Above: Central Moscow on the night of February 2, 2021 / Photo by Nikita Sologub
On the night of 2 February, the most central parts of Moscow – that is to say, the fanciest, most iconic, and at other times, the most touristy – were taken over in a culmination of ultraviolence brought to the streets by droves of armed men.
Not three years ago these same parts of the capital became known to viewers around the globe as they were swarmed with football fans from all over the world, packed to the gills with revellers and sight-seers thrilled to be in an atmosphere of joy and fun, camaraderie and sportsmanship. It was Moscow at its best. But on this night, these same streets would soon be filled with fear, violence, and brutality as a combination of police and OMON, Russia’s riot police, assembled in file, marched militarily in threes, or patrolled in loose lines.
The authorities were armed with helmets, shields, shin guards, shoulder and arm pads, and batons. Soon enough it would be clear, as the protestors began to arrive, that none of this was for show.
The lead up
This night happened in the aftermath of two large-scale protests over the past two weeks: First on 23 January, after Putin’s critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested on his return to Russia, and then on 31 January. On both days, protestors throughout Russia gathered in the thousands, and arrests were abundant. Human rights watchdog OVD-Info tallied the number of those detained as more than 5000 on the 31st, surpassing the 4000 arrested the week before.
Through a combination of tweets, audio recordings, and live footage, court proceedings and growing unrest around the city was streamed.
At 11am Moscow time, Tuesday, 2 February, Navalny arrived in court. Today’s hearing would determine the outcome of a 3.5-year suspended sentence for embezzlement, a case determined to be politically motivated by the ECHR. During questioning, Navalny was asked about missing the required parole check-ins, as part of his suspended sentence. (He here pointed out that he was in a coma.)
At 8:22pm, following several long breaks, the verdict is delivered: The suspended sentence was shifted to a prison sentence. Taking into account the ten months already served under house arrest, Navalny is required to serve a total of 2.8 years, which keeps him in prison until September 2023.
At 8:29 pm, the rallying message of Navalny’s HQ in Moscow is delivered: “Собираемся на Манежной площади прямо сейчас!” – We are going to Manezhnaya Square right now!
As protestors make their way to this central-most part of Moscow, the messages keep coming: "Will we wait for Navalny's release until September 2023? Let's go to Manezhnaya Square right now!”
Daria, a resident of St. Petersburg, took to the streets right away.
“I made my way to the center right after the verdict was announced, because this is a personal slap in the face to all citizens of the country,” she said. “Even more than the verdict itself, I was struck by the detentions near the courthouse and the metro nearby.”
Given Navalny’s steadfast battle against the Kremlin and growing unpopularity among the authorities, there had been little hope for a positive outcome. Still, the finality of the verdict, the poisoning, the arrest, its outcome, and the scenes on the streets that would follow, hit hard.
With most movement taking place in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and several smaller cities and regions, the police and riot squad were armed and ready, and they had been from well before the verdict was given.
By 9:45 pm, several major metro stations in central Moscow had been closed. Navalny’s team instructed their followers on ways to access the area using other routes.
By 10:45pm, calls are sent out to move to another area in central Moscow. Protestors chant, “Russia without Putin!”
As videos flood social media, police presence intensifies as thousands storm central Moscow. In one video, a horde of riot police officers surround a taxi, hauling the man in it out onto the street. Videos and live footage show protestors chanting “We are not armed” - they are attacked anyway.
A couple huddled together as OMON (Russia’s riot police) stormed the capital / Photo by Nikita Sologub
With live streams of the streets broadcast on independent news channels and on social media, many watched in horror as the events unfolded.
“I wanted to scream,” said Daria. “I came home and burst into tears with anger and resentment, and then all night I watched as protesters were beaten.”
For others, the overwhelming violence that erupted on both ends hit the hardest.
“I was equally speechless when looking at the pictures and videos where the protesters were being beaten by the law enforcement forces in the streets, and when reading the news about a driver of a Moscow administration car whose eye got badly hurt with a glass of a windscreen which was broken by the protesters,” said Olesya in Moscow.
“There is no ‘their pain’ and ‘our pain’. It is just pain.”
Past midnight, the march of protestors continued, as did the arrests. This continued past 1am, where messages to get home safely began to circulate.
Pushback from Russian citizens, world leaders
On the day itself, world leaders would issue statements of concern and disappointment, and demands for justice and freedom. In the days that followed, diplomats from Sweden, Poland, and Germany would be expelled for their participation.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, “Today's ruling was pure cowardice and fails to meet the most basic standards of justice. Alexey Navalny must be released immediately,” while French president Emmanuel Macron called for his immediate release, tweeting that “respect for human rights and democratic freedoms is not subject to any negotiations.”
A statement from the US State Department read,” We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks.”
In Russia, the hashtag #негрустивсебудутхорошо (don’t be sad, everything will be fine – Navalny’s words to his wife following his sentencing) was used by citizens to post pictures of themselves in red in a show of support for Navalny’s wife Yulia, while a statement from Navalny himself called for protestors to overcome fear. “The truth is on our side,” he said.
An uneasy day after
What happens next remains unclear. Navalny, serving his sentence, has had more charges yet brought against him – this time for defamation.
Meanwhile, street protests have been put on hold for now, with attention directed to more activity in the spring and summer ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
On Tuesday 9 February, Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov clarified that the protests were not cancelled; they will continue in a different format. “We need to adopt something that is stronger than fear,” he wrote in a Telegram post. Now, protestors are encouraged to instead show their support in their neighbourhoods by holding up their mobile phone lights for a set period of time – from Sunday 14 February, 8:00pm till 8:15pm.
“No riot police, no fear,” Volkov said. “It may seem to you that these 15 minutes will not change anything – but, in fact, they will change everything.”
A resident of St. Petersburg, Albert, believes that more fundamental changes are needed for any progress to be made. “What shocked me the most was not the resilience of the propaganda machine or the older generation’s unwavering support for the government’s actions,” he said, “[but that] somehow even a few of my otherwise liberal college friends were convinced that the verdict was somewhat fair or at the very least legal.”
“I do not think there’s any hope for Russia’s democratic process until people learn to live in the post-truth reality and educate themselves on basic human rights.”