A quiet Saturday morning in Moscow: the distant chime of bells at an Orthodox church and the faint hum of traffic traversing a nearby bridge reverberate around a near-empty Bolotnaya Square.
In the fleeting September warmth, the flowerbeds are blooming, the verges are well kept and a busload of tourists are busily snapping photos on the edge of this pleasant, tree-lined plaza not far from the Kremlin.
But like much in Russia today, first impressions can be deceptive. Bolotnaya’s seeming tranquillity belies the central role it played in the country’s growing repression of basic freedoms.
On 6 May 2012, a very different scene played out in this square.
Hundreds of riot police, kitted out in military-style camouflage and helmets, and wielding truncheons, charged into crowds of mostly peaceful anti-government protesters who had gathered on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s controversial return to power.
Dozens of protesters were left bloodied and bruised by the police use of excessive and unlawful force. Hundreds more were hauled into detention.
Criminal proceedings were later brought against around 30 of the protesters. The authorities described the predominantly peaceful event as “mass riots”, to justify the heavy-handed police response and allow heavier charges against the accused.
When people took to the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities again in February this year to protest peacefully against the unjust guilty verdicts in the Bolotnaya show trials, hundreds more were detained and charged with participation in “unauthorized gatherings”.
Amnesty International has campaigned in depth on the trials of some of the Bolotnaya protesters, which rocked many in Russian society and shocked the world. But those headline cases are just the tip of the iceberg in the authorities’ wider bid to crush the freedoms of assembly and expression.
Here are the stories of two more individuals caught up in the crackdown:
Kseniya Metrokhina, a very animated 50-year-old academic and cancer survivor, doesn’t describe herself as an activist.
She steered clear of demonstrations until late 2011, when she saw on Facebook that the security forces began cracking down on students and others protesting in Moscow against alleged election fraud. They were the biggest protests in recent Russian history.
Along with her daughter and other residents, she tried to help detained students by bringing sandwiches and water to the police stations where they were held.
Initially cautious of the demonstrators, but curious to find out more about them, she was soon lured in by the festive mood and communal spirit.
“I’d say there’s nothing more sensational than being part of a community,” she said. She was surprised to find out that the protesters were not a faceless mob, but ordinary people just like her.
Kseniya created crafts to express herself in acts of performance art. On one occasion, she made small origami pigeons to distribute to the crowd. Another time, she dyed tagliatelle in the colours of the Russian flag, donned a big chef’s hat and dished it out to passers-by with pieces of shredded newspaper – a form of protest against the “lies” she said the Russian media were feeding people.
On 6 May 2012, she and her daughter were among the crowd marching towards the massive opposition demonstration in Bolotnaya Square when they saw hundreds of riot police and numerous police vans lining the surrounding streets, blocking some of the exits. She said their helmets and riot gear made the police look “like astronauts”.
Kseniya and her daughter never even made it into the square that day because the protest was violently dispersed and the organizers arrested. By now, she had gained a taste for peaceful protest, but had to stay off the streets for a time after being stricken with breast cancer.
After recovering, in early 2014 she was once again moved to protest in public to show her opposition to Russia’s sabre-rattling over Ukraine. This is what earned Kseniya her first detention and trip in a police van. She was among several peaceful demonstrators arrested on 1 March 2014 for protesting outside a federal building against a vote to approve Russian troop deployment to Ukraine.
A pro-government reporter questioned them about their actions before they were arrested and taken to a local police station. Not having any orders about what to do with the detainees, the police let them go.
Despite this, she was undeterred and the next day she joined a much larger anti-war protest in central Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square, near the Kremlin, where she was again detained and subsequently prosecuted.
She lamented the madness of recent months as the Russian authorities have scrambled to quash dissent – particularly around the war in Ukraine: “Our life has become very sad and absurd.” After her brushes with the authorities, she realizes how little space there is for freedom of expression.
Evgeny Belyakov, a 27-year-old human rights activist originally from Vladivostok in Russia’s easternmost reaches, was also detained twice in the space of a few days at peaceful protests in Moscow.
On 21 February 2014, he wanted to show his support for the Bolotnaya protesters after a Moscow court handed down guilty verdicts, in what Amnesty International called a “hideous injustice”. So he made his way to join a spontaneous mass gathering in the streets outside the court.
By the time he arrived late that afternoon, hundreds of people had already been detained and taken away in police vans, for participating in an “unauthorized gathering”.
It wasn’t long before Evgeny joined them. He was simply walking around looking for his friends when a riot police officer approached him and called him a drug addict before arresting him.
“He never said his name or why I was being detained,” Evgeny said.
He was bundled into a van with dozens of other men and taken to a police station. They were released after three hours – the legal limit for such detentions.
The next day when Evgeny told two neighbours about his ordeal, they answered: “You should shut up with all your demonstrations, because there’s a war coming!” One of them crumpled up his paperwork from the police and threw it on the ground.
When the Bolotnaya activists were sentenced on 24 February, Evgeny again joined a spontaneous mass gathering near the Duma, Russia’s Parliament. Hundreds of people were again detained, both there and outside the court.
“The police were pushing everyone around, including tourists. They said the Metro [underground train station] was closed and the whole area was blocked,” he said of the scene. The mood was electric, if a bit confused. Every once in a while, someone would scream out a political slogan: “Freedom for political prisoners”, calls for Putin to resign, chants from Ukraine’s EuroMaydan demonstrations.
Police began picking people out from the crowd and pulling them into police vans. Evgeny said he was standing near the opposition leader Alexei Navalny when both of them were bundled into a van, along with other bystanders, including two Latvian tourists. Navalny was placed under house arrest several days later.
Evgeny was eventually found guilty of participating in an “unauthorized gathering” and shouting slogans, and fined 20,000 Rubles (approx. USD 525) – equivalent to his monthly rent. He rejects the charges and refuses to pay the fine.
Evgeny seemed bemused by the whole affair: “It’s completely arbitrary – you feel that just anyone can be detained. You wonder what else they might do. There seems to be completely free interpretation of any legislation.”
Kseniya and Evgeny are just two of the hundreds of ordinary Russians who have fallen foul of the authorities’ growing restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. But their stories show how people are still speaking out to defend those rights.
Despite the rapidly shrinking space for freedom of expression, many people in Russia are speaking out. Between 6 and 12 October Amnesty International activists stand with them in solidarity during a week of action to make sure Russia’s leaders know that the rest of the world will not be silent.