Yevgeniya Chirikova is the mother of two young children and was, until two years ago, a private businesswoman. She used to enjoy walking in the local Khimki forest, which is near Moscow Sheremetyevo airport and part of the broad protective ring of forest which rings Moscow. Then she noticed red tags on most of the trees and discovered that 1,000 hectares of the forest were to be destroyed.
Angered, she used her home printer to produce leaflets condemning the destruction, including her phone number. She now leads a sizeable group and has attracted media attention, as well as visits from rock stars such as Yuriy Shevchuk, who recently confronted Putin on the question of the suppression of dissent. A week ago she and the group were putting up barricades to deter the loggers when they were threatened by 100 masked men. When they called the police, they allowed the men to leave – and arrested 15 campaigners, including Chirikova and two journalists.
In her video presentation on YouTube she is calm, articulate and reasonable, very much a middle-class protester. But on Saturday, several hundred young anarchists and anti-fascists hurled stones at the Khimki city administration building and stormed through the city streets demanding a halt to the destruction of the forest. Arrests were made.
Chirikova’s group and the young, direct-action radicals are just two of thousands now active in Russia.
In June, the Guardian reported concerns at the law signed by President Dmitry Medvedev giving the FSB (formerly KGB) powers to caution persons suspected of preparing extremist acts, with penalties of up to 15 days in prison for anyone ignoring such a caution. The article commented that law enforcement agencies “have looked increasingly clumsy as they try to deal with inventive grassroots activists or single-issue protest groups” – including protesters wearing blue buckets on their heads to condemn the large numbers of official cars, blue lights flashing, which ignore traffic rules, and environmentalists.
The article also highlighted Strategy-31, a splendidly inventive rolling protest, named after article 31 of the 1993 Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly and the right to demonstrate – in honour of which demonstrations take place on the 31 of each month. Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the 83-year-old founder and leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the senior human rights organisations in Russia, is also a prominent activist in Strategy-31, as is the novelist and leader of the banned National Bolshevik – NatsBol – party, Eduard Limonov.
What is striking about the new protest movements is that they bring together household names of the older generation, like Alekseyeva and Lev Ponomaryov, who campaigned against Soviet repression, with the new generation of protesters and the much younger anarchists and anti-fascists, AntiFa. They match references to the constitution and to international instruments such as the European convention on human rights with direct action methods.
This thoroughly contemporary movement organises itself through websites, such as Facebook and Live Journal, and video footage of each event with commentaries are posted within the day on the opposition website Grani.ru – GraniTV –and on YouTube. The new generations of Russian protesters exist in a kaleidoscope of action groups and more formal organisations. The Russian authorities, who learned their repressive methodology in the cold war, find these viral movements baffling and very hard to deal with.
On 31 July, 82 of the Strategy-31 protesters were arrested by the police. All have now been released, although 77 have been charged with “disobeying the police”, which is punishable by 15 days “administrative detention”. The next protest will take place in Triumfalnaya Square in central Moscow, on 31 August.
Bill Bowring, professor of law at Birkbeck University.