Preemptive intimidation Meduza looks into the violent police response at last week’s Navalny protest in St. Petersburg

Artem Pryakhin / Kommersant

Across Russia on April 21, 1,984 people were detained at solidarity rallies in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. Though the demonstrations in Moscow were relatively peaceful (only about 30 people were arrested in the capital), in St. Petersburg the police acted much more violently — with the help of truncheons and stun guns, they arrested more than 800 protesters. What’s more, the police brutality continued after demonstrators were taken into custody. At Meduza’s request, local journalist Alexander Yermakov looks into why the St. Petersburg police acted the way they did.

On the eve of the April 21 protests, the Kremlin issued a general recommendation to use minimal force against protesters, according to a Meduza source close to the Russian government. This was confirmed by another source close to the presidential administration: in his words, the Kremlin was trying to avoid a scene on the day of Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly.

This recommendation was heeded in Moscow and most other large cities — in the Russian capital, there were no violent arrests. But in St. Petersburg, the police arrested more than 800 people, using truncheons and stun guns against demonstrators. 

Meduza’s sources offered various explanations for why the situation in St. Petersburg was so different from the one in Moscow. A source close to Putin’s administration suggested that the leadership of the regional Interior Ministry branch was responsible for the excessive police violence; apparently, the “signal” from the Kremlin was “poorly conveyed.” Another source attributed the violent breakup of the rally to the tough position the municipal authorities have adhered to in recent years. Plus there’s the fact that local officials are preparing for elections to both the the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and the Russian State Duma this fall.

A conversation with the governor

The current handling of protests in St. Petersburg began to take shape in the spring of 2019, when the city authorities gave opposition groups permission to take part in a May 1 parade, so long as they stuck to a strict schedule. After 12:30 p.m., there weren’t supposed to be any anti-Kremlin posters or slogans on the city’s central street, Nevsky Avenue. 

Right before the scheduled start of the march, the police fenced off the “opposition” column with metal barriers, blocking their path to Nevsky Avenue and telling them to wait. When the activists began chanting slogans, the police warned them that they would treat their behavior as a separate, unsanctioned protest.

When the column finally began to move (around 12:00 p.m.), it immediately encountered a chain of riot police, who started detaining people. The demonstrators responded by stopping their march and demanding the release of their fellow protesters, to which the police responded with more threats. 

Around 1:30 p.m. the police surrounded the protesters and began carrying out mass arrests. In the end, the opposition protesters only managed to walk about 400 meters (about a quarter mile) and more than 60 people were detained. The first two columns in the parade, which were made up of United Russia and Communist Party (KPRF) supporters, were left alone.

According to a Meduza source in the St. Petersburg City Police, the municipal authorities planned the dispersal of the May 1 parade in advance. Apparently, this was the brainchild of Lyubov Sovershaeva, the powerful chief of staff to Alexander Beglov, who was acting governor at the time.

Meduza’s source said that Beglov “personally communicated” Sovershaeva’s plan to break up the rally to St. Petersburg Police Chief Roman Plugin. When Plugin asked for a “written request to assist in dispersing the demonstrators,” Beglov allegedly told him that the “verbal one was enough.”

At the time, Plugin had only been St. Petersburg’s police chief for two months and was behaving extremely cautiously; he decided not to contradict the city authorities. However, according to Meduza’s sources, he told the FSB about his conversation with Beglov. Familiar sources believe that Plugin wanted insurance — allegedly, he didn’t support dispersing the May 1 parade, but gave the order to implement the plan regardless.

Later, Beglov attributed the harsh detentions to the fact that the demonstrators were shouting allegedly offensive slogans. “Who gave [them] the right to offend a person, regardless of their position?” the acting governor said before the city parliament two weeks after the march. “This isn’t our way, it’s not the Leningrad way. You have to be respectful.”

Beglov didn’t explain exactly which slogans he was referring to. Among other things, the protesters had chanted “Petersburg without Beglov!” and “Russia without Putin!”. The St. Petersburg administration didn’t responded to Meduza’s request for comment on Smolny’s role in dispersing the parade on May 1, 2019. 

‘Putin’s dacha security guard’

The handling of the May 1 parade in 2019 became the prototype for how decisions to disperse rallies in St. Petersburg would be made going forward.

Before, according to Meduza’s sources in the Interior Ministry, the police were less focused on instructions from Smolny. Instead, they were guided by their own capacity — in other words, how many detainees their police stations and special detention centers could accommodate. As a result, the long-standing record for the most detainees was the 300 people arrested during the protests in March 2017, after the release of Alexey Navalny’s investigative report into then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged ties to corruption.

But Alexander Beglov and Lyubov Sovershaeva changed this practice. And under the governor’s next chief of staff, the level of cooperation between the city authorities and the police was expanded even further. 

In the fall of 2019, Sovershaeva left her post after successfully leading Beglov’s gubernatorial campaign. That December, she was appointed as the deputy presidential plenipotentiary envoy to the Northwestern Federal District. This role came with broad powers; this office is in charge of implementing the president’s domestic policy in the region, monitoring the media, and cooperating with the local authorities. This is also when Valery Pikalev took over as Governor Beglov’s chief of staff.

Valery Pikalev is best known as “Putin’s dacha security guard” — beginning in the 1990s, he worked for Russia’s Secret Service (the Federal Protective Service or FSO) and he led the unit responsible for security at the presidential residence near Valdai. Before coming to St. Petersburg, Pikalev held high-level government positions in the Novgorod and Leningrad regions.

In St. Petersburg, Pikalev was put in charge of the city administration’s Committee for Legality, Law Enforcement, and Security — a group responsible for coordinating public events and working with their participants. Governor Beglov also got Pikalev to run the his “risk management” body, which is known as the “Coordination Meeting for Ensuring Law Enforcement” (or the “KS” for short). 

Thus, Pikalev became the first municipal official to take control of both the governor’s administration and the city’s law enforcement. Among other things, this gave him influence over how St. Petersburg police handled protests. Henceforth, the city’s law enforcement became all the more active in detaining demonstrators. 

Detentions for Navalny

During the five demonstrations in support of Alexey Navalny this year — on January 23 and 31, February 2 and 14, and April 21 — more than 3,000 people were arrested in St. Petersburg. The city’s police officers made active use of stun guns during at least three of the rallies. During the demonstrations on January 23, a policeman kicked 54-year-old Margarita Yudina in the stomach. She was hospitalized twice as a result, and although both journalists and protesters caught the incident on video, the officer didn’t face any repercussions. 

The authorities used street cleaners and metal barriers to block access to Nevsky Avenue during the protests, carried out passport checks at entry points to the city center, and shut down subway stations. On February 6, they closed the downtown, despite the fact that Navalny’s supporters hadn’t planned any protest rallies on that day. Neither Smolny nor the Interior Ministry could explain the closures. 

A St. Petersburg police colonel who regularly attends the city’s meetings on law enforcement told Meduza that law enforcement and municipal officials weren’t just avoiding answering questions about the shutdown. “The strategy and tactics [on that day] were determined by The Embankment,” he explained.

In St. Petersburg, “The Embankment” is what they call the Presidential Plenipotentiary to the Northwestern Federal District (it’s office is located inside a mansion on the Neva River’s Petrovskaya Embankment). The mission is headed by former Deputy Attorney General Alexander Gutsan. But the deputy envoy, Lyubov Sovershaeva, is still considered this office’s most influential representative. The mission didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment. 

More often than not, the presidential plenipotentiary’s office acts in conjunction with Smolny, through the city administration’s representative on such matters — Valery Piklaev. According to Meduza’s sources, the city held a separate coordination meeting on the eve of the April 21 demonstrations, chaired by none other than Pikalev himself.

“Pikalev provided general information on how to respond to the actions of the protesters,” a Smolny employee familiar with the results of the meeting told Meduza. According to the source, the decisions were made in advance to close Palace Square (the planned location of the rally), bring in water cannons, and block off sections of streets in the city center; the police weren’t supposed to touch anyone at first, they were to wait for further instructions.

According Meduza’s source in the St. Petersburg City Police, law enforcement received their first instructions around 8:00 p.m., about an hour after the demonstrations began. The second command to carry out mass arrests came in at 11:00 p.m., when Navalny’s St. Petersburg headquarters announced the end of the rally. At this point, the police began herding protesters into sidestreets, actively using stun guns, and snatching demonstrators who tried to hide inside subway stations. 

“The [city officials] were supervising us live on air,” Meduza’s source in the St. Petersburg police said, explaining the bursts of police activity. At the time of writing, the office of the presidential plenipotentiary, the St. Petersburg police, and Smolny hadn’t responded to Meduza’s requests for comments.

In conversation with Meduza, political consultant Valentin Bianki said with confidence that the actions of the St. Petersburg police can be attributed to the elections to both the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and the Russian State Duma that are set to take place this fall (the ruling United Russia party experienced great problems during the last local elections in 2019). But police violence also reflects how the local authorities are interpreting the signals from Moscow. 

“The policy [aimed] at preventing riots is certainly linked to the extra attention from the federal center,” Bianki said. “But I’m sure the issue of the number of those detained and jailed isn’t brought up at the federal level. This isn’t a centralized political decision. The presidential administration is sending the signal that they need to be careful, but the implementation is local.”

A current employee of St. Petersburg governor’s office agreed that the trend towards paying increased attention to Navalny’s supporters is being set by the presidential administration, but he also pointed out that it’s ultimately local officials who determine the actions of the St. Petersburg police: “The difference is that St. Petersburg has taken a consistent course to suppress street activity, whereas in Moscow [from time to time] they let things breathe.”

Story by Alexander Yermakov with additional reporting by Andrey Pertsev

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart


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