Protesters clashed with riot police in Moscow on Sunday in the most violent demonstration yet against Vladimir Putin’s rule, on the eve of his return to the presidency.
At least six protesters and three police officers needed hospital treatment, and dozens more were slightly injured. Protesters pelted officers with beer bottles and rocks. Riot police responded with an overwhelming use of force, beating the crowd with batons and dragging people into waiting arrest vans, sometimes by the hair.
More than 250 people were detained, including some of the protest movement’s main leaders – the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, the leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov, and the former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov.
Prosecutors said they would investigate whether the men had provoked the violence at the protest, a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison.
The protest began peacefully as more than 20,000 Russians took to the streets in Moscow in a planned “March of Millions” designed to express anger at Putin’s inauguration on Monday. Shouts of “Putin is a thief” were heard through the streets. Many people came from other cities in Russia, where the protest movement is less strong.
They marched towards Bolotnaya Square, one of Moscow’s main protest sites. As the square began to fill, riot police four rows deep blocked their path, causing anger among protesters who shouted “This is our city” and “Police, be with the people, not with the freaks”
“Look how scared Putin is of us,” said Nigina, a 40-year-old accountant standing off with the riot police.
Police blocked off the city centre and shut metro stations, and military vehicles were stationed around the Kremlin and along the river banks. At the same time, protesters at Bolotnaya began marching towards the Kremlin, while riot police moved in to block them.
Demonstrators, some carrying anarchist flags and wearing balaclavas, threw flares, and glass and plastic bottles at a phalanx of riot police clad in black helmets and fatigues. Protesters, including pensioners and disabled people, moved forward and shouted at police with cries of “For shame”.
Riot police rushed the crowd and flung protesters to the ground before dragging them away. At least two men had bloodied heads after being beaten by baton-wielding officers. Police also fired pepper spray into the crowd. Protesters grabbed officers’ headgear, dubbed “cosmonaut helmets” because of their shape, and tossed them into the river or hung them from trees as trophies. One man stood in the middle of the tussle and shouted: “Tomorrow, our state journalists will tell us how correctly the police behaved.” Two officers moved in and carted him away.
After riot police dispersed protesters, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Dozhd, a Russian television channel: “From my point of view, the police acted softly. I’d rather they behave more harshly.” An interior ministry spokesman told Interfax that police behaved “professionally” and “adequately”.
It was the largest clash between riot police and protesters since Putin’s presidential win in 1999. Security has been boosted around the capital in preparation for his inauguration, which will usher in his third term as president after his four years as prime minister.
One member of a dozen-strong group in Moscow that had set up two tents in the middle of the showdown on Sunday said he did not “want to live under Putin for the next 12 years”. The 39-year-old, giving his name as Denis, added: “I want my children to live without Putin.” Dozens more protesters sat on the ground, threatening to occupy the square, until riot police moved in. “It’s scary,” Denis said, “but I don’t see any other way to act.”
Smaller protests were held throughout Russia on Sunday, but many were dispersed by police, who also detained some participants.
Vadim, 24, an IT specialist, came to the protest from St Petersburg along with 200 others. Dozens more had been detained as they left Russia’s second city in buses, he said. “He lies, he steals – how can he be president?” he said of Putin.
Protesters have vowed to keep up the pressure on Putin, who has failed to seriously address the challenge to his rule that emerged after disputed parliamentary elections in December. He has continued to anger many by teasing the protest movement, referring to their symbol, a white ribbon, as a condom.
Many protesters tried to argue with riot police to get them to switch sides. “My parents were out on the streets in 1991 fighting for freedom and they didn’t get it,” Anastasia, 24, shouted at an armed phalanx of police. “You don’t need to do this, life can be better, it doesn’t have to be corrupt.” An officer responded: “Let’s put you on the throne, then you’ll steal too.”
One person was reported to have died on Sunday. A photographer fell from a sixth floor fire exit while filming the protest.
Miriam Elder, The Guardian