Facing Pro-Democracy Wave, Kremlin Violently Suppresses Moscow Protests

Kremlin largely ignored the protests, justified police violence, and obstructed investigation into key opposition leader’s sudden illness

Banner for the piece, featuring a Tweet from Darth Putin and two shushing emojis
(Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via @DarthPutinKGB/archive)

Disturbing images and video from the pro-democracy protests in Moscow, Russia, documented the extent of police violence against the protesters, even as pro-Kremlin outlets attempted to minimize the movement’s significance.

The excessive force of the riot police demonstrated that the Kremlin considers domestic pro-democracy movements, which have become increasingly popular in Russia, a grave threat. The Kremlin reacted to the latest protests in three ways: not forbidding the police from using force against the demonstrators; disseminating false or distracting narratives via pro-Kremlin outlets; and obstructing outside inquiries into a sudden illness that struck prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The protesters — of which the DFRLab estimated there may have been 22,000 people — demanded that opposition candidates be allowed run in Moscow’s September municipal elections. On July 27–28, 2019, officials detained 1,400 people in a violent crackdown, the largest number of arrests at a protest in Moscow this decade.

Kremlin-Owned News Outlets Divert Attention from Moscow

The Kremlin-owned media outlet RT did not find it newsworthy to report on the thousands of Russians protesting in the streets of Moscow. Instead, it covered protests around the world, including Hong Kong, Israel, Chile, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua.

Kremlin-owned media outlet RT reported on the protests taking place in other countries in an attempt to deflect attention away from the massive protests taking place in Moscow. (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via @RT_com)

In the framework of the DFRLab’s “Four Ds” of Disinformation, RT “distracted” its audience by turning attention away from the Russian protests and covering protests taking place elsewhere in the world. This tactic likely aimed to minimize the significance of the Moscow protests.

Both Kremlin-owned and independent pro-Kremlin outlets underreported the protests. The DFRLab compared the number of top Google Search results for the keywords “protests in Moscow” in two Kremlin-owned media outlets — RIA Novosti and RT in Russian — and two independent Russian media outlets — TV Rain and Meduza. Articles about the protests appeared on only five out of the top 10 search results on RIA Novosti and four out of the top 10 results on RT in Russian. All top search results with the same keywords on TV Rain and Meduza were about the Moscow protests.

The comparison of “протесты в Москве” (“protests in Moscow”) Google keyword searches for RIA Novosti, RT, TV Rain and Meduza. (Source, left to right: Google (RIA Novosti)/archive; Google (RT)/archive; Google (TV Rain)/archive; Google (Meduza)/archive via Google)

On top of it all, Russian officials intentionally ignored the protests at the highest echelons of the Kremlin government, with President Vladimir Putin taking a trip to explore sunken Soviet submarines at the height of the turmoil.

Unsubstantiated Claims of Protesters Turned Violent

Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, repeatedly claimed that the protests had turned violent, with protesters physically assaulting police officers from Russia’s Special Purpose Police Unit (OMON). In one of her tweets, Simonyan, in an effort to portray the protesters as violent, claimed that they had smeared OMON officers with blood.

Editor-in-Chief of RT Margarita Simonyan’s tweet, translated from Russian: “A journalist reports that a girl began to smear OMON officers with her blood. They took her away. I know people who would give a lot to participate in such a fascinating porn.” (Source: M_Simonyan/archive)

To support the claim, Simonyan tweeted a video of the OMON officer “peacefully” shouting at people and stated that the masked officer is her “ideal man.”

Similarly, Kremlin TV channel Rossiya 24 claimed that participants in the unsanctioned protests “first begged the police [to let them trough to an unsanctioned gathering place], then started to offend them. The OMON officers were patient. They asked people to leave the territory, but in return got bombarded by bottles, rocks, and metal rubbish bins. Someone used pepper spray on the OMON.”

In one of the few reports, RIA Novosti reported that two officers of the “Rosgvardiya,” Russia’s National Guard, suffered eye burns.

A number of videos and images posted on social media, however, revealed the opposite, showing instead the riot police’s excessive and disproportionate use of force against protesters.

Protesters reported head injuries at the hands of Russia’s riot police. (Source: @4freerussia_org/archive)

In a series of videos from the same incident on Twitter, the police can be seen indiscriminately wrestling people to the ground and beating them with batons.

In another video, a group of officers can be seen arresting a woman who appeared to be just sitting on a bench, not involved in active resistance against police.

Some protesters reported broken limbs and head injuries. A Twitter user claimed that he was on a jog when the police grabbed him, pinned him to the ground, and broke his leg. While there is ample evidence in the user’s Twitter timeline that he supported the protests, and little to support his claim of jogging at the same time as the July 27 protests, the police’s aggressive reaction — regardless of the Twitter user’s motives — certainly pointed to a disproportionate use of force.

A Twitter user reported broken limbs at the hands of Russia’s riot police. Translation: “Oh! This is me after running 5 km! It might be an exact moment when they broke my leg on the curb. If anyone else finds pictures of my detention, I would be grateful. There should be footage of how I was pushed onto the Tverskaya roadway .” (Source: @EtoBuziashvili/DFRLab via @CKonovalov/archive)

The same twitter user reported a day before the weekend protests that he was planning to jog next morning but the park was closed by Moscow City Council because of upcoming protests.

Twitter user @CKonovalov’s tweets translated from Russian: “Moscow City Council? Do you have the problems and are you that scared of dissatisfied people demanding fair elections that you won’t let me into Osip Beauvais park to go for a morning jog? Is it a martial law? That’s what I definitely won’t forgive you”. (Source: @CKonovalov/archive)

Obstructing Investigation into Navalny’s Sudden “Allergic Reaction”

Russian officials also attempted to obstruct outside inquiry into a mystery ailment that struck Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. While Russian officials claimed it to be an allergic reaction, Navalny’s allies claimed it to have been a deliberate chemical attack.

On July 28, Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s press officer, reported that Navalny had been hospitalized at Moscow Hospital Number 64 after suffering a severe allergic reaction. Anastasia Vasilyeva, the leader of the outspoken Doctor’s Alliance trade union and an open supporter of Navalny, suggested that Navalny may have been exposed to a poisonous chemical substance. In a Facebook post, she accused hospital officials and personnel, as well as police officers guarding Navalny’s hospital ward, of barring her and her colleague Yaroslav Ashikhmin from directly examining Navalny. They managed to do so by questioning Navalny through an open door. The head doctor of the Hospital 64, Olga Sharapova, is a member of the Moscow City Duma. While she ran as an independent candidate, Putin’s “United Russia” party supported her in 2014.

At midnight, a doctor named Eldar Kazakhmedov reported to the Russian media outlet Interfax that Navalny had a case of hives — an outbreak of swollen, red bumps that may occur for a myriad of unknown reasons. The following day, Vasilyeva wrote on Facebook that the hospital leadership had allowed her to visit Navalny. In a subsequent post, she expressed dissatisfaction with the hospital’s examination of him, indicating that they had failed to test Navalny for external chemical exposure.

Later that day, the hospital allowed Navalny to return to his cell.

Two days later, on July 31, Interfax reported that the 64th Hospital issued an analysis of Navalny’s external chemical exposure that proved to be negative. Vasilyeva replied that the results were not trustworthy, as the hospital did not submit the full sample necessary for the analysis.

Kremlin-owned media offered little coverage of Navalny’s hospitalization. RIA Novosti wrote that his condition was not life-threatening, as well as that the hospital had allowed him to return to his cell. Neither article discussed his symptoms or the possible causes of the reaction.

Russian fringe media outlets, such as Polit Rossiya, New Inform, and NationNews.ru, suggested that Vasilyeva faked the allergy, as well as that she lied about his exposure to chemicals.

While there is no open-source evidence to verify whether Navalny was actually exposed to toxic chemicals or whether he had an allergic reaction, Leonid Volkov, the head of Navalny’s election campaign, tweeted soon after Navalny’s hospitalization that he had experienced similar symptoms after leaving the cell in which Navalny was held.


Eto Buziashvili is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab) and is based in Georgia.

Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate with @DFRLab and is based in Latvia.

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