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Roman Vs Kremlin: On the Frontlines of Russia's Opposition Movement

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In December 2011 Russia began to witness its greatest wave of protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. Protesters took to the streets in response to widespread allegations of fraud in the parliamentary elections. The anti-government protests have not stopped.

After serving a four-year hiatus as prime minister, Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in April 2012 for a third term. He could now be in power until 2024.

Putin tried to shrug off the initial protests. With a smirk, he said he thought the white ribbons protesters wore on their lapels were condoms for some HIV awareness campaign. Putin enjoys large scale support in Russia but in spite of this, the rapid spate of draconian new laws since his return to power suggest the Kremlin is rattled.

Unsanctioned acts of protest now face a fine of up to $9000, the equivalent of an annual national salary. Defamation laws have been reintroduced. Organisations that receive any foreign funding are now categorised as 'foreign agents'. An ominous legal redefinition of treason is in the works. Hardly a week goes by when we do not hear of criminal charges brought against members of the fledgling opposition movement.

This summer I was tasked with making a film in Russia for the Al Jazeera series, Activate, which follows grassroots activists across the world as they fight for their rights. In Russia we wanted to follow a pro-democracy activist on the frontlines of the opposition movement.

I got in touch with Roman Dobrokhotov, who describes himself as a civil rights activist struggling to protect the rights and freedoms prescribed in the Russian Constitution.

Roman has a colourful history of being a thorn in the side of the authorities. He estimates he has been arrested 120 times for his actions, although he lost count long ago.

I first heard of Roman when he heckled former president Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin about changes to the Constitution in 2008. He reappeared on my radar in April of this year: soon after the Pussy Riot girls' imprisonment for their 'Punk Prayer' in a Moscow cathedral, Roman tried to stage a traditional mass prayer in the same place, praying for Russia's deliverance from Putin. He was arrested before he could enter the cathedral. He was beaten up by a gang of thugs on his way home after his release from police custody.

Another activist involved in the attempted mass prayer at the cathedral was Maria Baronova. Filming with Maria, she explained how she used to be a successful chemist but felt she could no longer ignore what she saw happening to her country, and so she became a political activist.

In this bit of footage, you can see Maria reciting Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, to a wall of police on the eve of Putin's re-inauguration. She was accused of provoking mass disorder that same day and is currently awaiting trial.

A week after filming was scheduled to have ended, it was Putin's 60th birthday. Across the country Putin supporters unveiled tributes and gifts, including a mountain named after him in North Ossetia and an art exhibition in Moscow entitled 'President, The Kindest Man'.

A handful of opposition activists decided they would also like to express themselves on the president's birthday. They staged an action entitled 'Let's Send Granddad Into Retirement'. Since sixty is the official retirement age in Russia, they would try to take symbolic retirement gifts to the presidential administration.

I flew back to Moscow and met Roman at his flat. We drank an Armagnac. He made a toast to freedom. I hope you will watch the film to see what happened next, suffice to say the police served to prove Roman's point about the current state of civil liberties in Russia.

Roman v Kremlin is part of Activate, a documentary series on Al Jazeera English. Airing from 15 October, every Monday at 22:30GMT
Also available to watch online at www.aljazeera.com/programmes/activate