Police in Russia’s capital detained several hundred protesters Wednesday, a day after the authorities freed an investigative journalist who was jailed on trumped-up drug charges.

Wednesday’s protest had been scheduled to call for the freedom of Ivan Golunov, a reporter for news outlet Meduza who insisted that drugs had been planted on him when he was detained last week. Even though officials dropped the charges against Golunov on Tuesday after an unprecedented public outcry, more than 1,000 people still took to Moscow’s streets to highlight the injustice they say an untold number of less well-known Russians face.

The tough police response suggested that the Kremlin was determined to keep public dissent in check despite Tuesday’s striking reversal.

City officials didn’t authorize the rally. While the hundreds of police officers initially allowed the protesters to gather, they began detaining people as the crowd started to walk along central Moscow’s Boulevard Ring toward police headquarters on Petrovka Street. 

Two hours into the protest, police said they had arrested more than 200 out of 1,200 protesters, according to the Interfax news agency. OVD-Info, a group that monitors detentions, later said more than 420 people had been detained.

Those taken included journalists from leading Russian news outlets and the opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Video footage showed officers carrying some people by their arms and legs.


Russian riot police detain a participant of a protest supporting arrested and now released journalist Ivan Golunov in Moscow, June 12, 2019. (Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

“The authorities got terribly scared of the incredible and unanimous show of solidarity in the Golunov case,” said a post on Navalny’s Twitter account shortly after he was detained. “It’s important for them to destroy overall solidarity and then scare those who remain.” 

Some people were later released without incident, while others were let go only after having police reports drawn up against them for violating the law on public gatherings. Navalny faced up to 30 days in jail, his spokeswoman said, for allegedly organizing Wednesday’s protest — even though he was not among the official organizers.

Some protesters, such as Elena Eshleman, a 42-year-old masseuse, held up signs saying “I/We Are Ivan Golunov.” The text has been popping up on T-shirts and across the Internet ever since three major Russian newspapers used it in matching front-page headlines Monday.

“I’m here for all the people who don’t have the support that Ivan Golunov got,” Eshleman said. “This hammer can fall on anyone.”

Golunov was freed Tuesday after five days of outrage from Russia’s media community, with even pro-Kremlin journalists voicing doubts over police actions and star entertainers calling for justice. He was detained in Moscow last Thursday and charged with drug possession with the intent to sell, a crime that could have landed Golunov in prison for more than 10 years. 

Golunov and his editors insisted he had been framed as punishment for his articles, which uncovered official corruption. In a stunning retreat, Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev announced Tuesday that Golunov would be freed from house arrest and that he would seek the dismissal of two top Moscow police officials. 

It was a virtually unprecedented instance of the authorities reversing a criminal case in the face of public pressure. Rights activists say that people at odds with the authorities are often locked up on trumped-up drug convictions across the country. State-run television channels reported extensively on Tuesday’s change of heart and cast it as evidence of the rule of law functioning in President Vladi­mir Putin’s Russia. 

Rallygoers also called for the punishment of those who tried to frame Golunov. After he walked free Tuesday, Golunov said he did not plan to attend the rally held in his name.

“I need to recover a bit,” Golunov said. “I hope that the investigation continues, and I hope that no one will find themselves in the same situation as I did.‘”

Wednesday was also a national holiday — Russia Day. Putin’s spokesman said Tuesday that he hoped Muscovites would not mar the celebrations by participating in an unauthorized protest. Golunov went unmentioned when Putin spoke at a Kremlin reception held at the same time as the protest, a mile away.

“Raising citizens’ quality of life and well-being is our most important joint task and goal,” Putin said. “We must work for it with our full strength and achieve results that are felt by every citizen of Russia.”