Aleksandr Verkhovsky: What I saw in the centre of Moscow [on 23 January 2021]

23 January 2021

by Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Award

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Presidential Council for Civil Society and  Human Rights]


As a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group Monitoring Group, Aleksandr Verkhovsky observed how the right of citizens to freedom of assembly was respected at the demonstration on January 23 in Moscow.

I observed the events on Pushkin Square, and later at other places, from approximately two o’clock in the afternoon until about six-thirty in the evening.  Here are my brief comments on what I saw and heard yesterday. 

The public event was not authorized, but its organizers did not even think they would be able to get it authorized.  Furthermore, from the very beginning in the Facebook announcement, it said to gather at Pushkin Square and go in the direction of Manezh Square, and I think that the majority of observers and participants expected that following that plan would prompt forceful resistance from the police.  Therefore, it was feared there would be a significant amount of violence.

The events actually unfolded differently.  Not only did a march along Tverskaya Street simply not happen, but there was not even the slightest attempt to begin one, even though passage in that direction was not blocked off.  In my view, that means that the actions of the protesters in Moscow did not have any central leadership. And none was evident even after the fact. 

About the number of participants.  Of course, in a situation where the crowd is fragmented because of police cordons and being on different streets, with different density in different places, it is not easy to make a good estimate of the overall number of people.  The police estimate of 4,000 people is implausibly low unless, of course, you count only the immediate area around the Pushkin monument. Several experienced observers of mass demonstrations give a conservative estimate of 15,000, but they admit that it could be substantially higher.  And this seems totally realistic.  Reuters yesterday estimated it at 40,000, but that is possibly an overestimate.

In view of the widespread discussion of the involvement of minors, which already is clear will result in administrative, and possibly criminal, cases, it is interesting to estimate the age breakdown.  Aleksandra Arkhipova’s group of field anthropologists conducted a sample survey of those who came to Pushkin Square, and according to their data, about 4 percent of the participants were under 18.  I personally didn’t ask anyone, and I cannot visually determine whether a boy or girl is 17 or 18, but it is not difficult to tell if someone is under 16, and I saw literally оnly a handful (including one boy being detained).  That said, it is clear, according both to the survey of Arkhipov’s group and what I saw, that there were a lot of young people between approximately 20 and 25, although the majority was still over 25.  Yesterday’s demonstration could be called one of primarily young people, but not one of “schoolchildren” and teenagers.  

At first, the police did not try to halt the unauthorised meeting, but merely issued warnings to the protesters.  There were some sporadic arrests but, between about 2.30 and 3 p.m., they mainly stopped.  And all this time, access to and from Pushkinskaya Square was open in all directions.  That is to say, public order was virtually unviolated.  As an observer, I could not see why it was that the police subsequently changed their tactics.

After completely clearing the square, the OMON [special purpose riot police – trans.] continued their offensive in other directions.  I myself watched the square from the headquarters of the newspaper Izvestiya.  I saw that, in the area around the monument to the poet Pushkin, some of the protesters were actively jostling with the police (as far as I could tell, given that I was looking at their backs).  But in the area near the Izvestiya building, this did not happen at all.  You could not have said that the people who stayed there were holding a rally with a significant number of participants, unlike what was going on round the monument, but the site was cleared of people anyway.

The removal of the protesters from the part of the square near the Pushkin monument began at about 3 p.m., and by 3:40pm the riot police had cleared the space around the monument.  The protesters were removed by means of a rapid attack by a chain of police officers, followed by their withdrawal. These periodic attacks tended to alternate with waves of arrests. 

I did not myself see the attacks on other sides of the square; I have only seen videos filmed by several journalists.  I can say only that there were a lot of police, but not so many that they could attack all of the protesters on all sides of the square, so an attack by the OMON chain could be going on in one place, while the rally continued close by on another side.

The issue of violence against the police is very important.  Since I was not myself literally in the “line of fire,” it is hard for me to reach a judgment. Cases when, for example, some protesters kicked a policeman, or when a policeman who had fallen over was dragged away by his colleagues, were recorded on video, but I did not see anything like this close to me. I can subjectively say that this time the proportion of protesters prepared to engage in violent confrontation was slightly higher than during similar events in the summer of 2019 (this may perhaps be connected to the fact that, according to Aleksandra Arkhipova’s group mentioned above, more than 40 percent of the protesters were participating in a rally for the first time).  But in the videos I have seen, there is no violence that is more serious than the events of summer 2019.  I myself saw mass pressure on the police only in the area close to the Pushkin monument (throwing snowballs at the OMON can hardly be considered an act of force).

It seems, the most active clashes arose as people dispersed and were leaving Pushkin square, heading towards the centre. But on the whole, it’s clear that practically none of those present was inclined towards violence; they chanted some slogans and didn’t follow the orders of the police to leave the square, but, obviously, they viewed this insubordination as an exercise of their constitutional rights and were evidently not seeking any confrontation with the police.

I didn’t personally see any protesters being arbitrarily beaten by the police. I saw many people being beaten, but I didn’t see the circumstances under which this occurred. Although a couple of times, I saw the police, taking a detainee towards a bus, forcefully pushing them onto the bus, which is clearly not required for the search they were carrying out. In general, according to my subjective impression, the level of brutality in the police’s actions was somewhat lower than during the dispersal of the protests in the summer of 2019.

But I saw plenty of arrests made without any basis. Sure, in some cases these were selective and targeted detentions in a crowd, and I couldn’t judge what the reason for arresting that specific person was: it could have been something that happened a little earlier. But I saw many arrests which were clearly without cause, when I was able to observe the person not that far away from me for a long time. I can definitely say that they arrested young people more often, some of whom hadn’t even shouted anything, at least not in the previous five minutes. There were especially many of these baseless arrests on Tsvetnoi Bulvar around 6pm, at which time and place there wasn’t even a rally but there were people walking from the boulevard ring to the metro or standing around to chat or see what was going on. For example, not far from me, they detained some girls who, like me, were just calmly standing near the circus building.

The detentions across the country, alas, were in record numbers, more than 3,400 people. In Moscow the sad record of July 2019 was broken: 1,360 detainees were recorded, registered by OVD-info by Sunday afternoon.

Navalny’s supporters have already announced a new rally for the next weekend. It’s clear that they still do not count on a constructive dialogue with the city authorities on the matter of authorising rallies. Perhaps the city authorities should themselves initiate dialogue with those organising rallies, to avoid more clashes.

For more about OMON riot police, see Wikipedia.

Translated by John Tokolish and Elizabeth Teague

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