RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin hoped to win the world’s respect with his staging of the Winter Olympics. But a ruler who does not respect his own people will never be truly respected. One day after the Olympics ended, Mr. Putin showed, with the sentencing of eight protesters in Moscow, that he fears his people more than he respects them.
The protesters took part in a demonstration at Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, the day before Mr. Putin’s inauguration. They now face imprisonment for the crime of expressing their opinions. What is striking is that the objects of Mr. Putin’s repression this time are not leaders but ordinary people, selected from the demonstration apparently at random. As in Soviet times, the law is used in an arbitrary and capricious way.
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Russia is not the Soviet Union. Russians are not imprisoned as the Soviet people were; they enjoy personal liberties, including the freedom to travel, and the opulence of today’s Moscow is a world away from the dreary Soviet capital. But the sentencing of the Bolotnaya protesters carries a haunting reminder of past repression. On Aug. 25, 1968, days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the crushing of the Prague Spring, eight people dared to protest in Red Square. They were arrested, and most were tried and sentenced to prison.
What’s the difference between then and now? Today’s Russian Federation professes to uphold constitutional guarantees of human rights and dignity. The words are in Article 29 of the Russian constitution: “Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of ideas and speech.” It does not say that everyone shall agree with the president. It does not say that those who protest the president shall be imprisoned. But two decades after its adoption, that constitution is fraying under Mr. Putin’s rule.
The protest in Bolotnaya Square began peacefully, but there were scuffles, rock-throwing and confrontations with police. Hundreds of people were detained at first, then released, after which authorities arrested 29 people on charges of rioting. Most of those charged were either rank-and-file activists or just caught up in the chaos that day. Some of those accused seemed to have been picked at random. There is only one well-known opposition figure among them, Sergei Udaltsov.
The judge sentenced seven of the eight defendants to terms of 2½ to four years in prison. The eighth was given a suspended sentence. More people were detained outside the court for protesting the sentences, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
There is no better way to understand the Bolotnaya sentences than with the words of Stella Anton, the mother of defendant Denis Lutskevich. Fighting tears on the courthouse steps, she told the New York Times, “Why did they sentence him? To frighten people, so that they won’t go to demonstrations, so that they won’t protest, to put them on their knees and so they’ll put up with everything that’s happening in the country.”