Thursday, as Russia was beginning its invasion of Ukraine, human rights activist Stanislav Dmitrievskiy stood alone on the street in Russia's city of Nizhny Novgorod holding a sign that said "Brothers are in Ukraine, but fascists are in the Kremlin." He was quickly arrested, he said on Facebook.
While there have been many large protests around Russia that have led to mass arrests, others, like in Novgorod, have chosen to protest by themselves. These "solo protests"—where a lone demonstrator stands with a picket—are technically one of the only legal forms of public protest in Russia that does not require a permit from the government. That has made them a bedrock of popular resistance in Russia, and has often drawn attention to activists and their causes when authorities ultimately try to find a way to shut them down.
In recent days, Russians have continued the tradition of solo protesting in light of their government’s invasion of Ukraine, and, even though it's supposed to be legal, they’re getting arrested anyway.
On Friday, in Rostov-on-Don, a major city in southern Russia, a court ordered the arrests of five solo protesters around the city. According to the Russian news outlet Kommersant, one protester received 10 days in jail and 30 hours of compulsory labor and another received 9 days in jail and 20 hours of compulsory labor. On Thursday, another Russian news outlet reported that riot police immediately dispersed and detained solo protesters in St. Petersburg. In Khabarovsk, a city in southeastern Russia, a man was arrested for picketing solo against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“What’s going on is they’re trying to prevent every act of protest in any possible way,” Dmitry Dubrovsky, a human rights expert at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg told Motherboard. “Because legally it’s absolutely OK to protest as a single person without permission.” Dubrovsky noted that protesters are receiving fines of roughly 15,000 rubles, or $178 USD, and jail time of up to 20 days.
Dubrovsky also noted that solo protests first developed in Russia because “it was extremely hard to get permission for public events. That’s why civil society substituted with different forms of public gatherings.”
Kevin Rothrock, an editor at a Russian news outlet, tweeted a photo of Sofya Rusova, co-chair of Russia’s Trade Union of Journalists, protesting solo with a sign that said “War with Ukraine is Russia’s disgrace.” “Anti-war solo pickets like this are popping up in cities across Russia,” Rothrock wrote. “It’s not much, but they’re arrested almost immediately, often upon leaving their homes when the cops know to expect them.”
Still, the authorities are not detaining all solo protesters. On Saturday, scientists in Akademgorodok, the academic capital of Siberia, staged solo protests against the war without being detained.
Dubrovsky, the human rights expert, says that Russian authorities have been cracking down on solo protests for years, and have developed different rationales for detaining solo protesters, by arguing that solo protesters aren’t actually alone either because they’re not maintaining the required 15 meters apart or because they’re organizing protests with others around a common cause. “Recently they invented the idea, if your protest has the same claim, for example protesting against the war, they consider it as a collective action without permission,” said Dubrovsky. “This happened today. They arrested and accused a person not for solo protest but just for participating in a protest that is covered by the same idea as other protests.”
Solo protests, though easy to miss, have a long history of drawing significant attention for their symbolism, the confrontations they spur, and the bravery of their subjects. Greta Thunberg’s activism against climate change began as a solo protest. Young people across the United States have protested alone in small towns and suburbs for Black Lives Matter in recent years. Earlier this year, 65-year-old democracy activist Alexandra Wong was arrested in Hong Kong as she staged a solo protest on the anniversary of the deadly 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square.
Dubrovsky added that originally solo protests were highly visible and impactful in Russia, but as the independent media has been dissolved, these protests attract less attention. “Currently, the regime is doing almost everything to make solo protests meaningless. We are losing all opportunity to say something to the world because we’re cut off from the media,” Dubrovsky said. “There’s almost no independent mass media. Civil rights activists are being threatened and detained.”