Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, in a courthouse nestled amid high-rise apartment blocks in south-west Moscow, nine men are marched into a room in handcuffs and placed in metal cages. They are joined by three others who are also on trial but under house arrest or on bail, two dozen lawyers, several armed policemen with a growling alsatian and an irritable, fatigued judge.
This is the biggest of the “Bolotnaya” trials – court processes against 28 people who were arrested in the aftermath of a rally on Bolotnaya Square on 6 May 2012. It was the day before Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for a new presidential term, and the crowds chanted slogans demanding new elections and a less corrupt government. A year-and- a-half later, the protest movement has been extinguished, though it lingers in the consciousness of Moscow’s middle classes, and Putin has embarked on a more socially conservative path to consolidate his support in the heartlands.
The arrests were a warning that Putin would not tolerate the huge protests that preceded his re-election and heralded a crackdown. Among those protesting was charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was later put on trial in the city of Kirov on embezzlement charges that few found persuasive.