Eight Seconds: Why Some Russian Activists Protested On Red Square And What Happened Next

On September 15, four activists unfurled a banner on Moscow's Red Square reading, "Freedom For Navalny! Putin To Prison!" They were detained by police within seconds.  

The four protesters from the provincial city of Kaluga knew their demonstration in the shadow of the Kremlin on Red Square would probably only last a few seconds. Officers of the Federal Protection Service and other security forces constantly monitor every inch of the iconic square in the heart of the capital.

After all, in March, performance artist Ilya Kachayev, from Penza, stripped off his clothes and ran across the square for just 20 seconds before being wrestled to the ground in a protest intended to show the fate of a free person living "in a country of dried-up people."

Nonetheless, on September 15, the four activists walked onto the square and unfurled a banner reading, "Freedom For Navalny! Putin To Prison!"

Eight seconds later, according to a video shot by RusNews correspondent Yevgeny Yevsyukov, the protest in support of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and against the decades-long rule of President Vladimir Putin was over. Security agents sprinted to the scene, grabbed the banner, and whisked the participants away.

WATCH: Footage Of The Red Square Protest In A Report By RFE/RL’s Russian Service

The incident was reminiscent of an August 1968 Red Square demonstration in which eight protesters held banners condemning the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, including the iconic slogan "For Your Freedom And Ours!" The protesters were rounded up within minutes, and all of them were sentenced to prison, exile, or forced psychiatric confinement.

‘I Was Afraid’

"When I went out onto Red Square, I was afraid," Svetlana Lukashova, one of the demonstrators, told RFE/RL. "I was afraid because I knew what kind of country I live in, how they terrorize and destroy all opposition."

Events have also moved swiftly in the days following the protest. Journalist Yevsyukov was fined 20,000 rubles ($275) for violating the laws on unsanctioned demonstrations. His arguments that he was an accredited journalist covering the news did not impress Tver District Court Judge Aleksandr Merkulov.

Two of the protesters, Sergei Rednikov and Ilya Yermakov, were sentenced to 10 days’ administrative detention for purportedly disobeying a police officer.

"My husband is in a solitary cell and is quite sick," said Rednikov’s wife, Irina. "After his detention, he spent more than two days in a police station at Kitai-Gorod [near Red Square]. An ambulance was called, and he was diagnosed with tonsillitis. Because of his fever, he was transferred to the detention center at Mnyovniki…. He was brought to the detention center in a police van in handcuffs and arrived bleeding from the head. They treat him like someone arrested on a criminal charge instead of an administrative one."

Yermakov has told his lawyer that he was beaten while in the police van after his detention. An ambulance was called and a medic documented his bruises and cuts.

Irina Rednikova said her husband was charged with disobeying a police officer supposedly for resisting being pushed into the police van, even though video footage taken by Yevsyukov seemed to refute that.

"The real reason was that when they put him in the police van, an officer inside was using physical force on Ilya Yermakov," she told RFE/RL. "My husband shouted, ‘Look what he’s doing,’ in order to attract attention to the fact that a detainee was being choked."

Svetlana Lukashova and Sergei Lukashov Svetlana Lukashova and Sergei Lukashov

The other two demonstrators, Lukashova and her husband, Sergei, were written up by police for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration and released.

"We weren’t given 10 days’ detention because we did not try to video our detention," Lukashova said. "We were very calm and handed over our documents to police immediately."

She added, however, that the next day in Kaluga, officers of the local Interior Ministry department for combating extremism (known as "Center E") were waiting outside their house to hand them a written warning.

"Supposedly they had information we were planning an unsanctioned demonstration," Lukashova said. "That is, they were labelling us ‘extremists.’ Isn’t that intimidation?"

Repeated Warnings

Sergei Rednikov, 38, is one of the best-known opposition activists in Kaluga. He has held numerous one-person pickets in the city of some 325,000 about 150 kilometers southwest of Moscow. When Navalny returned to Russia in January after undergoing medical treatment in Germany for a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on security agents acting at Putin’s behest, Rednikov was at the airport to greet him. He participated in mass demonstrations in support of Navalny in Moscow on January 23 and 31.

Sergei Rednikov (file photo) Sergei Rednikov (file photo)

Navalny was later sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on a parole-violation charge that he says was trumped up as retribution for his political activity and to sideline him from the recent national legislative elections.

"There aren’t very many of us in general and even fewer who are willing to go out and openly state our civic positions," Rednikova said. "People are afraid."

After Navalny’s poisoning, she and her husband held demonstrations outside the Kaluga office of the Federal Security Service (FSB) demanding an investigation into the incident. Rednikova said they have both received numerous "warnings" from Center E. Rednikov has been warned that he could face a stiff prison term under a law criminalizing repeated participation in unsanctioned protests.

"We decided to go to Moscow because we knew we would be immediately detained in Kaluga," she said, adding that they tried to hold a demonstration in Kaluga on September 4 in support of freedom of the press but were detained before they could even begin.

On September 8, Rednikov was fined 8,000 rubles ($110) for handing out leaflets promoting Navalny’s Smart Voting system for the September 17-19 parliamentary vote.

Irina Rednikova (file photo) Irina Rednikova (file photo)

"The authorities didn’t accept even one of the many applications for a demonstration that my husband filed," Rednikova said. "So Sergei Rednikov, Ilya Yermakov, and Sergei and Svetlana Lukashov went to Red Square on September 15 to express their views."

She added that the protesters had a very difficult time finding a printer willing to print their banner.

‘No Space For Dissent’

Lukashova said the Red Square demonstration was "a cry from the soul," brought on by the government’s stifling of dissent.

"We have a huge pile of rejected applications for demonstrations," she told RFE/RL. "We honestly tried for a long time to get through that wall. But every time we applied, we were rejected. We weren’t even allowed to hold one-person pickets. The authorities are providing no space for dissent."

"We just want to live in a law-based society," Lukashova added. "We want freedom of speech and honest elections, and the peaceful transfer of power. We want the authorities to listen to the people and to respect them."

She said she thinks it was "a miracle" that the banner was unfurled at all and that it lasted even a few seconds.

"A lot of people heard our message," she said. "We are watching the social-media comments, and people support us. We see that there are actually a lot of people like us out there."

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.

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