Photographs from Moscow’s youth-led protests
After shooting the protest, photographer Gosha Bergal discusses the beginning of a new chapter for Russia.
From Uganda to Tunisia, protests against corrupt governments are being spearheaded by young people across the world right now. In Russia, it was the arrest of Alexei Navalny — Putin's most outspoken critic and political opponent — that galvanised thousands to take to its streets this weekend.
From St. Petersburg to the Far East and Siberia, the scale of these anti-Putin protests has been labelled, like so many things recently, “unprecedented”. In Moscow alone, a reported 40,000 protestors congregated on its central Pushkin Square. Photos quickly began circulating of a violent response from police, and across the whole country, at least 3000 are said to have been arrested.
For photographer Gosha Bergal, who has been documenting anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow since 2011, such a day has been a long time coming. "Over the past few years, the authorities have been preparing for protests, strengthening the internal troops and police," he says the evening of the protest.
The photographer explains that frustration with Putin's autocratic rule has reached a boiling point among young Russians, with Navalny's success reflecting a deep desire for a new Russia. "Over the years, the opposition in Russia has been literally killed,” he says. “People are almost accustomed to the fact that it is impossible to change something in this country; many do not vote in elections. But thanks in part to Alexei Navalny, other opposition bloggers, and the internet, a new wave of socially active citizens has emerged among young people."
He continues: "Imagine 20 year olds who have lived their entire lives under the Putin regime. They grew up looking at a huge social gap, corruption, lawlessness of the police, and how the authorities openly steal money from citizens. Wages are falling steadily, and prices are rising. They see the only way is to protest."
Gosha was stationed on Pushkin Square with his camera and shot a series of images for i-D that demonstrate the violence these protests descended into. "I can only judge what I saw with my own eyes," he says. "At first, everything was calm, but the police walked among the crowd and grabbed random people. The police ran into the crowd in groups, beat people with truncheons, and arrested. At some point, people fought back. The OMON [riot police] reinforcements arrived, I felt tear gas in the air, people began to retreat, and the OMON in several groups attacked the protesters. People threw snowballs, bottles, fought with the riot police. Everyone was dispersed from the square in about two hours. The protesters scattered around the city. The detentions in the centre of Moscow continued until late in the evening."
Despite the chaos, and the Kremlin’s attempts to downplay the significance and scale of the protests, Gosha articulates the overwhelming hopefulness felt on the ground. “Today, I saw how, despite the real prison terms, people took to the streets and fought for their rights against the regime," he says. "I believe this is the beginning of a new wave of protests. Russia will be free!"
Photography Gosha Bergal