MOSCOW—From the West, it may seem that not many Russians have taken to the streets to protest against the “special military operation” in Ukraine. But activists here are taking enormous risks by protesting at all. The most common punishment for participating in an unauthorized rally (all rallies are unauthorized; the government is using the pandemic as an excuse to deny requests for any demonstrations) is a fine of up to 20,000 rubles or about $170, which is an average month salary in some Russian regions. Protesters can also be placed in administrative detention for up to 15 days. Since Feb. 24, the day the fighting in Ukraine began, more than 13,000 protesters have been arrested; about 30 of them now face criminal charges, with maximum prison sentence of up to five years, according to OVD-Info, a protest-monitoring group.*
Criticizing Russia’s actions became even more risky on March 4, when Vladimir Putin signed a bunch of laws that punish people for spreading “false news” about the military operation in Ukraine (including calling it a “war”) with up to 15 years of prison. Two days later, more than 100 protesters were charged with “discrediting the Russian military” for posters reading “No to war” or “Yes to peace.” They currently face fines of up to $500; if they take to the street with “No to war” banners again, they might be imprisoned for up to three years.
The newest trend is detaining activists even before a protest happens. “In St. Petersburg, police falsely accuse activists of bomb threat calls. It gives officers the reason to raid their apartments and detain them. Some of activists have to spend up to 48 hours in a temporary detention facility,” says Dmitry Piskunov, a lawyer with OVD-Info.
Apart from penalties, peaceful protesters should be prepared to get beaten by police: At least 30 people, according to the human rights group Apologia Protesta, have said they experienced physical abuse on Sunday. Demonstrators also face bullying and sexual humiliation. On Sunday, audios secretly recorded by protesters made headlines for showing torture in a Moscow police department: Officers were beating young women, pouring water over them, throwing their phones against the wall, and threatening to rape them while saying that “Putin is on their side and they would get rewarded for murdering them.” Protesters’ future might also be at risk: According to the newspaper Kommersant, St. Petersburg State University, one of the well-known Russian universities, is about to dismiss students who took to streets.
Despite these attempts to frighten people into staying home, protests are becoming more and more massive. “It is very brave of demonstrators,” says Piskunov.
Slate asked Russians who have been detained recently on charges of participating in unauthorized rallies to share their stories, which I have translated. (We are not sharing their names to protect their safety.) A 30-year-old marketer from Moscow was arrested twice in the past two weeks, but she continues to participate in demonstrations. She says:
On Feb. 24, my colleagues and I were reading news all day long and couldn’t work. People turned off their cameras at Zoom meetings from time to time to cry. In the evening I grabbed a poster reading: “Yes, this poster won’t help, save, or support anyone, but I don’t know what else I can do.” I came to Tverskaya Street in the center of Moscow. I was on the phone with my friend, having a mental breakdown and crying very loud when I showed my poster. Three minutes later, police detained me. Officers issued the same protocols [documents outlining the reason why people have been detained] to all detainees delivered to the police office with me (even to those who were just on their way to the pharmacy or McDonald’s when they were arrested). It was said in a paper that I took part in an unauthorized rally. I didn’t agree, saying that it was a single-person protest, which doesn’t need to be authorized, according to law.
My second arrest happened three days later, on Feb. 27. I was a part of a marching crowd. At some point people even chanted. I didn’t chant, though. Our way forward happened to be blocked by police officers. We asked if we could go through, and they answered that we should go inside an avtozak [a police bus] instead. That time it was mentioned in a protocol that on top of taking part in an unauthorized rally, I was chanting “No to war.”
Regarding my experience in the police office, I can tell that policemen become aggressive and get into the mode “I will destroy you” quickly once you decline to follow their procedures, including those that are unnecessary and illegal, like taking fingerprints. In my opinion, lawyers should not advise detainees to insist on their rights when they are locked inside police office and are under pressure. I still haven’t had court hearings for both arrests. But I continue to express my opinion in the streets, because sitting at home without action would drive me crazy. I also realize that it is easier for me to participate in protests than for many others: I don’t have a husband, children, or even a cat. And I have supportive parents. I understand people who can’t go to the streets to speak out because they have families.
A Moscow journalist who asked to remain anonymous was arrested for a single protest on March 3:
I am a Russian citizen and I have a right to my opinion. On March 3, I wrote “Peace to the world” on a poster, and I came with it to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the center of Moscow. I stood there for five minutes, and I actually was surprised that I wasn’t detained the moment I unfolded the poster. Then at least three police officers came up to me and asked me to follow them to their vehicle. They didn`t explain the reason. In the bus I asked one policeman whether he was against the peace (and my poster). He answered that he has an opinion but he wouldn’t share it with me. Then he told me that single-person protests are illegal, but I insisted that he was wrong. He asked me to name the specific article of the Constitution, where it is mentioned. I didn’t know its number, and I don’t have to. I just know that I have this right. He told me to learn the laws and ended the conversation.
I was provided with a lawyer by OVD-Info, which I contacted as soon as I was detained, and she helped me to fill in the papers. The protocol said that my single-person protest was similar to other single-person protests lately, so it is considered as a part of organized protest. My lawyer said to me that it is illegal to interpret single-person protests this way. Now I am at risk of a fine of 20,000 rubles [about $170] just for expressing my opinion. I really don’t get what is my crime. I was born in Russia, I pay taxes here, I have a right to speak out. I saw horrible videos of brutal arrests. Thankfully, I was not beaten or bullied, but I still don’t understand why I was detained for the opinion, which cannot be considered harmful in any way.
Since most protesters don’t chant or carry posters and they look from the side like people who peacefully walk in a street, it is common for police to detain not only real demonstrators, but also residents who were passing by with no intention to protest. One of them, a 24-year-old resident of St. Peterburg, suffered a head injury after being beaten by police on Sunday. (He provided Slate the picture of his head with stitches closing the wound). He says:
I met with friends at a bar to celebrate a job promotion. We were heading to the bar when three police cars popped out of nowhere. Everybody in the street started to run away. I did the same. Two policemen caught me and pressed me to the ground, and two other policemen joined them. So, four officers were beating me with their legs and rubber hoses. They hit me on my head and body. I have a big bruise on my left leg now, a wound on my head, and my lower back hurts. Policemen lifted me up, and I followed them to the avtozak without resistance. Other detainees who were already in the vehicle helped me. We were delivered to the police office, and half an hour later the ambulance arrived. Doctors told policemen that they wanted to take me to the hospital. Then the officer talked to me in private and offered two options. He encouraged me to sign a paper saying that I don’t have any complaints about the police and promised to release me without any charges. If I did not, according to the officer, the police would escort me to the hospital and bring me back to the police office after the medical procedures; then I could have been punished on charges of participating in an unauthorized protest. I don’t take part in any protests, though. I chose the first option, because I wanted everything to end shortly.
The chances to be found not guilty by the courts are close to zero. Protesters who got fined have said the judge even didn’t look at them during the hearing. Meanwhile authorities continue ignoring violations of law by police. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, said in a statement on Feb. 25 that single protests are allowed. The Ministry of Internal Affairs denies that police stop people at rallies and force them to unlock their phones to show their messages on social media and photo galleries, despite the video evidence. In the meantime, legislators are working hard on how to frighten people even more and prevent them from taking to the streets at all. Some members of Parliament have even introduced a law that would send arrested protesters to Donbas to fight against Ukrainians. I think it seems unlikely to pass. But a lot of unlikely things have happened recently.
Correction, March 11, 2022: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated the number of protesters arrested in Russia since fighting began in Ukraine on Feb. 24. It is more than 13,000, not more than 130,000.