The Raids That Backfired: How the Russian Police Helped to Swell a Protest

Apparently concerned about a new march against Putin, the authorities tried disrupting the lives of its organizers. The move, however, gave fresh momentum to the demonstration

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Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

Demonstrators carry a Russian flag as they march during an opposition rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 12, 2012.

The police raids began on Saturday, June 9, three days before the Russian opposition was to hold another “March of the Millions” in Moscow. Search warrants were served that night on the homes of at least five activists. Those who opened the door were arrested, their computers confiscated along with anti-government leaflets and stickers. Maria Baronova, who has been organizing protests since the wave of opposition began in December, had a hunch that she would be on the blacklist. “We realized they were coming for all of us,” she says.

And she was right. The crackdown turned out to be the worst so far against the opponents of President Vladimir Putin. The homes of Russia‘s most active opposition leaders, including the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, were ransacked by police for the first time, as were the residences of some of their parents and in-laws. The aim, according to police, was to investigate the bloody clashes of May 6, the last “March of the Millions,” when protesters battled riot troops in the center of Moscow, throwing chunks of asphalt and taking police batons to the head. But the timing of these searches suggested another motive: The government seemed eager to disrupt and intimidate the organizers of the next march, planned for Tuesday (June 12).

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In some ways they succeeded. Baronova, who has served since December as the movement’s volunteer spokeswoman, quickly got out of town, taking her 5-year-old son Sasha to live with in-laws in the suburbs of Moscow. On Monday morning, however, officers reportedly raided Baronova’s Moscow apartment while only Sasha’s nanny was at home. “I told her not to open the door for anyone,” Baronova says, and the nanny held out for about half an hour while officers banged on the door. She says two of them then climbed onto the fifth-floor balcony and said they would cut through the door with a circular saw if the nanny refused to open up. When the woman finally unlocked the door, Baranova says, eight masked troops piled in with assault rifles and put the nanny face down on the floor.

For the next three hours, Baranova says, officials from the Russian Investigative Committee searched the three-bedroom apartment, not sparing Sasha’s playroom. Before leaving, the activist says, they drew up a seizure order that reads, as the activist describes it, like a parody of Orwell or Kafka, a text so rich with Soviet pedantry that Baronova said could only laugh as she read it aloud. “In the righthand corner of a shoe box, located to the right of the entryway, 86 stickers were found and confiscated with the words, ‘In what kind of Russia shall we live? One of fairness, freedom and justice.'” The order also lists two books titled “Putin – Corruption,” four laptops, a protest organizer’s badge, 31 copies of the opposition newspaper “Grazhdanin” (Citizen), and exactly 15 “strips of white material 36 cm in length.” (The latter refers to the symbol of the protest movement: a white ribbon.) All of these things were confiscated, along with items of personal hygiene and a medical inhaler that, apparently by mistake, the document lists as a “bong.”

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“The searches were carried out in strict compliance with the norms of the code of criminal procedure, and the investigators behaved themselves with extreme propriety,” the Investigative Committee said in a statement on Monday.

“As far as I’m concerned, they robbed my house,” says Baronova, who met me at the Moscow School of Political Science, a college in a suburb of the capital, where she was hiding out after she learned about the raid. “I guess this is Putin’s revenge after the elections.” On May 7, Putin was inaugurated for a third term as president, which will extend his rule until 2018, making him the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev. The day before, the opposition staged its first “March of Millions,” which was meant to wind through Moscow toward an anti-Putin rally on Bolotnaya Square. Tens of thousands of people took part. But as they reached a bridge leading to the square, a cordon of riot police blocked their way, and a fight broke out between the helmeted troops and the protestors. Dozens of people were injured, hundreds arrested.

The following day, the authorities closed off a path through the center of Moscow, and Putin’s cortege drove to the Kremlin for his inauguration through empty streets, an image that has come to symbolize his growing estrangement from Moscow’s urban electorate, who gave him less than half of the popular vote in the presidential ballot in March. Since then, the state has moved to stop the swell in civil activism. Putin signed a law last week that raised the fines for participating in an unsanctioned protest to around $10,000. The raids on organizers’ homes seemed to be the next installment of this crackdown.

In its statement from Monday, the day when most of the raids were conducted, the Investigative Committee said that it had confiscated “no less than” 1 million euros “placed in more than 100 envelopes” from the apartment of Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader, and Ksenia Sobchak, a television celebrity who has also joined the movement. “The investigation is trying to determine the source of this currency and what it was meant for,” the statement said, apparently hinting at the government’s dubious claim that protestors are paid to attend rallies.

On Tuesday, the day of the second “March of Millions,” the committee ordered most of the leading activists to appear for interrogations, preventing them from speaking at the rally. Navalny and several others complied. But rather than scaring the protesters away, the raids seemed to increase the turnout. Several of the demonstrators marching through Moscow told me they might not have come if they had not heard about the raids the day before. “I was at my dacha [summer home] in the suburbs, but decided to come back when I read the news online,” said Yury Arkhipov, a middle-aged businessman, who had two white ribbons tied to the back of his baseball cap. In the end, around 50,000 people took part in the march.

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When they reached the rally site, unimpeded by the troops who stood by in dozens of city buses and army trucks, the speakers had more to talk about than hackneyed slogans of “Russia without Putin!” “The crooks and thieves are panicking,” said Sergei Udaltsov, an opposition leader who refused to show up for the interrogation on Tuesday. “Our rally is taking place under unprecedented circumstances. Massive raids, arrests, criminal charges, this monstrous new law against protests. All of this meant to repress our activism.” The raids became the leitmotif for all the speeches at the rally, whose leaders have otherwise struggled to keep the movement’s messages coherent.

So if anything, the attempt to scare the leadership of the opposition has only invigorated it, and the authorities, having perhaps realized their mistake, are again backing off. No arrests were made at the march itself, and the detectives were “sweet as can be” during the interrogations afterward, Baronova says. “They probably realized they’d gone too far.” The next march through Moscow is now being planned for Oct. 7, Putin’s birthday, and Udaltsov has called for a nationwide political strike to start the same day. That would be another escalation in the stand-off that has shaken Russia’s political life awake in the last six months, and the government will likely respond with an escalation of their own. Dozens of activists are still being investigated in connection with the violence of May 6, and five of them are in jail awaiting trial. “But at a certain point, an activist is more useful to the cause from behind bars,” Baronova told me from her hideout in the suburbs. “So if it’s my time to go, I’ll go.”

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