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Police Violence A Kick In The Gut To Kremlin Efforts To Tamp Down Protests

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If it wasn't obvious from the heavy police presence and official warnings about how the Kremlin would respond to anti-government protests across Russia, the sound of an OMON officer's swift kick to Margarita Yudina's stomach and her pained screams as her head hit the pavement helped provide clarity.

The violence employed by Russian security forces against the 54-year-old St. Petersburg resident was far from an isolated incident -- thousands of protesters were rounded up and taken into custody, and there were scores of images showing police taking a heavy-handed approach to tamp down the largest anti-government protests in Russia in years.

But none captured the moment like the short clip showing Yudina stepping in the path of three riot police as they led a young protester away in central St. Petersburg, one of many cities nationwide where Russians had risked assembling in groups to protest the jailing of opposition politician and staunch Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny.

WARNING: Viewers May Find The Images In This Video Distressing

"Why did you grab him?" Yudina asked as she stepped into Nevsky Prospect, the city's main thoroughfare, with the OMON officers in full riot gear several meters away.

"Get out of the way!" came the reply, with one emphasizing the point in stride with a boot to her stomach.

The force of the blow caused Yudina to double over and fly backward, striking her head on the pavement and reportedly leaving her unconscious and in intensive care to treat a skull injury.

Russian officials were quick to go into crisis-management mode as they attempted to touch up the bad image left by the video as it spread quickly on the Internet.

The local Interior Ministry branch promised an investigation into the incident, while state-friendly media outlets were flooded with audio published by the Telegram channel Mash of a local police official apologizing to Yudina during a visit to her hospital room.

"These are not our methods; this is not our system!" Colonel Sergei Muzika, head of the ministry branch's department for protecting public order, can be heard saying. "We stand guard over law and order."

The further aftermath of the incident also caused controversy, with government critics voicing skepticism about the narrative of apology and forgiveness that played out in reports from media organizations close to the state.

Kremlin-friendly REN-TV showed footage in which Yudina appeared to be pleased with the flowers brought to her hospital room on January 24, reportedly by the unidentified officer who took responsibility for kicking her.

Explaining that he was suffering from the effects of being tear-gassed and a fogged-up helmet visor, the masked officer is seen in REN-TV footage saying that he "did not see what was happening" and that when he found out what had happened to her he took it as a "personal tragedy."

In a short video clip seemingly filmed shortly before she left the hospital, Yudina told a reporter from a local TV channel that she had forgiven her attacker "because I understand that our young people are in a difficult situation," adding, "I do not hold grudges. I am an Orthodox [Christian]. I forgive everything."

Some pro-Kremlin commenters were touched by the apologetic tone taken by the authorities, with one suggesting on Telegram that this was "commendable" and suggesting that Yudina had essentially rushed into the path of a tank.

But in separate comments later to independent Russian media outlets, Yudina said that she wanted to establish the identity of the officer who kicked her, that such actions "should be punishable," and that she would support what she said were efforts by an NGO to convince the authorities to conduct an investigation.

"I realized [later] that they had somehow deceived me," she said of the police who had come to seek her forgiveness, adding that she had been "in shock" and that after her memory of the incident improved, she no longer believed that her attacker had been tear-gassed. Police should have questioned her as the victim of an attack rather than seeking her forgiveness, she suggested.

"It's not about forgiving or not forgiving," she told Dozhd TV on January 25. "It's not about me personally. What's important is that it's necessary to prevent such actions by police, so that they do not happen again and so that police finally do what they are supposed to do: protect society from criminals and not protect those who are speaking out against criminals."

Yudina told another news outlet that the police had sought her forgiveness "all day" and that she eventually gave it. "But now I think I should have said: 'When all the political prisoners are released and Aleksei Navalny too, then I will forgive.'"

Incredulous Observers

Observers both inside and outside Russia were critical of the police effort to seek forgiveness.

Dmitry Aleshkovsky, co-founder of the media organization Takiye Dela, expressed bewilderment that the use of violence could be so easily forgiven with an apology.

"What, so this was possible?" he wrote on Twitter, alluding to protesters who were jailed on what they said were fabricated charges of violence against police at an anti-government demonstration on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration to a third presidential term in 2012 and rallies related to Moscow elections in 2019.

"The prisoners of Bolotnaya and those who received sentences for the Moscow Case, should they just ask forgiveness and give flowers to the riot police?"

Despite obvious evidence to the contrary and media estimates that more than 100,000 people protested nationwide, state and state-friendly media have pushed the Kremlin narrative that the rallies on January 23 drew minimal crowds.

'The Government Wanted Violence'

In Moscow, city officials claimed that just 4,000 people took to the streets in support of Navalny -- the Kremlin critic who was arrested upon his return to Russia on January 17 after receiving treatment abroad for a near-deadly poisoning in Siberia that he blames on the Federal Security Service and Putin himself -- while Reuters reported its own tally of about 40,000. Nationwide, the OVD-Info group, which tracks police actions, reported that more than 3,700 people were detained for participating in the banned mass demonstrations.

The level of violence was high, with videos showing police beating protesters with truncheons and some demonstrators pelting police with snowballs and in some cases fighting with officers.

The heavy-handed response to the protests -- which were unsanctioned because rallies of more than one person are not allowed in Russia without official permission -- have drawn condemnation from the United States and other Western countries.

Nongovernmental organizations, too, were sharply critical of Russia's actions, with some suggesting they could further stoke anti-government sentiment.

"Ultimately this repression of basic human rights only galvanizes people and deepens their grievances," Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said on January 25.

And Kremlin critics within Russia also suggested that events had played out as planned.

"It is clear that the government wanted violence, the government provoked violence, from my point of view, and the government is obviously preparing a repressive response for the near future," opposition politician and political scientist Leonid Gozman told Current Time in a video interview on January 24.

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