MOSCOW — Opposition street politics in Russia are a numbers game, and there are two figures that matter.
The first is turnout. When opposition leader Alexei Navalny sparked one of the largest unsanctioned protests in years this March, the police (and then state television) said that just 8,000 people attended. Navalny claimed as many as 30,000.
The other figure that matters comes later: The number of protesters detained by police and thrown into “avtozaks,” Russian police vans bound for the precincts and city jails.
The number of detained, likely more than 1,000 (a single-day record for Moscow), was disputed, too. As always, the state played down the crackdown, while opposition leaders played it up.
Enter OVD-Info, a website whose founders described it at first as a “start-up” to monitor political oppression. For several years, it has served as a one-stop shop for digging up information on political prosecutions in Russia.
It got its start during big demonstrations against Vladimir Putin in December 2011, when Daniil Beylinson, a software engineer, and Grigory Okhotin, a journalist, decided they needed to monitor the hundreds of arrests being made by helmeted riot police. (OVD is shorthand for a police station in Russian.)
“We got tired of the police systematically understating the numbers of people being arrested,” Okhotin said in an interview at the group’s offices late last week, ahead of yet another protest (it yielded just several arrests in Moscow, but more than 100 in St. Petersburg). “We knew there were far more.”
OVD-Info is now run out of a one-room office in downtown Moscow with computer workstations and a large whiteboard for strategy-planning sessions. There are flourishes straight from the dorm room, such as a foosball-style hockey set that Beylinson brushed off a table at the beginning of a recent interview. After six years of monitoring, the team might be the country’s best repository of knowledge about arrests at demonstrations and ongoing prosecutions of opposition figures.
They say they are not tied to any opposition politicians, although, naturally, their work puts them at odds with the government. To put it another way: Not many pro-
Putin demonstrators are ending up in jail cells.
Their knowledge will likely be put to use as new protests spring up across Russia this summer. The demonstrations range from another planned rally by Navalny in June — ahead of a 2018 presidential election — to protests over housing demolitions in Moscow and a strike by truckers in several cities across Russia.
OVD-Info’s methods are fairly simple. Protesters often keep their phones when they are arrested by police, so they call the OVD hotline from the back of the police van. (Snapping selfies in police vans is also a popular pastime.) They tell OVD-Info how many people are with them, and coordinators work to create a larger picture of how many people have been arrested, taking down the names of those who are willing to go public. Lawyers are sent to the police precincts. The numbers are fine-tuned there, as lists of the arrested are published.
The process helps keep the police honest, they say, and prevents demonstrators from disappearing while in police custody.
“Of course, we use a lot of technology, but clearly turning this into some kind of app that works without us just isn’t possible,” Okhotin said. “We have 15 people. It’s serious work, 365 days a year.”
Their work has not gone unnoticed. On the morning of the Navalny protest, OVD-Info was hit with a massive cyberattack, Beylinson said, briefly knocking the site offline.
Over the years, the monitoring group has learned to identify subtle signs that arrests are planned: Police may be outfitted in heavy protective gear or with police dogs, or they may have removed any identification badges.
But the biggest correlation is that large protests also bring larger numbers of arrests. And it was not hard to guess why there were so many arrests in March, they said.
“That many people at a rally lacking a permit had to provoke a government response,” Okhotin said. “If there is no reaction, that means it’s allowed. And if it’s allowed, then more people will come out for the next protest.”
Beylinson worries that, to send a message, the government may initiate harsher prosecutions against protesters, most of them young people.
Meanwhile, an assailant doused Navalny with a bright green disinfectant days after the protest, an attack that the opposition leader said may have damaged his eyesight. A Russian television channel showed video of the attack with the assailants’ faces blurred.
OVD-Info was founded in 2011, during the “white-ribbon” protests, when longtime political opponents of Putin and niche protest groups were joined by white-collar workers for demonstrations in which nearly 100,000 people participated.
The rallies were sparked by accusations of vote rigging following parliamentary elections, then grew into protests against Putin, who began his second stint as president in 2012.
Okhotin and Beylinson both chased reports of arrests at police precincts on Dec. 5, 2011, the first day of the protests. By the next demonstrations, just five days later, which brought out tens of thousands to Bolotnaya Square, the two had a website, a method and an ethos.
“It was really important that there were real people behind the numbers,” Beylinson said.
Despite threats and cyberattacks, they have maintained a slightly dark sense of humor.
Their 2012 annual report was titled, “Our Man in the Paddy Wagon.”
“Oh no, we don’t work Saturdays,” joked Boris Beylinson, a member of the team, when asked by a reporter whether they would be covering upcoming demonstrations.
And as for the protests? OVD-Info just calls them “holidays.”