It was the stuff of nightmares on Moscow’s equivalent of Regent Street under Russian Christmas lights | World News

The Kremlin says it is the protesters who are the hooligans and provocateurs. So does state TV.

That is not how it looks from ground level.

The show of force in Moscow on Tuesday night, after Putin critic Alexei Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail on a pretext, had to be seen to be believed.

A woman is detained in Moscow after Alexei Navalny was sentenced in court
A woman is detained on the streets of Moscow after Alexei Navalny was sentenced to jail

It was as though a swarm of angry, life-sized hornets had besieged the city centre, attacking the relative few who roam its streets at night.

Tverskaya is Moscow’s main road towards the Kremlin.

It is a wide, graceful avenue decorated at this time of year with a long vista of lights designed to look like champagne flutes, decadent and beautiful. Moscow’s mayor has taste when it comes to street decor.

Beneath them, the black helmets of the mass of President Vladimir Putin‘s stormtroopers glistened. What an extraordinary juxtaposition.

We saw so many unwarranted arrests. People who had been doing nothing except walk by.

People hauled out of side streets because they lived there. There weren’t many out, it was late and the call to gather had hardly taken off.

A mass of riot police on Tverskaya in central Moscow in the wake of the Navalny court verdict
The show of force in Moscow had to be seen to be believed

Really, this was about grabbing anyone available. Running after someone who had caught their eye just because they could.

It was the stuff of nightmares. The stuff of nightmares on the equivalent of Regent Street, under the lights of a Russian Christmas.

One social media clip shows a horde of riot police dragging a man out of a taxi and beating him.

He’d yelled something at them and they hadn’t taken kindly to it.

It is like a lynch mob in police clothing.

In other clips, riot police are shouting “shut down the press, we are getting rid of them!”, as they run at nearby journalists.

In one, a policeman turns as if on a whim and whacks a cameraman in a press jacket over the head so that he falls to the ground screaming. He was badly concussed.

They didn’t attack us but I wouldn’t have put it past them.

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UN calls for release for Navalny protesters

This Wednesday felt like the morning after the night before.

Somehow a day when demonstrations are planned and thousands turn up is different to the impromptu, authoritarian siege of the city in the wake of Navalny‘s hearing.

What was it we had seen last night? What had happened to the Moscow we knew?

Sasha Kitaeva was arrested alongside her sister, Elena, on Tuesday night.

We met her the next day, fresh out of court. She had been handed a 10,000 rouble fine (around £100). Her sister Elena was still inside, waiting for her hearing.

Sasha is a fluent English speaker and incredibly high-spirited.

Sasha Kitaeva told Sky News that police hit her in the face and slammed her head against a table

She had just spent 24 hours in police detention where she says two policemen and a policewoman had pushed her against the wall, hit her in the face and slammed her head against the table when she refused to give them her fingerprints.

“Navalny says we shouldn’t be scared and I feel that’s right, but of course I was scared at that moment. I was trying to find some kind of support at least in the woman’s eyes but there was nothing there.”

She tells me she is 19 years old and my heart almost breaks.

Her sister, Elena, who is three years older, ended up being sentenced to 12 days arrest.

Sasha claims her sister had a bag put over her head and was threatened with a taser

Sasha told us Elena had had a bag put over her head and was threatened with a taser unless she gave the police the code to her phone. She acquiesced.

I asked Sasha if she would go out to protest again.

“That’s a difficult question, especially when I’ve just come out of detention,” she says.

“I’m scared even to answer you on camera because the police in Russia have no limits. They just take your phone. They’ve got all my numbers, the private numbers of my friends, my family, that’s what scares me the most.”

With 10,000 arrests across Russia in the past 12 days, most of them in Moscow and St Petersburg, both city’s police stations and detention centres are full to bursting.

According to the NGO OVD-Info, which monitors arrests, detainees are now being moved to out-of-town detention centres and other cities because of the lack of space.

At a detention centre at Sakharova, people queue to deliver food and supplies to friends and relatives inside
At a detention centre at Sakharova outside Moscow, people queue to deliver food and supplies to friends and relatives inside

One of the largest is a migrant processing facility in a village called Sakharova, about an hour out of Moscow.

There we meet Artem Nazarov who has been volunteering to bring supplies to detainees.

Nazarov is a 44-year-old actor and drama teacher who was arrested for attending the rally on 23 January, the first protest called in Navalny’s name after the opposition leader’s return from Germany.

Nazarov was thrown into a paddy wagon with 22 others and kept there for eight hours. He says no one else in that police van had ever been to a protest before.

“Lots of people seem to be waking up and discovering that they cannot stay away from it anymore,” he says.

Nazarov was fired via WhatsApp before he’d even left the police bus.

The Institute of Theatrical Arts where he taught accused him of “amoral behaviour” for attending an illegal rally.

Nazarov says the quick response of the theatre community on Facebook, rallying in his defence, probably meant he was released with just a fine to pay whereas the others brought in with him received days in detention.

Artem Nazarov
Artem Nazarov has been volunteering to bring supplies to detainees

Nazarov is the same age as Navalny, the generation who have a lot to lose by going out onto the street.

A lot of his peers, he says, talk the reformist talk in private but are scared of doing so in public.

They have families to look after, they have built up what they can in Putin’s Russia, they are scared to rock the boat.

I ask him if he sees a shift among his contemporaries.

“Not so many people are brave enough to say it out loud but I got a lot of support personally, people calling me, writing messages, trying to support me in other ways,” he says.

Nazarov feels that actors have a special role to play. “We have an audience, we can be heard. It is our responsibility to get people talking.”

The irony is that the Kremlin’s crackdown on Alexei Navalny has got the entire nation talking.

Once on state TV, Navalny was just a fringe blogger – now he is a household name.

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Alexei Navalny draws hearts as he’s jailed

The country is polarised between those who believe the Kremlin’s rhetoric, those who walk the walk because they feel they have to and those who don’t.

Navalny is not wildly popular but the imprisonment of thousands may just provide pause for thought. The aim is to scare the country into submission.

Navalny is asking people not to be afraid. The people of Russia are treading gingerly into new territory, when historically, seismic political shifts are for them the stuff of nightmares.

I hate to conclude this way but it is far too early to tell where this road will lead.

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An open minded personality.. fun to be with, because of my positive vibes. God fearing, for without God I am nothing.. Moved with compassion when dealing with you, not selfish or self-centered...

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