Several thousand people took to the streets in St Petersburg, on the day of Putin’s 65th birthday, to call for Alexei Navalny’s release and to demand free, competitive elections
Navalny was not in attendance, despite his plans—the opposition leader had initially scheduled a meeting with his supporters to coincide with the 65th birthday of President Vladimir Putin on October 7. Navalny, however, was arrested in Moscow on Monday for 20 days, and thus could not attend, but a crowd of over 2,000 participants did come to the Field of Mars to hold a rally to protest against his detention, as well as to renew demands for free elections.
“I am here because I want democracy in Russia and competitive elections,” says Viktor Cherkassky, 24, one of the participants, sporting a t-shirt featuring a caricature of a crossed-out Putin holding a Russian flag.
“Navalny is the best option for Russia. Putin is a man from the USSR, he cannot bring modern changes to Russia,” he explains.
Most of the protesters were young, but not all of them were in support of Navalny.
“I don’t support Navalny,” says Aleksandr, 15. “I simply came here to watch, I know it is dangerous but I will be careful.”
Some others, although not directly supporting Navalny, decided to take part in the rally to manifest their discontent with the current political situation in Russia: “I am not really a supporter of Navalny, but I am against corruption and that is why I am here,” says Ekaterina,18.
Navalny is officially barred from participating in the coming presidential elections in March 2018 because of embezzlement charges against him, but his supporters view him as the only politician capable of changing the political situation in Russia.
Andrey Groshkov, 21, one of the staff members of Navalny’s campaign in St Petersburg stated in an interview with Prospekt Magazine: “I don’t want to build a new cult of personality, this is exactly the thing that we have to change in Russian politics.
“We have to understand that politics is about parliament and not about a single person, so Navalny is our tool to create a working government, to change the government and create a working court system.”
The protest started at 6 pm at the Field of Mars, at the same time and place where the scheduled meeting with Navalny was supposed to take place. Instead, the gathered crowd chanted slogans against Putin, calling for his resignation and Navalny’s release.
Meanwhile, a small truck with a loudspeaker invited participants for a free screening of the new patriot blockbuster movie Crimea at a nearby cinema.
The Field of Mars was removed from the list of free speech areas (also known as Hyde Parks) in St Petersburg at the end of August by the governor, and permission to hold the rally in support of Navalny was repeatedly denied by city authorities.
Although the authorities had previously warned that unauthorised protests would be shut down with force in a statement earlier this week, the demonstration turned out to be peaceful when compared to the previous protests in support of Navalny on 26 March and 12 June, where hundreds of protesters were detained across Russia.
This time, the first arrests occurred once the crowd had already left the Field of Mars and headed towards the city centre. As the protesters marched down Liteiny Prospekt, the OMON special forces blocked the street and arrested dozens of participants.
The second round of detentions took place near Ploshchad Vosstaniya, where once again the protesters and the OMON collided and more people were taken away. According to OVD-Info, an NGO that monitors politically-motivated arrests in Russia, a total of 62 people were arrested in St Petersburg.
The crowd stayed at the square until after 9 pm, chanting slogans against Putin and in support of Navalny, and finally sang songs wishing Putin a happy birthday. The police, who had already started to leave, tried to convince the crowd to leave one last time, citing their violation of the law on public gatherings, though no more arrests were made.
As the crowd started to disperse, a group of around one hundred people decided to take the rally to Palace Square.
Prior to the demonstration, on 3 October, police had raided the headquarters of Navalny’s campaign in St Petersburg and fined the campaign manager Polina Kostyleva to the sum of 20,000 roubles (343 USD) for inciting people to participate in the demonstrations. On the morning of the protest, two members of the Navalny campaign in St Petersburg, Denis Mikhaylov and Mikhail Sosin, were detained.