Ilya Gushchin says the two and a half years he spent in prison for standing up to the Kremlin were a warning from the authorities for ordinary Russians. “It was a threat to the population to quieten down,” Gushchin, 28, told AFP. “For society it showed that the authorities were willing to do whatever was needed to stay in power.” Russia is currently gearing up for parliamentary elections on September 18 that pro-Kremlin parties look set to dominate, and that message seems to have registered. The last time the country voted in legislative polls five years ago, tens of thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets for mass protests that became the biggest challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s domination of the country since he took charge in 2000. This time around there appears to be little chance of a repeat.
In late 2011 and early 2012 Gushchin — then a recent graduate who had just started dabbling in political activism — was part of the crowds in Moscow demanding change after evidence of flagrant vote-rigging emerged.
The protests petered out after riot police violently cleared a demonstration on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a third term as president in May 2012. Gushchin was detained briefly after trying to pull an officer off a protester, but he thought little of it and carried on with life. Then, out of the blue nine months later, police arrived at his door and arrested him. “I had forgotten about it,” he said. “Then they just showed up.”
Gushchin was one of over 30 demonstrators — prominent activists, students, pensioners — who would be swept up seemingly at random by the authorities and charged with attacking the police. Their cases — which came to be known as the Bolotnaya affair after the square the demonstration took place on — reverberated around the country, and rights groups denounced them as show trials.