Moscow, Russia – You never quite know what you’re going to get at an Alexei Navalny demonstration.
Sometimes the numbers are barely into the hundreds.
Sometimes so many people come, you can’t see where the crowd ends. Sometimes the police wade in with batons and cart away thousands.
Sometimes they stand on the sidelines looking bored and everyone gets to go home.
Generally it depends on the political climate of the day. And on Saturday, May 5, the riot police were feeling energetic.
After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin is being inaugurated in two days’ time. And the message seems to be that anti-government protests will not be tolerated in Putin’s fourth presidential term.
OVD-Info – a rights group that monitors detentions – kept a running tally of the day. Across this vast country, well over 1,000 people were taken into police custody.
Phalanx of police
I saw a few detentions happen in front of me. A phalanx of armoured police, 8-10 officers, would move swiftly into the crowd.
Sometimes they’d have a target in mind – like the young man standing with his back to the approaching threat, waving an anti-Putin placard in the air.
Sometimes it seems like they’d choose randomly, like the young red-headed woman weeping as she was dragged back to the police wagons.
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One of those taken was Alexei Navalny himself.
He’d played cat and mouse with the authorities earlier in the day – going into hiding to stop them detaining him at his home.
But he’s played this game so many times before that he must have known that as soon as he was spotted at the rally, he’d be pounced on. And so it was.
For the many young protesters Navalny is seen as a cheeky and fearless rebel.
And he’s consistently been able to mobilise thousands of people, and get them onto the streets across the country.
Not just in the more liberal metropolises of Moscow and St Petersburg, but also smaller cities in Siberia and the Far East.
His mocking of the corrupt antics of Russia’s political and business elites has struck a chord with many Russians sick of the corruption.
One man, Evgeniy, told us why he’d come with a message for the president.
“I want to tell him that he is not our tsar and that his place is in the Hague and in prison.”
Another protester spoke to us of personal schisms involved in opposing Putin.
“I expected him to say ‘I will be president for everyone’. But it didn’t happen,” a mother called Lyubov said.
“Instead of this, he divided the country in half. We quarrel with friends, conflicts occur within the family. It’s very bitter and sad that we have such a situation in our country.”
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Putin is looking pretty comfortable in power.
Certainly more comfortable than he was at the beginning of his previous term in office.
In 2011-2012 the Kremlin was rocked by months of protests that regularly attracted tens of thousands of Russians.
And the authorities learned lessons.
Laws were changed to make legal demonstrations almost impossible.
Arrested protesters were given stiff jail sentences.
Restrictions on the foreign ownership of media were brought in.
State media refined its techniques of information massaging.
Election rules were changed to freshen up a tired system, without making it any more competitive.
And the government has now set its sights on blocking encrypted messenger services like Telegram.
Tough leader image
Add to all this the huge domestic popularity of foreign-policy gambits like the annexation of Crimea, and Putin has managed to present himself as a tough leader defending Russian interests in a hostile world.
It’s working. In March he scored the biggest election victory of his career.
For those who oppose Putin, the prospect of six more years of the man is a depressing one.
But Navalny will keep calling protests because if he doesn’t, he’ll lose momentum and sink.
And his supporters will keep coming to them [in varying numbers] because raising one’s voice on the streets of Russia is the only way they feel they can be heard these days.
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