On Sunday, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in opposition rallies for the second time in 2021. Organised in protest to the jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the demonstrations were not approved by the government and met with brutal arrests, with more than 4,000 people detained according to human rights group OVD-info.
Russians begans mobilising on social media platforms and across the country after Navalny was detained on 17 January on a flight from Berlin to Moscow. The former presidential candidate has been receiving treatment in Germany after being poisoned with a nerve agent in August — an attack he has blamed on the Kremlin — but on his return was charged with violating his parole. He was later formally jailed following an improvised court hearing in a suburban police station.
The protests themselves, however, are not only linked to Navalny’s case, with many demonstrators also increasingly angry at wide scale corruption, police brutality, and increased political prosecutions. They have united Russians from across different generations and backgrounds — including the creative community. We talked to Russia’s artists about the current political moment, and why they chose to protest.
We want our country to have a future. Every year, we see things getting worse, but we feel that we have the chance to change it together. It’s inspiring to see that so many people feel the same.
People are willing to go out and protest for the first time in a long time: for the first time since 2010, when thousands of people took to the streets demanding fair elections. But unlike those protests [which were largely centred in Moscow and St Petersburg,] now it’s the whole of Russia, coming together on bigger issues: the lack of justice, corruption, plummeting incomes, the fatigue that comes from the government’s endless lies and human rights violations. Russia’s protest infrastructure is also much stronger, and people are ready to show up for protests which haven’t been officially approved by the government even though they risk a fine or arrest. The methods of institutional oppression are outdated and don’t cause any more fear.
To support people in Russia, come to protests in your cities and spread information on social media. It’s also important to help non-commercial projects which monitor political prosecutions, such as OVD-info, Mediazona, Apologie of Protest, Avtozak Live.
It was important for me to be a part of the protests because I’m tired of Putin’s authoritarian regime. I’m tired of being scared when I hear an unknown knock on my door. I don’t fully agree with Navalny’s views, but I disagree with political repression. I was there in solidarity with all of Russia’s political prisoners, all of the LGBTQ+ people living in fear, all of the women suffering from domestic violence or convicted for self-defence, and many others hurt by this egocentric state. As most of my activist work happens online, I wanted to become a part of a physical event that would prove Kremlin propagandists wrong: Russia isn’t in love with Putin. These rallies allowed us to literally scream that we exist and want to be heard.
This is the time when the generation who has only ever known Putin’s presidency has become old enough to participate in Russia’s political life. We’ve seen that from TikTok’s recent politicisation. Unlike the older people traumatised by the USSR and the 90s, we – Generation Z – know the importance of personal boundaries and are ready to fight when they are disrespected.
My reason for attending the protests is simply the overwhelming feeling that the government is stealing our future: an unprecedented, unbearable injustice. Freedom is our greatest treasure. Without freedom there is no meaning in anything.
From my point of view as a demonstrator, there have never been so many people protesting in my city of Yekaterinburg, especially considering it was -30C. Even if I’m wrong on those exact numbers, I’m happy that so many people in Yekaterinburg are ready to take to the streets. We will do everything we can so that next time, there will be even more.
I went to the protest not as a Navalny supporter, but for all political prisoners in Russia, as well as for equal rights and opportunities for everyone across the country. Personally, I don’t entirely agree with a lot of Navalny’s politics: with all due respect to his anti-corruption work, I don’t like his xenophobic comments about migrants from Central Asia or Russian Muslims, and I don’t see him as an ally to feminist movement.
I attended protests in St Petersburg on 23 January, and I’d say there were around 20,000 of us. The crowd was friendly and the atmosphere joyful; the number of people was inspiring. There were confrontations with the police, but not as many as there could have been.
Russian people protest because our lives are becoming worse year on year, both from the economic point of view, and in terms of human rights and freedoms. Anyone can become a victim of injustice. This time, we’ve seen a lot of people who were previously apolitical join the rallies. The atmosphere among the protesters is always great. They are educated, peaceful people who strive to fight for their rights without violence.
I read an article on the BBC Russian Service that said that 42 per cent of demonstrators this year were out protesting for the first time, and I was one of them. My only experience previously was being part of the LGBTQ+ delegation during the May Day demonstrations in 2014 in St Petersburg when I was 16.
For me, it was important to protest for the rights of all political prisoners, such as Yulia Tsvetkova, and against the St Petersburg governor, Alexander Beglov. I’m not the only one: a lot of people went out not solely for Navalny, but for our rights.