How one Russian became an object lesson for all would-be protesters

Denis Lutskevich was not an activist, he just wanted to see the 2012 protests against Putin's re-election. But he, along with two dozen others, served three and a half years in prison for doing so.

Mikhail Voskresensky/Reuters/File
Russian riot police scuffle with protesters during the "march of the million" opposition protest in central Moscow on May 6, 2012.

For those who paid close attention to the protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration almost four years ago, Denis Lutskevich might stir a memory. Though just one of some 600 people arrested that day in May 2012, Mr. Lutskevich stood out more than most thanks to images of him being arrested, shirtless with his back covered in red welts shaped like police truncheons.

But the rangy, now-20-something ex-marine wasn't an activist. He says he and his friends only went to the protests to "see what was happening." Indeed, none of the voluminous video and photographic evidence from the scene shows him committing any acts of violence. Nonetheless, Lutskevich was singled out for committing "mass disorders" and "using force against representatives of the state," for which he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

But the recently released Lutskevich's case, and those of more than two dozen others convicted of serious crimes against the state arising from the protests, is the source of intense ongoing debate in Russia. Critics argue that the cases were ginned up by state prosecutors to make examples of ordinary Russians from various walks of life rather than hardened street activists – so that all Russians would heed a tacit Kremlin warning that protests of any stripe would not be tolerated.

"People were chosen from various age groups, social status, and professions in order that every Russian could recognize himself behind the bars in that courtroom," says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer who has defended opposition figures. "The relative guilt or innocence of any particular defendant was irrelevant. It was intended as a deterrent to the whole society, and the message was clear: go to a protest rally, and this can be you."

The Bolotnaya Affair

What most witnesses – including the Monitor – saw on the square that day seemed little more than a brief disruption on the fringes of a peaceful rally which would pass without much remark in most Western cities. But the so-called "Bolotnaya Affair" – because it occurred on Bolotnaya Square, within sight of the Kremlin – was treated in the Russian media as an organized attempt to overthrow the state.

The incident may have been started by a handful of protesters, who attempted a sit-down protest and threw bottles and other items at police – the facts are still in dispute. But riot troops responded with massed charges into the crowd, hauling people away with seemingly little discrimination.

"I wanted to get away, but it was a tight area and the press of the crowd was too great. I got my shirt torn off somehow," says Lutskevich, a fact that makes him quite recognizable in many of the videos from the event. "Then police grabbed me, five or six uniformed officers beat me, and threw me into a paddy wagon. I was pretty scared. It was the first time anything like that had ever happened to me."

But he was soon released, and a district judge dismissed his case.

'The script was already written'

In the days following Mr. Putin's inauguration, the Kremlin's powerful Investigative Committee established a special task force of 200 officers to look into what had happened. What had seemed a small blot on the otherwise peaceful record of Russia's fledgling protest movement grew into a vast conspiracy aimed at staging a "colored revolution" in the heart of Moscow. In a parallel trial, leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov and other protest organizers were charged with working on behalf of foreign interests to bring down the state.

More than a month after being released, special police raided Lutskevich's flat, seizing computers and books in search of extremist literature. None was ever presented in court. He was arrested and taken to a Moscow remand prison where he spent nearly two years while the trial unfolded. He was convicted solely on the basis of testimony from a police officer who claimed Lutskevich ripped off his helmet during the melee.

Extensive video evidence, all available online, shows Lutskevich being beaten, arrested and taken away by police officers – who all have their helmets on. The police officer who testified against him in court, Alexei Troyerin, later told Russian Esquire magazine that he couldn't remember who actually tore off his helmet.

"There was lots of video evidence showing police brutality on the square, but none of that was admitted in court," says Lutskevich. "Nothing seemed to make any difference; it seemed like the script was already written and it just played out to the end. I got very disillusioned. I knew I had no hope."

The public's lesson

It is this sense of inevitability, regardless of mitigating evidence, that critics say was deliberately cultivated to send the message to all walks of society that attending a protest rally can be dangerous for one's health.

"It's not about crime and punishment at all, as it would be in a genuinely law-governed place," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "The goal of these trials wasn't to teach a lesson to individual offenders, to change their future behavior. They were selected at random and given no chance precisely to change public behavior. And it does seem to have worked."

The protest movement that began four years ago with huge rallies against alleged electoral fraud gradually petered out over the year that followed. Putin's popularity has soared amid Russia's standoff with the West over Ukraine, and Russian military intervention in Syria. But as a nearly two-year-old economic crisis continues, a different kind of protest movement – this time over bread-and-butter issues – may be stirring in Russia's far-flung hinterland. For example, Russian truckers recently went on strike and briefly blockaded several cities over a new road tax.

Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser who tends to be a reliable defender of the Kremlin, agrees that the sentences handed out to Lutskevich and many of his co-defendants were unusually harsh by Western standards. He argues that the reaction of the state to any sign of disorder is conditioned by Russia's history of being destabilized by often small but highly-organized minorities. Twice in the past century alone a mighty Russian state has collapsed and been replaced by revolutionaries who seemed to come almost from nowhere.

"Our nation has gone through many catastrophes, and that's why we have such a low tolerance for instability compared to more fortunate countries," Mr. Markov says.

In Lutskevich's case, the lesson seems to have worked. He says his personal outlook has been turned upside-down by what happened to him, but there is no way he is going to get involved in future political action. He wants to go into business, to "live by my own efforts," and find ways to get by within existing reality.

"I'm still in a state of shock, and I have learned so much," from what happened, he says. "But I have learned that there is no result from mass protests or appeals to authorities to change things. It ends very badly."

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