RUSSIA — Exclusive Interview

Interview with Daria Skibo from St Petersburg about the anti-corruption protests in Russia.

On the last weekend, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest against corruption. According to human rights activists more than 1000 protesters were detained in Moscow alone, among them Alexey Navalny who plans to run in the next presidential elections. To better understand the recent protests in Russia, Vilnius Students for Liberty interviewed Daria Skibo, a 26 years old sociologist from St. Petersburg. Daria works with the Centre for Independent Social Research, which the government put on the list of “foreign agents”. Her academic work focuses on the voluntary sector and civil society in Russia. Daria tells more us about the background of the recent protests and what’s been happening on the ground in St Petersburg where protesters from all walks of life gathered in the Field of Mars park. The FTN Editorial Team edited the interview for clarity.

Daria, could you tell us more about how the current protests started?

The story of March 26 began with a investigation by Alexey Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). They found out that the Prime-Minister of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, owns palaces in Russia, vineyards in Tuscany, yachts, a huge dacha in the south and other things people would call luxuries. What is unbelievable is that after the FBK put the video on Youtube where it got already more than 13 million views, nobody from the Kremlin, not even the prime-minister himself took responsibility.

Before March 26 the communists demanded a parliamentary investigation of the prime minister. Even before that Navalny suggested to take to the streets and demand answers. How is it possible to be in government and at the same time own yachts, extremely expensive flats, hectares of land — like a medieval ruler. Navalny posted a video in which he invited everybody to participate in anti-corruption demonstrations everywhere in Russia. FBK even prepared suggestions for the rally: to bring toys looking like ducks (one of Medvedev’s palaces has a special stable for one duck) or to bring sneakers (the prime-minister once bought hundreds of sneakers with the help of one of his secretary and, according to FBK, this improved the corrupt links between them).

They suggested a few slogans and images to convey the main message: How long do you want to keep stealing our money? There were protests in about 100 cities, where ordinary people were ready to take to the streets, even if the protests were not permitted. In the two biggest Russian cities Moscow and St. Petersburg and others Navalny and his supporters were unable to get permission for “legal” demonstrations. This means that any protester could be arrested and taken to the police office. But despite this, a lot of people came. They called their actions not just anti-corruption, but also added some personal messages into the titles, like the hash-tags #ОнВамНеДимон or #ДимонОтветь (“He is not just Dimon” and “Dimon, answer!” (“Dimon” is the casual and short form of prime minister Medvedev’s first name “Dmitry”).

How are the protests are developing? What is the government’s reaction?

The first protest started in Vladivostok because of time-zones. You can find some videos on Youtube, how it was there. I woke up in the morning and started to look up, what was going on in the East. As we know now, about 1500 people went out to the streets, the rally wasn’t sanctioned by the local authorities, and about 40 or 50 people were arrested. We couldn’t really get any information from government media, because all day they wrote nothing about protests across the country — in Vladivostok, in Yekaterinburg, in Perm, in Moscow, in Voronezh, in Samara and elsewhere. They just ignored it, as if it was not happening. Only in the evening Vladimir Soloviev said in his talk-show that there were few rallies, that the law was violated and that a few people were arrested. He said that he doesn’t believe it was useful for Russian society and the Russian state, and claimed that the American government paid people to destabilize the political situation in our country. And of course he claimed that we don’t need the Maidan in Russia. The Kremlin reaction, I would say, it was quite usual. Somebody asked Medvedev on his Instagram account how he spent the weekend, referring to the rallies and the general social movement. And what do you think? He answered “Quite well, I was skiing”. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, on Monday, made some comments on the radio “Moscow’s Echo”. He said that the rallies were illegal and therefore there is no need to respect people who participated or to answer their demands. He also said, that it was just a provocation and that all the people came not because they wanted to come, but because they “have to”.

Don’t believe this. I was there on my own accord and nobody paid me or forced me to participate. And I saw people around me, they made big and small posters. They printed them or drew them themselves. They came with kids and with friends. They did not come because they are somehow involved in politics. No, they have been avoiding everything connected with politics for the last 20 years. They came because of the blatant arrogance of the ruling class and they are finally fed up with the corruption, the insecurity and the lies.

How does society react to these events?

I should say, society is not homogeneous in Russia. Some people in the streets were really irritated by the demonstration in St. Petersburg. They did not want to hear “Putin is a thief” or something like this. Because they live in a dream world, created by the state propaganda machine. Other people were glad to meet the crowd in the city with serious faces and funny posters. An old lady near the Moscow Railway Station asked me and my friends : “What are you doing here? Are you participating in all these actions?” We answered, yes. And then she said that she cannot go with us because she was selling flowers, but that we must definitely protest, because if we do not demand our rights, no one will give them to us. Then she shouted: “Russia will be free!” We were very surprised by this. I participated in a few rallies this year and especially this spring. This time, on March 26, we saw not only dissidents, not only political activists at the protest, but lots of young people. Someone in the crowd even said: “Look at these kids, they are under 18.” I do not believe that everybody in the opposition supports Navalny as a presidential candidate or his program, but his investigation was just a reason to go out on the streets. And I also do not believe, that the anger over corruption is widespread enough to start change in Russia, but yesterday we saw the biggest protests since the time of the Bolotnaya.

Why specifically people are going on the streets?

I cannot speak for everybody, but me and some of my friends and colleagues came because of the European University in St. Petersburg. Because of the FBK’s investigation we know one of the reasons why we are close to lose our university. It is because the building is quite close to Medvedev’s property. He owns a palace on Gagarinskaya 1, our University is located at Gagarinskaya 3. We were asking, like lots of people, how it could happen that one of the best educational institutions is going to lose the right to graduate students. Lots of people came because they saw the same video from Navalny. Some came with the different local problems, like the Pulkovskaja observatory or the City Library. Others were just curious.

We didn’t see any extremists or provocateurs. Actually, I know that not everybody was for Navalny. The city administration banned the rally on the Field of Mars, because on this day in this place an action “in support of traditional values” was planned. That was true: few people came with flags of NOD, an ultra-patriotic Russian organization. They played music, they had pro-Putin banners, but they were not the core of the event. As I remember, they finished quite early. And then there was the huge crowd of our people who came despite the awful weather. Some say we were 1000, others think we were even 8000.

What role do youths and students play in this movement?

This time we saw lots of people between 13 and 18. I’ve never seen schoolboys as a political subjects before. We all thought it’s beyond their interest to participate in such events. For lots of them it was a kind of adventure, like playing cops and robbers, when they had to escape from special police units, armed with batons and in full riot uniform. Maybe some of them just wanted to feel the adrenaline, and they got it running from the police. Now there is a discussion in the academy, how is such young people could be such a force. Some of them were arrested on an equal basis with adults. Talking about students — yes, they took part for sure, but I don’t have any evidences that they were organized by their student organizations or the like.

Who is organising the crowds?

At the first glance, nobody. Some activists from RSD climbed on top of the memorial on the Field of Mars with banners. They shouted slogans, which were further picked up by the crowd. The slogans were “We are the power”, “That’s you who need hold on”, “Dimon, get out”, “Putin is a thief”, “Russia without Putin”, “Freedom for political prisoners”, “Police is together with the people”. A few people from the city parliament participated unofficially. We don’t have any sound equipment, that’s why nobody organized the crowd. People were just walking across the memorial and shouted slogans together. One girl even brought a real live duck. After the Field of Mars the crowd divided into four parts. Some people went to Dvortsovaya Square, where they continued to shout slogans. Some of people went to the Isaakievskij Cathedral to emphasize the importance of the museum for the city. Lots of people went down to the Moscowskij Railway Station via Nevsky avenue. But nobody directed it, all these parts were pretty chaotic and nobody knew what to do next. The only source of information was Facebook and maybe a couple of local websites.

How many people are arrested at this moment? How are they now?

As far as I know, yesterday in St. Petersburg there were 130 people arrested. In Moscow the number is bigger. As I heard it’s something close to 850 people. This information wasn’t published in the government media, nor was it shown on main TV channels, you can learn it only from facebook or from professional human rights defenders, like OVD-Info. One of my colleagues, Alexandra Arhipova, was arrested in Moscow. She spent about 12 hours in the police office. Now she is at home and feels well, but as I know everybody who was taken will be struck with a fine. According to the law, people who were arrested can be subject to administrative or criminal prosecution. Alexey Navalny who was arrested in Moscow. As I know from Facebook, all participants arrested in St. Petersburg are now at home.

Are those protest going to continue? What’s next?

Today as I heard the protest of truckers started again. They even burned a car in front of the city government, protesting against of the fare system for federal routes. I hope, it will go on.