After the largest demonstrations in years erupted across the country on Sunday, the Kremlin is fighting back.
MOSCOW— It’s not a rare sight in this city to see tens of thousands of people pour into the streets to express their opposition to the government that makes its home here. Moscow was the epicenter of the massive pro-democracy protests of 2011-2012, and many others since, including rallies to commemorate slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. This is the city where Vladimir Putin lives, along with the tens of thousands of people who make his machine of state hum. But given its wealth and cosmopolitanism, Moscow is also the most oppositional city in Russia. In 2013, it nearly forced the Kremlin-installed mayor into a run-off with a charismatic young opposition leader, Alexey Navalny. So in some ways, it was not surprising to see thousands heed his call to come out and protest here on Sunday.
But Sunday’s protest was different. Unlike the rallies in Nemtsov’s memory or even the 2011-2012 protests, this one did not have a permit from the Moscow city authorities. Over the weekend, the mayor’s office warned people that protestors alone would bear the responsibility for any consequences of attending what they deemed an illegal demonstration. But despite those warnings and despite the fresh memory of some three dozen people being charged—many of whom did prison time—for a protest in May 2012 that turned violent, thousands came out in Moscow. The police estimated attendance at 8,000, but given officials’ predilection for artificially deflating the numbers of those gathered at such events to make them seem less of a threat, the number could easily have been double that. People clogged the length of Tverskaya Street, one of the city’s main drags. The iconic Pushkin Square was packed, and people clung to the lampposts, chanting “Russia will be free!”