The arrests began even before the protest started. A woman was prised from a street bench. A group of pensioners were seized as they walked along the street. A young man was grabbed as he left a bank. There seemed to be little logic at play.
Mere presence near the proposed demonstration point was enough to be wheeled away, often violently, to the police vans.
According to independent monitors OVD-Info, 89 people had been detained by the 2pm start. That figure rose to 800 by the evening.
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The unauthorised protest was organised in response to the exclusion of opposition candidates from September’s Moscow city elections. A number of those candidates were among the arrested.
Authorities were taking no chances. The night before, metal barriers appeared on Tverskaya Street, the main thoroughfare that runs from the Kremlin and past the mayor’s office, the planned location of the rally. An unprecedented number of men in uniforms — riot police, national guard and ordinary policemen — appeared in central Moscow. Dozens of police vans stood ready to absorb the expected numbers of arrested.
By the start of the meeting, police had sealed the area immediately in front of the mayor’s office. Then, they moved in formation to divide the protest and push crowds away into side streets. The protesters resisted. Truncheons were used against them. There were reports of electronic weapons being used. At least one woman, who it later transpired was the municipal lawmaker Alexandra Parushina, was left bleeding after being hit on the head. She was seen wiping her blood on riot officers’ uniforms.
“Let them understand that our blood is on them,” Ms Parushina told a reporter working for Dozhd, Russia’s last remaining independent online television channel.
A few hours later, a team of police officers had also descended on Dozhd’s studios in northern Moscow. It was not immediately clear whether the channel’s decision to remove its paywall specially for coverage of the protest had played a role.
By evening, the demonstration had moved on to Trubnaya square, a public space that has over the past two weeks become a regular protest meeting point. But opposition leaders had hardly begun making speeches before the gathering was violently dispersed by riot police. At least one man was seriously injured.
The police tactics formed only part of an operation against these, the wildest protests Russia has seen in seven years. In the lead up to Saturday’s rally, authorities also arrested Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician. They conducted night-time raids at the homes of his press officer, lawyers, and all the other excluded candidates.
One candidate, Konstantin Yankauskas, was not home when officers called, and his parents declined to heed their request to enter. Undeterred, authorities sent another group of officers to the home of Mr Yankauskas’ 80-year-old grandmother.
Gennady Gudkov, an opposition politician, former Duma deputy and KGB officer, likened the pre-protest operation to the return of Stalinism. “We are back in 1937,” he wrote on Twitter.
On the day, authorities warned of arrests and violence. Sergey Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor, claimed intelligence of “impending provocations” posing a “threat to … life”. Those who came anyway would be dealt with “according to the established procedure”, he said. Journalists were also asked to register their intention to cover the protest with the authorities.
Such hints likely affected the numbers attending the demonstration, which were down compared to the sanctioned demonstration last week. Given the dispersed nature of the protest, it was difficult to count. Police estimates said 3,500 attended, though such figures are traditionally underestimated.
Observing the extent of the clampdown, it was easy to forget the actual cause of the political storm.
In theory, the stakes are tiny: just a few places in the Moscow city government, a body with few real powers. But the Kremlin made an early decision that it would not entertain opposition candidates even there. On the eve of elections, they introduced new rules increasing the number of verified signatures independent candidates needed to register. The hope had been that candidates would be unable to reach the required numbers. When most of them did, Moscow’s local election committee ruled a large number of the signatures to be invalid, removing all but the most placid of candidates.
That was the moment that a local problem became a national crisis — and one that is certain to grow, says Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
“Nobody in the Kremlin is looking for a solution, because they have denied themselves the political instruments they need to find one,” she says. “Putin has made it clear that there will be no concessions to the unsanctioned opposition. He doesn’t consider them politicians. He thinks they are westernised gangsters trying to take over the state.”