20 years under Putin: a timeline

The detention of civil society activists still continues two years after the May 6, 2012, demonstrations in Bolotnaya Square. Another series of arrests started in late May and have been labeled the “third Bolotnaya case.” According to writer and journalist Alexander Podrabinek, as long as Russia’s system of power remains unchanged, political repressions will continue to occur.


The sign reads in Russian: "May 6 is the beginning of great events."


Nobody expected that the endless “Bolotnaya case” would be resuscitated and would claim new victims. The paltriness of the reasons given by the authorities for the repressions—the lack of effects on “victims’” health, the small financial losses—when coupled with the statute of limitations and the ongoing falsification of evidence all gave us hope that the “Bolotnaya case” had come to an end. Most defendants received two- to four-year prison terms, some were granted amnesty, some won a plea agreement, one was placed in a special psychiatric hospital, and one gave detailed testimony on his former comrades.

However, the searches and seizures resumed in late May. This is the third wave of arrests, and the prosecution involves three new individuals: Polina Strongina, Dmitry Ishevsky, and Oleg Melnikov. Thus, in total, 31 people have been brought to justice for the events that unfolded in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012.

Petersburg activist Poline Strongina was initially questioned and then released on bail. Muscovite Dmitri Ishevsky was arrested after questioning. Both were accused of involvement in the riots that occurred during the Bolotnaya rally, and Ishevsky was also accused of using violence toward the authorities. According to investigators, he took a protective helmet from a policeman and repeatedly threw solid objects toward other policemen.

Oleg Melnikov was arrested in Moscow on June 3. As the press service of the Russian Investigative Committee reported, “during the riots in Bolotnaya Square Melnikov turned the cabins of mobile toilets and moved them into the roadway, creating a barrier to police movement.” Melnikov admitted his guilt in his first questioning and was released on bail.

Many political scientists and journalists have observed that personal motives are often present in President Putin’s political decisions. This is probably true. The brutal crackdown on the peaceful demonstration in Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, and the subsequent avalanche of litigation against the victims of police abuse can be seen as revenge—first, as revenge for the authorities’ humiliating fear during the 2011–2012 protests, and second, as revenge for the dampening effect the Bolotnaya protest had on President Putin’s inauguration the following day, on May 7, 2012. On his inauguration day, Putin drove to the Kremlin through a completely empty, as if extinct, Moscow—streets, squares, and venues had been safely cordoned off by police. Putin feared that instead of celebrations, he would hear the rumble of protest in the streets, and that instead of official glorification, he would see posters charging him with election fraud.

The “Bolotnaya case” will end once the authorities extract everything they can from the opposition and jail all activists, opposition leaders, and even passersby if they find the slightest evidence of any violation.

Like all dictators, Putin is touchy and remembers resentments throughout his life. There is no doubt that the memory of this humiliation helped produce the vindictive formula that he has followed in all of his subsequent attacks on the opposition: “You ruined my inauguration; I will ruin your lives.”

Unfortunately, this formula does not explain all the reasons for the unbalanced policies that Putin promotes both in Russia and abroad. Putin is the leader of a small, carefully selected team that does not operate on a high educational, intellectual, cultural, or moral level. Most of them were largely untroubled by their boss’ inaugural disappointment. After all, they have other concerns—it is necessary for them to survive and retain power. Faced with the dilemma of survival versus democracy, they choose the former.

Maintaining the stability of usurped power involves the destruction of democracy: the complete subordination of the parliament and the judiciary to the president; the strict centralization of power; the direct control of the police, the army, the intelligence agencies, and the media; the complete suppression of political opposition; and the replacement of effective democratic institutions with authoritarian structures. To justify these generally unpopular actions, the government has cultivated in the public mind the image of an external enemy, perpetuating the conviction that the country is essentially under a state of siege. This is the only strategy that the elite can use to justify their existence. This propaganda campaign about the external threat from time to time is fed with military conflicts that range from border clashes to full engagement in hostilities provoked by the authorities. The image of the internal enemy—the “fifth column,” “national traitors,” and “foreign agents and jackals who beg for scraps at Western embassies”—has also been built simultaneously. Repressions against dissenters are a necessary element of any corrupt authoritarian political system.

In this situation, political oppositionists and civil society activists assume the role of outsiders. In a democratic country, the assumption of such a role may look like a defeat, but in a dictatorship, it can be a reason for legitimate pride. In this sense, the “Bolotnaya case” will end once the authorities extract everything they can from the opposition and jail all activists, opposition leaders, and even passersby if they find the slightest evidence of any violation. However, evidence is not even needed in this system. No one cares about real guilt: the political repressions will continue in order to preserve the regime.

This means that even if the “Bolotnaya case” finally dries up, a new case will take its place. The Russian secret police do not possess sufficient ingenuity to pursue another course, and the rich historical experience of the Soviet executioners has not yet been forgotten and lost. This legacy was carefully preserved by KGB servicemen throughout perestroika, throughout the period of democratization, throughout the “dashing 90s,” and from there it was passed to a new generation of security service people under the aging KGB lieutenant colonel who usurped power in Russia.