MOSCOW -- Teacher Svetlana Nikitina could hardly imagine while studying Russian literature that she would eventually mark Political Prisoners’ Day with a protest against what she considers the growing repression in Russia.
But Tuesday, Nikitina was among hundreds of demonstrators gathered in icy downtown Moscow to recognize the unofficial holiday conceived by inmates of Soviet prisons and labor camps in the 1970s, at the height of leader Leonid Brezhnev's stifling political and economic policies.
“For me it was important today not to stay at home and not to keep silent but come here and show solidarity with those who suffer for standing by universal humanitarian values,” Nikitina, 24, said in an interview.
Demonstrators held photographs of numerous detainees considered to be prisoners of conscience. They included former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two opposition activists arrested this month on charges of plotting to organize mass disturbances.
Thirteen others are in custody awaiting trial on charges of assailing the police in the clashes that ensued from a protest rally May 6, the eve of Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration.
Opposition activists and rights advocates say the charges are false and, together with a number of recently adopted laws, symbolize the Kremlin’s desire to crack down on the opposition. Government officials say they are trying to prevent violence and the disruption of law and order.
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said the Tuesday rally was an important opportunity to criticize the Putin government. The turnout was impressive, especially on such a nasty night, he said.
“It is not anywhere close to Hurricane Sandy, but it also means something when [people cope with] the sludge under their feet under this icy shower falling on their heads to say they want Putin out,” he said as the crowd chanted “For free Russia!” and “Putin on trial!”
Among the protesters Tuesday was Ksenia Kosenko, the older sister of Mikhail Kosenko, a 37-year-old protester in custody since May 8 on charges of clashing with the police during the May 6 rally.
She said her brother’s trial would begin soon and that prosecutors want to prove that Kosenko, who has a record of mental illness after suffering a trauma during his army days, is “a dangerous lunatic.”
“My brother is quiet and peaceful, and I am afraid our mental institutions haven’t changed much since the Soviet days,” she said.
Opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov was among those who addressed the crowd. He was charged last week with plotting to organize mass disturbances and was allowed to remain free on a pledge not to leave town, though two associates were taken into custody on the same charges.
“The investigators thus want to manipulate my friends they are holding in prison and pit them against me, or else they want me to make some irrational move like try to flee from the country,” Udaltsov said in an interview before he addressed the crowd.
Udaltsov’s associate Leonid Razvozzhayev told a group of rights activists visiting him in a Moscow prison last week that he had been kidnapped in Ukraine before being taken to Russia and psychologically tortured for two days by masked men, and that he issued a confession dictated to him by his captors.
Nikitina said the demonstration Tuesday showed that many Russians were willing to continue pressing the government for greater political freedom.
“I have no illusions about our ability to change anything by coming here and I don’t believe things will change for the better the next day,” she said. “But I don’t want my students to grow up in a climate where they can be arrested for not keeping silent about things they disagree with.”
-- Sergei L. LoikoPhoto: A protester in Moscow displays a photo of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky during a rally in support of political prisoners. Credit: Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times