Protests in Moscow and Autocracy’s Hidden Price | Wilson Center

Protests in Moscow and Autocracy’s Hidden Price

A procession of protesters walks in Moscow during the August 3 protests. Source: Photo credit: Ilya Varlamov, CC-BY-SA 4.0

BY ANDREI BABITSKY

In Russia, the border between a legal protest and a misdemeanor is very thin. Participation in a rally or a march can unpredictably end with a detention and even charges, thanks to the arbitrary and creative enforcement of Article 20.2 of the Code for Administrative Offenses, which deals with public meetings, rallies, and all other forms of citizen protest.

According to OVD-info, a detentions monitoring and human rights group, since 2004 more than 30,000 people were found guilty on these charges and fined (cumulatively) to the tune of a few million dollars. The number of people who were detained for attending a rally exceeded 50,000, and many of them faced police brutality and/or overnight detentions on the way to court. Because of these striking numbers, almost everyone weighs the risks, and usually decides not to protest at all. Russian protests are among the most orderly in the world, and the most popular offense of the detained, judging by court decisions, is “shouting slogans.”

Why are peaceful protests considered an offense? Here comes the Catch 20.2. According to Russian law, any rally should be authorized by the city mayor, and the mayor rarely authorizes any rallies. So whenever something outrageous happens in Russia, activists apply for an authorization, their application is rejected, and people flock to the streets anyway. Because they expect police brutality, detainments, and fines, and also because anything short of a funeral procession can be considered a “mass riot” (i.e. a felony), protesters just walk silently between the rows of the riot policemen who randomly detain them – as self-sacrificial as a protest can be. That is why, according to Freedom House, Russia scores 1 on the freedom of assembly scale (0 - North Korea, 4 - Norway).

There were two large unauthorized protest marches over the past two weeks in response to the ban on independent candidates running for seats on the Moscow city council. Almost 2,000 people were detained across two weekends, and dozens were injured. Quite a few victims of police aggression were in fact bystanders and not active participants in the protest. State media outlets didn’t report on the rally, let alone mention that the city center was full of armed police considering any bystander a dangerous rebel.

Moscow looked and felt occupied. It’s disheartening enough to look at the photos in the media and watch the videos, but frankly, seeing it in person was a sure way to fall into depression. The desperate mood was so obvious that some psychologists offered free professional help to the participants in the aftermath of the rally.

Here’s the thing about autocracy that usually escapes both political science papers and our ordinary moral calculus: it not only arrests people, jails them, and sends them into exile, but it also creates a sense of disillusionment and depression throughout society. And even though mood swings and burnouts are nothing like imprisonment, they affect a much larger share of the population. Everyone sees the violence or personally knows some of the victims. Some have to deal with their anger and sense of powerlessness and still take to the streets, while those who are reluctant to risk arrest blame themselves for the cowardice. It is natural to blame yourself when the real culprit is beyond reach. It’s much easier to blame some other innocent person, such as the opposition, which makes people suffer by inviting them to protest. Even though years of practice taught protesters not to play the blame game, desperate anger is palpable on social media after every round of political violence. 

Those who side with the government cannot escape their share of self-destructing soul-searching too. It’s one thing to tolerate some abstract injustice for the sake of elusive stability. It’s quite another to persuade oneself that, for example, one particular college student, Egor Zhukov, should be sent to prison for an imaginary crime at 21 years old, and the people who protest his fate should be detained and fined.

Again, one can always find someone safe to blame, but this remedy conforms to the law of diminishing returns. After another round of oppression, only radical hardliners can persist in victim-blaming.  The policemen themselves are subjected to the same cruel bind. What kind of order can justify detaining a man for holding the national flag or beating a girl for reading the constitution aloud? Or charging a man who threw a plastic cup at a heavily armed police officer with “mass rioting?” If Russian history of the 20th century teaches us anything, here’s the main lesson: when violence happens, and when government uses law enforcement against the people, everybody is traumatized — the victim, the bystander, and the culprit. 

The world is full of injustice, of course, but sometimes people have the means to fight them. A politician can win elections and change the law. A lawyer can challenge dubious laws in court. An activist can gather a rally. A journalist can write an article or start a show on YouTube. A cop can fight corruption. For them, these are the most natural and professional things to do. But then your political party is banned, you are not allowed to run for office, the courts never take your side, and the newspaper you used to write for has been closed or censored. The police officer cannot start an investigation of a corruption case because his superiors may have other ideas about it. So the officer may end up feeling as powerless as an activist who can never win a case in court.

What kind of people could thrive in a political landscape like this? People who are not public speakers, because public speaking leads to nothing. People who do not want to negotiate because they do not want to be bought by the government. People who have nothing to lose, and usually not families, because people with families to care for cannot risk imprisonment. People who probably already served jail time and hate the government. Most of all, people who lack empathy, because otherwise they’d be having therapy sessions after each protest rally. These are not properties conducive to a normal, peaceful life. These are also the properties that describe the most successful political group in Russian history — the Bolsheviks, or the inventors of the Terror.

It is probably a good thing that so many people keep protesting, although it looks pointless and feels depressing. It’s quite a miracle that opposition leaders keep using legal and public paths to political change when the government has long ago given up even the pretense of rule of law. That means we are still within the realm of normality. But when looking at the number of politically motivated people going through detainments, beatings, and show trials, one can only wonder when it’s going to change.

That is another hidden price of autocracy.