Protesting in Putin's Russia

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow

media captionAnna Gaskarova says anyone can be arrested for taking part in a demonstration in Russia

As Russia gears up for parliamentary elections, how is it dealing with dissent?

Plenty has changed since Russia last held elections to parliament. The oil price has plummeted and the economy has shrunk, Crimea has been annexed from Ukraine and Vladimir Putin has returned to the presidency.

It has also become far harder for his critics to stage a protest.

The turning point came after Russia's last elections.

It was 6 May 2012, and the latest in a wave of mass protests sparked by evidence of fraud at the vote.

The rallies had been peaceful for months.

But that day, protesters arriving at Bolotnaya Square were met by rows of riot police.

There was chaos, a crush and then clashes.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHundreds were arrested at the protests on 6 May 2012, including opposition leaders

Prosecutors classed what happened as a riot and blamed the protesters, but Anna Gaskarova remembers things differently.

The young journalist says her husband had been trying to stop police officers arresting an elderly man when the officers turned on him.

A series of photographs show Alexei Gaskarov with a bloodied face. In one image, she is seen diving into the fray to try to help him.

Mr Gaskarov was arrested almost a year later, after investigators scrolled through video footage.

A well-known left-wing activist, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for rioting and assault, charges he denies.

To date, 18 protesters have been imprisoned.

image captionAnna Gaskarova and her parents fear that her husband could be rearrested

"The Bolotnaya case was a good situation to arrest people from different political camps," Anna Gaskarova says, at her parents' home outside Moscow.

The investigation remains open, and two more men have been arrested since December.

"Everyone now is afraid. They understand… you can be a man or a woman, 20 or 45 years old, you can be of different political views, but you can all go to jail if you go to a demonstration," she says.

Russian officials deny the Bolotnaya case was a crackdown on dissent.

But in the wake of the clashes, Mr Putin approved draconian new laws against protests.

media captionRoman Roslovtsev was trying to prove how difficult it was to protest in Russia

Now, even a silent picket is banned if more than one person takes part.

The fines for breaking the new rules have also soared, and anyone violating those rules repeatedly, faces up to five years behind bars.

Activists say they are increasingly refused official permission to demonstrate.

So when a small crowd gathered to mark the fourth anniversary of the clashes on Bolotnaya Square, they did not bother to apply.

As a result, they were joined by busloads of riot police.

The protesters milled quietly at first at the foot of a statue.

A man sang about the collapse of Communism, strumming on his guitar, as police officers in urban camouflage looked on.

"If I would be in authority, I wouldn't be afraid at all," veteran activist Serge Sharov-Delaunay shrugged, surveying the scene.

"I would let this meeting [happen]. I can't understand."

Then, on the edge of the crowd, a young woman produced a handwritten sign and held it up in silence.

Within a minute, police officers had surrounded her.

"Respected citizens, your actions have not been authorised," an officer told the crowd through a megaphone. "Please disperse immediately!"

In response, a protester began quoting Russia's constitution from his mobile phone - Article 31, which guarantees citizens the right to peaceful assembly.

Behind him, police officers were dragging protesters off by their armpits.

image captionProtesters Alexei Polikhovich (left) and Alexander Margolin both served time in prison but are now free

Alexei Polikhovich went to the rally that day but left before the arrests started.

He was released from prison last year after serving three years for rioting at the Bolotnaya protest.

He has always denied the charge and the very suggestion there was any riot.

Alexei says he has been cautious since his release, but he has not given up on politics.

"You start to follow these things, the political trials, the issue of political prisoners," he says, adding that what he had discovered had shocked him.

"The charges against us were unfair.

"But at least we were on Bolotnaya Square.

"Now, there is a new case, and he wasn't even there.

"That makes me angry," he says, referring to an anarchist professor arrested last December.

Like most of the Bolotnaya prisoners, A struggled to find work on his release.

But he recently joined the team at OVD-info, a group that describes itself as "monitoring political persecution".

"The idea is simple: that information protects," he says, at his new desk, inside the offices of the human rights group Memorial.

The data collected by OVD-info shows a marked increase in prosecutions it defines as political.

The group also notes a rise in prosecutions for political posts on social media.

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Such changes concern Anna Gaskarova as she prepares for her husband's release in October.

"I'm not sure Alexei really understands what country he is going to live in," she says, as she puts together a food parcel for another prison visit.

"He can easily make some problems again, if he [does] things that are not allowed now. And it's a really big list of things."

Anna Gaskarova believes the tough new restrictions have scared many Russians off protesting and sent them into what she calls a "political coma".

But it was Alexei's political activism that attracted her to him in the first place.

"I am not sure that we will be just sitting at home when there will be any demonstrations," she says, as she stuffs cartons full of plump pancakes and cabbage rolls.

"We are not afraid, but we will of course try to understand what risk do we have not to get in jail again."

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