info, an independent website covering alleged police abuse. Police put the figure at “about 40.”
Some of those who stayed on, in an implicit challenge to the police, were shouting slogans and waving banners, and a few wore nationalist or leftist insignia. Some also formed human chains in an attempt to prevent police from arresting anyone, with varying degrees of success.
Police also detained four opposition leaders in the early stages of the event, including whistleblowing lawyer Alexei Navalny, leftist opposition figure Sergei Udaltsov, liberal politician Ilya Yashin and socialite-turned-political activist Ksenia Sobchak. All were held for calling people to stage an unsanctioned rally, police said.
But a number of other opposition figures, including politicians Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Ilya Ponomaryov, Dmitry Gudkov and Alexander Belov, as well as politically conscious writer and journalist Dmitry Bykov and poet Lev Rubinshtein, were allowed to come and go unhindered, some giving speeches by the monument.
“I don’t know of any law forbidding me to peacefully stroll in public squares,” Rubinshtein told RIA Novosti, standing between the monument and a line of police officers.
Most detainees, including Navalny, Udaltsov and Sobchak, were released the same evening. None of the protest leaders faced any charges.
As of 18:30 Moscow time, it appeared that most of those detained would be released without being fined or charged.
Rallies also took place in several other cities across Russia, though all were sanctioned. The biggest, in St. Petersburg, had a turnout of about 600 and saw some 25 alleged nationalists detained, most of them for displaying an anti-Islam banner, St. Petersburg city police said.
Protests in Russia began amid growing doubts over last December’s parliamentary elections, with rallies in Moscow attracting tens of thousands of people. Many analysts predicted that the protest wave would subside after the presidential elections in March, but rallies continued into September.
A draconian law on public events that was passed after a protest in Moscow turned violent in May allowed any unofficial public gathering to be labeled an unsanctioned rally, leading to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($10,000) for participants and organizers alike. Several rank-and-file protesters implicated in the May riots also face jail terms, a measure that was widely seen as an attempt to intimidate the Kremlin’s more radical opponents.
But the mood at the gathering on Saturday seemed mostly jovial, if tense at times. A painter took advantage of the sunny day, stationing himself opposite the rally site to capture the scene on canvas. It is not clear where his painting will be available.