Without Putin in Mind: What the Russian Protesters Set out to Achieve
18 September, 2019
The past few months saw a myriad of arrests in Russia with one of the latest being of 24-year-old actor Pavel Ustinov. The groundless detention is branded as one of the most absurd.

UPDATE: Ustinov was released on personal recognizance on September 20.

100 simultaneous searches across Russia, with at least 40 of them at the offices of the opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Such was Russian authorities’ reaction on September 12 to the result of the scandalous election to the legislative assembly of the capital of Russia — the Moscow City Council. This was another result of Navalny’s so-called "Smart Vote" initiative. Because of it, 20 of the 45 candidates associated with the ruling United Russia party did not make it into the Moscow City Council on September 8. And this is in spite of the fact that independent candidates were not allowed to run.

The refusal of the election commission to register independent candidates led to the largest protests in Russia since the Bolotnaya Square protests in 2012. The election commission claimed that the genuine signatures of people who signed in support of 39 candidates to be fake.

In July and August 2019, Muscovites religiously attended both authorized and unauthorized rallies and pickets every Saturday. There security forces detained people and used force on peaceful protesters, which in turn caused even more indignation from Muscovites. They began calling for the release of political prisoners and for an end to repression — on August 10, over 60,000 people gathered in Sakharov Square.

According to the human rights organization OVD-Info, over 2,700 people were detained over the two summer months, a record for the last decade. Thus began the so-called "Moscow case". In five cases, protest participants were given real sentences: two to five years imprisonment:

  • Blogger Vladislav Sinitsa — five years in prison (for tweeting about the children of security officers)
  • Danila Beglets — two years in prison (for pulling on a police officer’s hand)
  • Ivan Podkopayev — three years in prison (for using pepper spray)
  • Kirill Zhukov — three years in prison (for touching the helmet of a Russian national guardsman)
  • Programmer Konstantin Kotov (a Russian activist who supported Oleg Sentsov and Ukrainian sailors) received four years in prison (for a total of four administrative violations for participating in the protests).

In at least nine cases, investigations and trials continue. Human rights activists speak of mass repressions.

According to the Golos (“Voice”) movement, which monitors elections, election day saw numerous violations throughout the Russian Federation (September 8 was the only election day in Russia: 16 governors and a number of regional parliaments were also elected). There were two competing electoral strategies working in Moscow that day. "Smart vote", the brainchild of the oppositon, which called for voting for the strongest opposition candidates, and the government's strategy, which was set on getting "system liberals" onto councils. This would in theory allow these "system liberals" to claim to be leaders of a new right-wing party and become Duma candidates in 2021.

Of the 45 constituencies in Moscow, 20 were won by those who were supported by the Russian opposition. Thus, the "Smart Vote" strategy — to cast votes for the strongest opponent of the power — won. And the strategy of the Moscow authorities lost, which sought to bring "system liberals" to the Council. They could theoretically claim the role of leaders of the new systemic right-wing party in Moscow and later become candidates for the State Council from Moscow in 2021.

It did not even help that these people specifically refused the status of candidates from the ruling United Russia party and called themselves self-nominated. At the same time, candidates that were not admitted: municipal deputy Ilya Yashin, representative of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund Lyubov Sobol, Dmitry Gudkov, Konstantin Jankauskas became even more famous.

Hromadske arrived in Moscow on the eve of polling day, spent the day with protesters and stayed to figure out — what’s next? In our special coverage we look beyond the protests and political struggles, we show who they are — the people who have been accused of mass riots. How did these allegations affect their families? How does society respond to repression? What is the path of the Russian opposition and how great is the discontent? Who became the civilian asset involved in human rights advocacy? Why and how did seemingly unimportant local elections change the political order? How are the protests of summer 2019 different? What did they change if unregistered candidates never came to power even at the city level, and dozens of people remain behind bars?

Dramatis personae, Moscow-2019

Valery Kostenok

We need power not for the sake of power, but to work in our districts.

Valery Kostenok speaks to Hromadske on September 6, 2019. Photo Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

"I am a politician," says 20-year-old Valery Kostenok, the youngest of the protesters in the mass unrest case.

A member of the Yabloko party ran for municipal deputies right after school and then opposed his principal, but lost. At the rally on July 27, he threw a plastic bottle at the police officer. He was detained on August 12 under Article 212 of the Criminal Code — mass unrest. This article involves arson, pogroms, destruction of property and use of weapons and explosive devices.

"The slightest carelessness can turn into a prison sentence."

On September 3, Kostenok was released — the case fell apart. He came to the Moscow City Duma elections with his grandmother, whose signature was also found to be fake, and a 15-year-old cousin, who does not vote yet, but tells us how politicized she and her peers became.

Grigory Okhotin

The actions of the law enforcement agencies have not changed fundamentally. But the reaction of society to repression has changed fundamentally.

Grigory Okhotin speaks to Hromadske in Moscow, Russia on September 6. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

Grigory Okhotin is the co-founder of OVD-Info, a human rights media project that records detentions at protests, which helps attorneys and advocates in assisting participants. The volunteer project was created after detentions during protests against elections to the Russian State Council in the winter of 2011. Today there are more than 35 people and hundreds of volunteers at OVD-Info. Not even federal media can ignore their information anymore.

Mikhail Rubin

The authorities believe that the protest has already been screwed up. Strategically, of course, they lost insanely.

Mikhail Rubin in Moscow, Russia on September 9. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

Mikhail Rubin is the deputy chief editor at Proekt publication. He conducted an investigation regarding how and why the decisions not to register certain candidates were made and about how the Russian authorities, de-facto, canceled the local elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Rubin also explains why the government fears the so-called “smart voting.” Rubin authors the show “Ruby stars” on TV Rain channel where he analyzes the politics of the Kremlin.

Ilya Yashin

I feel like the opposition has already done a lot for these elections.

Ilya Yashin in Moscow, Russia on September 8, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

Ilya Yashin is one of the leaders of the Russian opposition. When the Kremlin imposed this view of the opposition as of an unconstructive force, Yashin was elected as a municipal deputy of his Krasnoselsky district in Moscow. He became one of the most active politicians in Moscow. He gained his ground by taking care of his district’s affairs. But Yashin wasn’t allowed to register for the next-level election: to the Moscow Duma. 

This summer he was arrested five times, two of which he was sent to the special cell after serving his 10-day term in the detention center. This isolated Yashin from the society: he couldn’t draw anyone’s attention to the elections or call for votes for other candidates. 

Valeria Kasamara

Muscovites had the opportunity to take part in sanctioned protests.

Valeria Kasamara in Moscow, Russia on September 8. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

Kasamara ran in the same constituency as the unregistered Yashin. One of the brightest self-nominated candidates, Kasamara represents the so-called “in-system liberals.” Oppositionists call Kasamara the main candidate from United Russia, yet she vehemently denies this.

The vice-rector at one of the best institutions in Russia, the High School of Economics. She lost the elections by 2,000 votes to a little-known Magomet Yandiev from the Just Russia party. Yandiev was supported by the “smart voting” system at the last minute — after the 45th district saw Yashin not being registered and the candidate from the Communist party withdrew.

Oleg Stepanov

The current government will not stop, it will continue to arrest innocent people.

Oleg Stepanov in Moscow, Russia on September 9, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / hromadske

Coordinator of the Moscow Alexey Navalny’s office and an employee of the Anti-Corruption Fund. The 27-year-old Stepanov is a social anthropologist by education and studied migration from Ukraine to Italy. He was always interested in politics and joined Navalny's team. Navalny's activists were the drivers, first of all, of nominating independent candidates to the Moscow City State Duma, then of the protests, and then of the “Smart Voting”.

Ilya Azar

I hope the activity will not go away and people will continue to fight for their people.

Ilya Azar in Moscow, Russia on September 9, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / hromadske

Ilya Azar is a journalist and a municipal councilor. He became one of the most prominent protesters. In June 2019, he was one of the leaders of protests in support of Ivan Golunov, the detained journalist of Meduza publication.

Azar himself was detained four times during the summer of 2019. On the evening of September 2, the journalist was taken from his own house, where his six-year-old daughter remained alone. On election day, Azar was briefly detained in the Moscow city center with activists wearing t-shirts with portraits of political prisoners. The police explained that Ilya Azar was on the watchlist with the "verification of documents" wording.

Ilya Novikov

There were 90 investigators on this process at the peak, and in the case of the Beslan terrorist attack there were 62 investigators in the group – you can compare.

Ilya Novikov in Moscow, Russia on September 8, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / hromadske

A Russian lawyer who defended many Ukrainian political prisoners – those released Nadiya Savchenko, Mykola Karpiuk and Stanislav Klykh, as well as a sailor, captain of the “Berdyansk” boat, Roman Mokriak. Currently, he continues to work on the cases of Ukrainians Oleksiy Chirniy (the last member of the "Sentsov group" prisoners), Valentyn Vyhovskyy and Ihor Kyyashko. Novikov, like many other lawyers, agreed to defend one of the most prominent accused, blogger Yegor Zhukov.

Eugen Ovcharov

It warms my mind that people are beginning to understand that humanity has to do with politics.

Eugen Ovcharov in Moscow, Russia on September 9, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / hromadske

Eugen Ovcharov is a friend of Yegor Zhukov and the head of his campaign.

Yegor Zhukov is a libertarian blogger. He was initially detained on charges of mass riots, and after it turned out that the investigation had no evidence, Zhukov was charged with calls for extremism in his video blogs.

“One will have to reckon with us.”

23-year-old Eugen Ovcharov himself is an activist. He believes that the main agenda of any Russian politician today should be the release of political prisoners.

/ The story was published with the support of Russian Language News Exchange.