Pro-democracy protesters in Kiev are triumphant. In Moscow they're still taking it on the chin.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek magazine, covering Russia and the former Soviet States. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship. Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Moscow after the Olympics offers a study in contrasts. Unlike their counterparts in Sochi, where the security forces wore fun purple uniforms with a flowery pattern, the policemen in the Russian capital don’t bother to put on disguises.
Outside the building that houses the Zamoskvoretsky district court in the center of Moscow, the OMON riot police, clad in green camouflage, formed a solid line, each with one hand on the next man’s shoulder. Then they marched into the crowd. Groups of four or five officers seized individual protestors, then dragged them away to waiting police buses.
The news from inside the courtroom soon reached the people out on the street: the judge had just sentenced eight people to jail terms for allegedly attacking police during an anti-Putin rally in 2012. (One of eight received a suspended sentence.) "Shame!" the crowd chanted. "Freedom to political prisoners! Freedom of speech!" The police continued to load detainees into their buses. Those arrested included men and women of all ages; more than 200 were detained in less than one hour. Several times the crowd managed to push police away from Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Tolokonnikova’s husband, Petr Verzilov. Eventually, though, all three were also dragged away into a police vehicle. Verzilov almost suffocated in a policeman’s tight embrace.
Several women screamed as policemen beat them, sometimes hitting them in the face. Bystanders asked members of the security forces to stop the cruelty. "I don’t understand why they’re using such violence against women and even old people," said Irina Pavlova, a Moscow designer, her voice clearly revealing her shock. Sergei Badayev, an English teacher, knew the answer: "It’s obvious. The authorities are afraid of the revolution in Kiev. But using this kind of violence and locking people in prisons will just provoke a bigger revolt." As we spoke, an old man climbed over a fence from a park on the other side of the road. He carried a sign that said "Maidan" — the name of the now burnt-out central square in Kiev, the symbol of Ukraine’s revolt. Several police officers grabbed the old man. He was still yelling something about peace and freedom as they pulled him away.
As the violence continued, I called Robert Schlegel, a parliamentary deputy for the ruling United Russia party, to see if legislators were aware of the law enforcement forces’ aggressive actions on Tatarskaya Street. Schlegel didn’t sound surprised: "The protesters must be detained for breaking the law, for their illegal actions," he assured me. "The Internet news that I read these days is boiling with aggression and even hate, and it’s those aggressive moods that fill up the political space, while the rest of Russia is full of peaceful news."
Schlegel recently returned from Ukraine, where, he said, the pro-Russian part of society felt insulted by the pro-Western revolutionary victors demolishing Soviet monuments and voting to cancel the status of Russian as an official language of the country. Over the past few days, Ukraine has split even more radically into pro-Russian and anti-Russian positions. "We’re disappointed with Yanukovych," Schlegel said. "Just a few days ago he still had the legitimate power, including the police and the army, to control the situation, but every decision he made was wrong. The Russian authorities don’t want a civil war in Ukraine: if a real war begins, the victims will number in the thousands, not the dozens."
Over the past few days, I’ve seen the two different Russias that Schlegel was telling me about. The protesters outside the courthouse are part of the politicized, liberal part of society, consisting mostly of Moscow intellectuals and middle-class students and pensioners. Since the mass anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012, most of these people have become part of a solid liberal community seeking major change in Russia. They gather outside courthouses to demonstrate against "violence," "political repressions," "injustice," and "unfairness" — the same motives that inspired the Ukrainian protestors I spoke with to stay in Kiev’s central square despite freezing winter temperatures.
The night before coming back to Moscow, I took my last walk around the Olympic Park in Sochi, just a few hours before the closing ceremony. Crowds of happy and proud-looking Russian fans crowded into the park to celebrate Russia’s long-desired victory. Traditional folk music mixed with the loud voice of Father Frost, Russia’s Santa Claus (whose costume and singing of Christmas carols seemed out of place in the bright spring sunshine). A few children surrounded a big mascot bear in a puffy costume, while their parents snacked at a café or rested on benches as they watched the flame of the Olympic torch. Overwhelmed with emotion, one of the visitors couldn’t sit still: Wrapped in a Russian flag, he jumped to his feet, chanting, "We won! We won! Russia! Russia!"
The fear of Islamist terror hanging over Sochi before Olympic opening was gone. Visitors felt safe inside what Putin called his "ring of steel." But the news from Ukraine echoed even in the Olympic Park. Retiree Svetlana Sergeyeva had come to Sochi from Rostov with her grandson. In order to bring him to the Olympics, which she described as one of the "best events ever," she had to spend months saving money from her $300 monthly pension. Sergeyeva didn’t buy the storyline of democracy triumphing in Kiev: "Putin’s leader Yanukovych robbed the poor and the new leader, America’s leader, will keep them poor. I fear a revolution in Russia. It would be even bloodier than Ukraine’s." Sergeyeva believed Russian state television reports that the power in Kiev was now in the hands of "terrorists" backed by the West.
The next afternoon, following the harsh sentences against their friends, Moscow activists were walking away from the courthouse with an aura of defeat. "Things are only getting worse," I heard one woman say, her voice breaking. Natalia Marenina was about the same age as Sergeyeva in Sochi. Moscow, she told me, isn’t Kiev: The Russian opposition she knew wasn’t ready to stand outside for months on end. The Russian government’s brutal methods to contain the protests had worked. "Did you see how the police grabbed those protesters just now?" she said. "None of the Muscovites I know is ready to withstand that kind of violence — especially when most other Russians are going to call us ‘terrorists.’"