About two dozen people, mostly journalists, were briefly detained at a protest in central Moscow, as wives and other relatives of Russian servicemen mobilised to fight in Ukraine called for their return, according to media reports.
The soldiers’ relatives gathered on Saturday to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, just outside the Kremlin walls. They marked 500 days since Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2022 ordered a “partial mobilisation” of up to 300,000 reservists in Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
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The call-up was widely unpopular and wives and relatives of some of the reservists have campaigned for them to be discharged and replaced with contract soldiers.
Saturday’s demonstration was organised by one such campaign group, The Way Home, that on Friday posted on Telegram calling on “wives, mothers, sisters and children” of reservists from across Russia to come to Moscow to “demonstrate [their] unity”.
“We want our husbands back alive,” one of the protesters, who only gave her name as Antonina for fear of reprisals, is heard saying in a video published by independent Russian news outlet SOTAvision.
Antonina insisted she does not want compensation from the Russian government if her husband is killed, and said she would instead “either go to a convent or follow him”.
Saturday’s demonstration was the ninth and largest of similar weekly gatherings organised by The Way Home. One popular Russian Telegram news channel estimated that some 200 people turned out.
The Reuters news agency reported that about 20 people were detained and then released at the protest, including a Reuters journalist who was covering the story and an AFP video journalist.
According to OVD-Info, an independent website that monitors political arrests in Russia, police detained 27 people during the protest, mostly journalists.
Police had detained the group of Russian and foreign reporters – all men – outside Red Square and took them to a police station.
According to SOTA, most were later released, although a male protester was still in detention on Saturday evening.
Additionally, a number of people were also detained at other locations in central Moscow, also protesting against the mobilisation, OVD-Info said.
Allies of jailed Kremlin foe Alexey Navalny and Russian opposition politician Maksim Kats voiced support for the protest on Friday, while the Moscow prosecutor’s office early on Saturday warned Russians not to participate in “unauthorised mass events”.
‘A great tragedy’
Calls from wives and relatives to bring mobilised Russian reservists home have been ignored by the state-controlled media, and some pro-Kremlin politicians have sought to cast them as Western stooges. Protesters on Saturday angrily rejected the accusation.
Maria Andreyeva, whose husband and brother are fighting in Ukraine, told SOTAvision that she saw the fighting in Ukraine as “a great tragedy that happened between two brotherly peoples”.
“Almost every Russian has relatives in Ukraine, close and distant, so … this is a situation that has struck us to the core. After the second world war, it seemed to us that our grandfathers died so that there would never be another [conflict],” Andreyeva said.
Saturday’s protest came weeks before the Russian presidential election, scheduled to take place in March, that Putin is all but assured to win.
After Andreyeva and others laid flowers at the monument, they headed to Putin’s campaign headquarters to present their demands to him.
Last month, another Russian presidential hopeful met with Andreyeva and other soldiers’ relatives campaigning for their return. Former local legislator Boris Nadezhdin, who openly opposes the war in Ukraine, criticised the Kremlin’s decision to keep them in the ranks as long as the fighting continues.
“We want [the authorities] to treat people who are doing their duty in a decent way,” Nadezhdin said.