Over the last two weekends, Russia has witnessed some of the biggest demonstrations the country has seen in years. Initially sparked by the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was detained upon entry into Russia on 17 January, the protests, which swept the country on 23 January, and again yesterday, have also come to embody grievances felt across society at large, from corruption and social injustice to increasing political impunity.
While young protesters in Moscow and St Petersburg have captured the world’s attention, photos of protesters across Russia’s regions show a varied demographic, with different generations uniting on the streets. We spoke to 5 photographers who captured the frontlines of protest beyond the country’s capital — from St Petersburg, to the Urals, and Siberia.
“This was my first protest,” says photographer Denis Lapin (@fotoparat4ik), who had joined the rally in St Petersburg on 23 January, which started at 2pm on Sennaya Square . “I tried to avoid politics before, but due to recent events I couldn’t stay away. “I am concerned about the restrictions on our civic freedoms, the growing number of political prisoners, corruption and our justice system.”
“The crowd spontaneously changed its route to avoid the groups of police forces: we walked to Gostiny Dvor, then to the Field of Mars park, and finally came to Uprising Square.”
Toilet brushes, which became an anti-corruption symbol not just in St Petersburg, were brought to the protests, an inference to Alexei Navalyn’s video on Putin’s Palace, in which “it was suggested that the toilet brushes on the grounds cost €700 each,” Lapin says. “The price of one toilet brush is four times higher than the average pension. It is the cost of a fairly generous salary, outside of Moscow and St Petersburg. None of the protesters could afford such a luxury. They brought their own toilet brushes to show that the government is losing touch with reality and its people.”
“There was a moment when a man walked through the crowd of protesters shouting: ‘Putin is my president!’ But apart from smiles this did not cause any reaction.” He told The Calvert Journal that the atmosphere remained friendly throughout the day, with cars joining the protests by honking protest anthems by Kino and IC3PEAK. Lapin was detained during the protests in St Petersburg on 31 January, and will be held in custody for 10 days.
Protesters braved -50C in the easten Siberian city of Yakutsk on 23 January to gather in the city centre, on Friendship Square, in protests that were organised on social media (Instagram, Twitter, VKontakte). Photographer Alexey Vasilyev (@lekon_v) says that police were tracking accounts that signed up to the protests or had reposted details of the gatherings. “They came to their home, conducted interviews, and in some cases took them to the police station, where they were detained or fined,” Vasilyev says. “One student was taken away after one tweet in which he wrote that he was going to a rally; he was quickly detained, taken to a police station, and fined 10,000 roubles (£96) for calling for unauthorised demonstrations.”
“My friend changed her mind about going to the rally after the cops knocked at her door because she had reposted the protest on social media.”
By the time Vasilyev joined the protests at Ordzhonikidze Square, policemen were addressing protesters to disperse through a loudspeaker. He says the protesters behaved peacefully. While he saw no clashes nor batons being used, he said “it was unpleasant” to watch policemen load protesters into vans. “There are only 300,000 inhabitants in Yakutsk. Whether you are a policeman or a protester, many of us know each other. We are Yakuts, first and foremost. So, when you see a Yakut policeman, obeying the Kremlin’s instructions, and betraying their own relatives, you feel ashamed.”
“The protests were attended by people of all ages,” says Michael Lunin (@krl_irk), of the demonstrations he witnessed in the eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk. “There were 16-year-old students mixing with pensioners. At the beginning of the protest on Uritskogo street, a musician sang a song by Viktor Tsoi. People read poetry. The atmosphere was surprisingly positive: I saw a lot of smiles. It felt like a celebration.
“During the entire procession to the regional authority building, I saw no police, and only traffic police officers controlled the traffic.” He says he saw police vans parked in neighbouring streets, away from the protests, though he believes police officers might have joined in civilian clothing on Uritskogo Street. “Their posture and detachment from others made them stand out.”
On 31 January, temperatures dropped to -30C, which manifested in smaller demonstrations of approximately 1000 people. While there were fewer participants, Lunin says there were twice as many security officials blocking off the streets compared to the previous weekend. “Nobody had seen so many security officials in our city.” He adds that the authorities used city buses for the detainees, as was common in other Russian cities. “According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, about 100 people were detained. At most, I saw people shouting at the security who were hiding behind their shields.”
Tomsk-based photographer @taivoph was impressed by the peaceful co-operation between demonstrators and police during two weekends of protests. The rally on 23 January started at Novo-Sobornaya Square and ended on Lenin Square: “At one of the busiest intersections, the police blocked off traffic so that the crowd could pass. I heard people say ‘thank you’ in unison.”
After the end of the rally on 23 January, the organisers were detained and fined. “All organisers are free now. On 31 January, they held a second protest. The crowd was three times smaller. The rally lasted about an hour. It was -25C.”
The protests were characterised by a new sense of unity, though not everybody in the crowd was participating for the same reason. @taivoph talked to one woman, holding a toilet brush, who says she “came to support the crowd” and was hoping the protesters would prompt political changes in the country. The woman advocated for “a new socialism”, which had not been mentioned in Alexey Navalny’s campaign.
Photographer Evgeniy Petrachkov (@petrachkov.evgeniy) told The Calvert Journal that he saw socialist and communist party flags among the crowd on 23 January. “The crowd was chanting ‘freedom’ and ‘Putin is a thief’. The police accompanied the march, and helped to cordon off streets to help the crowd move.”
The protests on 31 January, which also took place in the Central Square, were drastically different. “Activists were detained the day before the protest. People who came to the central square were astonished by the numbers of police; it was said that the police were brought from all over the republic. People gathered on the square but it turned out that there was no organiser.” People had jokingly called it “the police’s protest”, he says, because they had dominated the events that day.
After 20 minutes, the police asked demonstrators to leave the square. “The police contained the crowd in the two rings: one composed of policemen, one of OMON [riot police]. They started detaining people, beating them with batons, and letting others go. There were children among the crowd, as well as seniors.”
“The main emotion from the protest on 31 January was bewilderment. There had never been such violence during protests here before. People didn’t understand why police behaved that way; they were not ready, not used to such aggression.”