Thousands gather for illegal Moscow protest
Despite warnings to stay away and painfully cold weather, a few thousand Russians turned out for an illegal anti-government rally on Moscow on Saturday.
Hemmed in by hundreds of riot police and roaring traffic, protesters gathered on a small island on Lubyanka Square, near the former KGB headquarters that now houses its successor, the FSB.
“I think it is very important to show that there are people who are not afraid to come out in front of this building,” said Mikhail Overchenko (40), as he looked to the sand-coloured Lubyanka, glowing in the brilliant winter sunshine.
Along with many others, Mr Overchenko stood in temperatures that touched -15 degrees, even though the main protest organisers – anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, leftist Sergei Udaltsov, socialite-turned-activist Kseniya Sobchak and young leader Ilya Yashin – had all been arrested at the start of the rally. All were released a few hours later, Mr Navalny tweeted.
Their absence helped make this a protest with little protesting.
There were few speeches, placards or slogans. City authorities had banned the event, so people risked hefty fines for anything that looked like a demonstration.
In the summer President Vladimir Putin put his signature on a law that increases the fines for taking part in illegal demonstrations up to 300,000 roubles (€7,425), up from 1,000 roubles (€25).
This small, sombre and heavily policed gathering shows the challenges facing Russia’s opposition movement, which has lost momentum since banner-waving crowds of 100,000 thronged the streets last year.
One prominent opposition leader, Evgenia Chirikova, boycotted Saturday’s event, saying it would be “immoral” to risk the safety of lesser-known activists, who are defenceless compared to “VIP” protest leaders.
Those who did turn out were cautious.
“I don’t see a demonstration. I just see lots of people enjoying the fresh air and having a walk,” Andrei (40), a sociologist, said, a bouquet of white flowers in his arms.
Under blue skies, people laid white and red blooms on the Solovetsky stone, a monument to victims of political repression.
A few joined hands and circled the stone.