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'Solitary Picket' Is One Of The Last Forms Of Legal Public Protest In Russia


In Russia, it's become dangerous to protest in public. Russians who want to complain about Vladimir Putin's government are rarely granted permission. If they protest anyway, they often end up in jail. But there is another way to protest in public. It's called the solitary picket. NPR's Lucian Kim reports.


LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: As Moscow's morning rush hour traffic roars past on the Garden Ring Road, Yelena Argunova stands alone in front of the Construction Ministry with a homemade sign. She's one of tens of thousands of Russians with who invested in housing developments that suddenly went bust. She's angry with the government for certifying a shady real estate developer and not keeping its promise to make sure the building is completed.

Argunova folds up her sign to talk to me because if the two of us are standing together with a placard, her solitary picket would technically turn into an illegal rally.

YELENA ARGUNOVA: (Through interpreter) Me, my husband, our parents - we're all working to pay for an apartment that's not getting built.

KIM: Argunova says she and her husband took out a mortgage and sold her grandmother's house and are now 3 1/2 million rubles in debt, or more than $50,000. She says the one-person picket is the only way of getting her message to the government.

ARGUNOVA: (Through interpreter) We can't make a mass protest like in America where people, if they're unhappy, go out with posters and horns so that everybody sees them. That's not allowed here. You need to ask permission for everything, and they won't give it to you.

KIM: Just like in the U.S., the Russian Constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly. But since the Russian Revolution a century ago, public protest has largely been stifled. There have been some exceptions. Fifty years ago, eight lone demonstrators went out on Red Square to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia. They faced various forms of punishment. Some were locked up in psychiatric hospitals. Decades later, the Communist system was brought down by hundreds of thousands of people peacefully taking to the streets of East Berlin, Prague and Moscow.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

KIM: But after Vladimir Putin was first elected president in 2000, the room for public protest got smaller and smaller.

LEV PONOMARYOV: (Through interpreter) The government is scared of street activism. They try to nip any small protests in the bud so they don't unite and turn into a mass demonstration.

KIM: Lev Ponomaryov is a veteran human rights activist who has organized dozens of protests. He says the authorities are breaking the law by banning rallies.

PONOMARYOV: (Through interpreter) If there's a conflict between the government and an individual, then the individual is always guilty. That's clearly part of the Soviet legacy. And under Putin, Soviet times are starting to return.

KIM: Back at our solitary picket in front of a Construction Ministry, Yelena Argunova is adamant.

ARGUNOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Argunova says she plans to continue her lonely protest until work on her unfinished building has resumed. Perhaps it's not been completely in vain. The Construction Ministry says it has spoken to protesters and is working on the problem. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.