The climate for anti-government protests in Russia has been getting chillier and chillier. Critics say the Kremlin is engaged in an expanding effort to silence government critics. The latest evidence was this week’s sentencing of four Russians who took part in a May 6, 2012, march against the inauguration of Vladimir Putin for a third presidential term.
There had been anti-government protests in the preceding months to express anger over flawed parliamentary elections. The May 6 march was what Russians call a “sanctioned” meeting; organizers had agreed with authorities over the time, place and path of the event — in the interest of public safety.
But something went wrong.
A heavy police presence blocked the protesters’ path to a park near the Kremlin, creating a human bottleneck. As skirmishes broke out between police and protesters, Alexei Gaskarov and his fiancée, Anna Karpova, found themselves caught up in the melee.
“The police charged and people were falling and being detained,” Karpova says. “It was chaos. I was walking behind Alexei when I heard him yell ‘stop’ and lunge forward.”
One amateur video shows Gaskarov pulling a security trooper off a fallen protester and then releasing him. Another one shows an officer kicking him in the head as he lay on the ground.
Gaskarov would get stitches that night and later file a complaint against police. And yet Gaskarov ultimately ended up being detained — one of several dozen arrested for “inciting mass disorder” in what has become known in Russia as “the Bolotnoe Affair.”
In retrospect, Gaskarov may have been an obvious target. As a community organizer and activist in his hometown of Zhukovskii, just outside of Moscow, he was an emerging talent in leftist opposition circles. He’d advocated for free and fair elections. Amid a rise in nationalist and neo-Nazi activity in Russia, he was a leader in the anti-fascist movement. What Gaskarov wasn’t, says Anna’s father, Feodor Karpov, was a hothead or a thug.
“He was for justice but was always trying to find a constructive solution, some way to be helpful,” says Karpov. “He wasn’t just about tearing things down, and that's a wonderful trait of his. He’s the kind of person who could make Russia and its government stronger.”
But that’s not how the authorities saw it. Officers, testifying in secret, claimed they had video evidence that Gaskarov had led attacks on police, though the footage was never shown.
As the court case ground on in the months that followed, Gaskarov was repeatedly denied bail, and evidence that might have helped clear him was rejected or ignored.
Anna Karpova says when others in the Bolotnoe trials received prison sentences of 3.5 years, she knew what was coming.
“For me, everything was clear,” she says.
Assuming the worst, she and Gaskarov arranged to marry at a Moscow prison in early August.
On Monday, August 18, Gaskarov was also sentenced to 3.5 years for “inciting mass riots.” Delivering a final statement in court, Gaskarov maintained his innocence but said he had no illusions about the court’s independence.
“If Russia’s path to freedom lies through prison, I am willing to go,” he said.
But many are not, says Nadya Tolokolnikova, formerly of the punk art collective Pussy Riot, who spent two years in prison for a protest against Putin that made headlines worldwide. She says the Bolotnoe Trials are ultimately about sending a message to those who once dared defy the government.
“This is to tell those people who went out on the streets to keep quiet,” Tolokolnikovasays. “If you take into consideration that most of the people protesting were from the middle class, the authorities are showing them that for even the smallest action, you have a lot to lose."
So far the threat has worked. Prison sentences, fines for protesting, and court cases against opposition leaders like Alexey Navalny have effectively hollowed out the opposition. Protests once in the thousands have dwindled to just a few.
After the verdicts against Gaskarov and the others were announced, one lone woman chanting “freedom” was quickly hustled away by police. It seemed indicative of the times.
Kremlin loyalists have cheered the verdicts, seeing them as a sign that Russia is being protected from the chaos that’s engulfed neighboring Ukraine, says Feodor Karpov.
“A lot of people say that they did the right thing sentencing these guys, because they’re the ones trying to launch a revolution, like in Ukraine. But they’ve got it backwards: it's these very people who went out there because they want to avoid a revolution.”
But Karpov adds that corrupt elections, broken courts and few avenues for justice leave Russia’s political system fundamentally unstable, with radical solutions seeming to be the only option left.
That may appear unlikely right now, but if it does happen, Russia may find that figures like Alexei Gaskarov would be sorely missed.