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Russia cracks down on protesters across the country

More than 12,000 people have been detained for protesting since Russia's invasion of Ukraine

By Michael Goodier and Nicu Calcea

The day after Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine, Irina Maltseva was arrested in the Russian city of Ivanovo. The self-employed tour guide had been taking part in a protest against the invasion. “It was broken up by force, even though there was no legal basis for that,” she told the New Statesman. “They were detaining everyone there, including me.”

Luckily, she was released shortly afterwards.

“So far, there haven’t been any particularly harsh repressions against the participants. They’re just taking us down to the police station and holding us there for about three hours,” she said. “They have no legal basis to do anything else. We don’t have any laws that state that people can be fined for protesting.”

In Ivanovo there have been protests against the escalation of the conflict nearly every day, with participants rallying even before the “special operation” in Ukraine started. Maltseva said that the meetings have remained small so far, because the pressure on the organisers and the participants is too high. However, Ivanovo is just one of at least 143 Russian towns and cities in which people have been arrested at protests against the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

An exclusive New Statesman analysis of figures gathered by the human rights media project OVD-Info highlights the extent that Russian authorities are cracking down on dissent, as more than 12,600 people have been detained since February 24.

Citizens arrested so far include both the very young and the elderly. Yelena Osipova, a survivor of the siege of Leningrad, aged 77, was arrested on 2 March after holding placards at a rally in St Petersburg. Five children, aged from seven to 11, were detained in Moscow for laying flowers at the Ukrainian embassy.

The number of people arrested doesn't represent the entire number of protesters, but it does provide a sense of the scale of dissent due to the authoritarian way that protests are being suppressed.

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The demonstrations represent the largest Russian protests since mobilisation in support of opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny last year. Before Saturday it looked like the Navalny protests were going to remain larger, with more than 10,000 arrests across just three days of protests.

“Only a little time has passed since then, but Navalny's protests happened in a different country,” said Maltseva, who is also an activist with the independent vote-monitoring Golos movement. “Everyone who doesn't support this aggression is seen as a traitor, like they should be shot down. That's the rhetoric nowadays.”

Currently Russian protesters only represent a small fraction of the total population, and public opinion in general is difficult to gauge. A poll before the invasion in February by the independent company Levada found that 71 per cent generally supported Vladimir Putin, up from 69 per cent the month before.

Cracking down on dissent

The Russian parliament has approved a draft law making it a crime to disseminate “fake” information about the invasion of Ukraine, or information that “discredits” Russia’s armed forces. These crimes would be punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Minority party MPs have also introduced legislation that would conscript anyone arrested for protesting against the invasion into the military. While this legislation is unlikely to pass, it may put people off protesting.

Maltseva said that since being arrested she has been followed by the traffic police and her phone has been flooded by spam texts -- minor annoyances that add up. She said: “Protesters with a history of prior activism, like support for Navalny or other political detainees, are being treated more harshly. They are being charged and threatened with big fines and community work.”

Where are protests happening?

The largest numbers of protest arrests have taken place in Moscow (at least 4,025 at the time of writing), and St Petersburg (3,797). Other cities with large numbers of detainees include Novosibirsk (750), Nizhny Novgorod (594), and Irkutsk (484).

You can see where protests have taken place, and authorities have arrested people, using the updating map below. These figures are likely to be an underestimate, as they only include people who have been confirmed as arrested and whose names have been published.

In Moscow protests have taken place all across the city. The largest number of arrests has been in the South Tushino district (110 arrests).

Protests are taking place all over Moscow
Number of people detained by district police station
Source: OVD-Info, New Statesman analysis

Police department no 36 of the Vyborg District in Saint Petersburg has detained 165 people so far — more than any other police station in Russia.

Irina is a student living in St Petersburg. The invasion inspired her to join a protest, despite never having done so or shown an interest in politics before. “The reason I protest is that I can't take it any more, I hate our government. Putin's war in Ukraine was the last drop, and I felt I needed to do something to stop it,” she said.

Conditions for those arrested are often grim. “They took our phones and put us on a bus. I couldn't call my parents, a lawyer, nothing. That's an infringement on my rights,” said Irina. “They took us to the police station, processed us, and then they put us in a cage to await trial. We were kept in miserable, disgusting conditions, the cells were very dirty and small. The smell was horrible, someone had peed in a corner.”

The demonstrations are taking place in an increasingly hostile environment, which is leaving many young people with criminal records. "Many of the protesters are young women like me," said Irina. "They have their entire lives ahead of them, and they already have a [criminal] record. I have two arrests on my record already. If they do it again, that's a 150,000-300,000 roubles [currently £1,000-£2,000] fine. That's a lot for me.”

Maltseva: “It's difficult to say how this will all end. A big portion of the population is indignant. Even if the Ukrainian army annihilates the Russian forces on Ukrainian land, what will happen next? Are we going to be isolated from the rest of the world, like in North Korea? I don't think we'll last very long. It's all very scary.”

Correction 08/3/22 The figures in the piece were updated to remove some duplicates in the source data. This brought the reported total down from more than 15,800 to more than 12,600.

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