Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny hasn’t held a rally at Pushkinskaya Square in central Moscow for a while, but everything changed on May 5. The location has become the heart of a mass protest.
“Not our tsar!” Navalny shouted standing on the stairs leading to the statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. “Not our tsar!” the crowd repeated after him.
Navalny called for the protest after the fourth re-election of President Vladimir Putin. By the end of his new term, Putin will have ruled for 24 years, which makes him the longest-serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin.
Navalny asked his supporters to take to the streets on the eve Putin’s inauguration planned for Monday. He said he had to spend last night “in a secret place” so that the police would not arrest him on his way to the rally.
Навальный уже на Пушкинской! pic.twitter.com/hPlkG8ZOaX
— Эхо Москвы (@EchoMskRu) May 5, 2018
Thousands Take to Streets
The Saturday rally appeared to be one of the biggest in modern history of Russia, with 89 cities located in ten different time zones participating in the event.
In Moscow, seven armed policemen took Navalny away from Pushkinskaya Square. “Disgrace! Disgrace!” the protesters shouted. The opposition leader spent less than five minutes at the location.
“Navalny! Navalny!” was a common chant along with “Putin is a thief” and “Russia is going to be free.”
Suddenly, the crowd at the square was alarmed: “Cossacks! Run! Cossacks!” Members of pro-government patriotic movement occupied Pushkin’s pedestal crushing everybody on their way. The protesters retreated.
As events unfolded, a helicopter started flying around the square slightly above the roofs of the buildings. It was much louder than chants and would not go away for more than two hours. As for the places where the helicopter could not drown out the the rally participants, the protest was muffled by a cappella singers’ contest. Its participants performed on small stages around the square.
“This is a very beautiful rally. Navalny joined us, it’s an achievement,” Maria, 35, told The Globe Post. “Russian youth stand against the regime, corruption, bureaucracy. It’s really good of them to came here and show that freedom maters.”
The interview was interrupted as the crowd started running away from the attacking police. Maria had to run too.
— Навальный LIVE (@navalnylive) May 5, 2018
Police Were Aggressive
This time, authorities chose to scare protesters with the helicopter and an unprecedented number of armed officers. They would fight people to make them run and free the square. Then they would clean out all nearby streets. However, in Saint Petersburg, the second biggest city of Russia, people managed to protect streets from the police by transforming fences into barricades.
“I came here today to express my support to Navalny,” Nikita, 14, told The Globe Post. “Navalny says good things. This is a good gathering.”
Alexei Navalny remains immensely popular among young people who appreciate his YouTube channels. This was the second rally Nikita took part in. He looked nervous, noting that during the previous protest in January the police were way more peaceful. “I do think the regime must change. Putin violates the Constitution,” Nikita added.
While he and his friends were gazing around getting ready to hide in the metro, if needed, the police were isolating Pushkinskaya Square. They blocked pedestrian underpass exits and forbade people to enter the square. Many protesters have already either run away or ended up arrested.
Fedor, 39, brought his three school-aged children to Pushkinskaya Square. He believed there was no safe place in Russia, therefore it was fine for the kids to participate in the protest. “We live in Mordor!” Fedor told The Globe Post.
“Dear citizens, we are kindly asking you to go away. Your actions are illegal. If you don’t leave, we will have to use force and special equipment,” police were warning throughout the entire event. And they kept their promise. In the beginning of the event, policemen were rude when arresting rally participants, but later they started arresting literally everyone who stayed at the square and often beat people for no reason. All in all, 1,575 Russians were arrested, including at least two children and 703 Muscovites.
Санкт-Петербург: Участники акции Навального идут вдоль Адмиралтейства, скандируя "Он нам не царь!" pic.twitter.com/7kB9gByxF2
— DW (на русском) (@dw_russian) May 5, 2018
Six Hours of Moscow Rally
“We need [Joseph] Stalin back”, an old lady told a handsome young policeman who was on the protesters’ side.
“It won’t help,” he replied.
“It will! He would calm those people down within half a year,” she argued.
“People came here because they are living shitty lives,” the man said.
“They are just being insolent! The country is in good hands,” the lady persisted.
“If the country was in good hands, we wouldn’t have that many protesters here,” the policeman noted.
At the same time, his colleagues almost emptied the square. Just a few opposition supporters remained by the Pushkin monument. Surrounded by a good many armed and angry officers, they were holding a big Russian flag and remained silent.
The rest of the crowd turned their anger toward the policemen who were blocking the underpass exit. “Your job is a disgrace, guys!” “For how much have you sold yourselves, [obscenity]?”.
Finally, an officer started shouting. “Do not get in the way of the civilians!” he cried. “Do not get in the way of civilians!” he continued, turning almost hysterical.
There were dozens of full prisoner transport vehicles in the area.
“They took my son for nothing. He didn’t do anything wrong. He wasn’t shouting!” and old woman was saying in front of one of the vehicles, looking disoriented. Her son tried to cheer her up by showing his fingers through a lattice.
“Here they are, our taxes! Staying, doing nothing, eating away our money!” a man said loudly, passing by a cordon. Officers clenched their teeth. The confrontation continued.