They’ve been beaten, arrested and even been threatened with losing custody of their children.
Yet thousands of Russians will once again take to the streets of Moscow on Saturday in growing demands for free and fair elections, a grassroots movement spurred on by a techno duo, a rapper named Face and a YouTuber who is teaching his fellow citizens about the legacy of Stalinist repression.
The vote, for Moscow’s city council, has historically been a local and low-key affair but this year has become a flashpoint for pro-democracy activists protesting against President Vladimir Putin’s government.
The Moscow city council, which has 45 seats, is responsible for a large municipal budget and is now controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. All of its seats, which have a five-year-term, are up for grabs in the September 8 vote.
The vote, though local, is seen as a dry run for a national parliamentary election in 2021.
The candidates, or rather those the Kremlin is preventing from being candidates, are at the heart of the protests.
Sixteen people, all of whom oppose the government, have been barred from standing in the Moscow city council election.
One of those is 31-year-old Lyubov Sobol, who last month warned Russian authorities to allow a free and fair election or face weekly street protests and rising discontent.
The authorities say they are not allowing Sobol and her colleagues to take part because they failed to collect enough genuine signatures of support, a condition of being registered.
Sobol and the others say that’s a lie and insist they are being excluded because they actually stand a chance of winning.
On 24 June, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, was arrested and jailed after calling for a start to the protests.
In a short video on social media, Navalny said he was seized by police outside his home as he went out for a run and to buy flowers for his wife’s birthday.
His lawyer said he had been charged with organising an unauthorised gathering, and faced a penalty of 30 days in jail and a fine of up to 300,000 rubles (£3,800).
A few days after he was detained, Navalny was rushed to a hospital with a suspected allergy attack, although his doctor raised suspicions of a possible poisoning.
The protest went ahead regardless on the 27 June.
A chants of “Russia without Putin” and “Putin resign” echoed through central Moscow that Saturday, protestors were met with baton and pepper spray-wielding police who arrested more than 1,000 of them.
Dozens were injured and at least one woman and a man appeared to have suffered serious head wounds, Reuters reported. Activists said the crackdown was the harshest since a wave of anti-Kremlin protests in 2011-12.
An image from the protest of a teenage girl sitting in front of riot police with the Russian constitution on her lap went viral – viewed by many as a metaphor for young people’s disillusionment with politics in the nation.
It would also emerge in the week after that a couple who attended the march with their one-year-old son would be prosecuted for abusing their parental responsibilities and now face having their child taken from them.
A week later more than 800 people were detained during a second march with Sobol removed from a taxi and bundled into a van minutes before the start.
Authorities have opened criminal proceedings for what they term mass civil unrest, an offence punishable with up to 15 years in jail.
And in another blow to Navalny, Russian investigators opened a criminal investigation into the alleged laundering of one billion rubles ($15.3 million) by his anti-corruption foundation.
Navalny and his allies say the foundation, which has published a slew of embarrassing investigations into government officials, is transparently financed from public donations.
The next protest
The Kremlin’s use of force and detention has not put a halt to the protests.
Although they have rejected protesters’ complaints, authorities said they’ll allow protests in Moscow on Saturday and Sunday this weekend, albeit in a location away from the city centre which the opposition has rejected in the past.
Just how large the protests have become was underscored when one of Russia’s most popular YouTubers, Yury Dud, appealed to his millions of followers to take part.
Organisers have also booked techno duo IC3PEAK and rapper Face, both well-known oppositionists, to perform.
President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have not commented on the standoff with the opposition, but Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin ally, has condemned the protests as cynically orchestrated mass disorder.
The Kremlin this week was accusing western countries of interfering and encouraging the protests.
On Friday, Russia accused the US Embassy of having meddled in internal affairs when it published a map online showing the route of an unauthorised anti-government protest earlier this month.
And on Thursday German media outlet Deutsche Welle was accused of calling on Russians to take part in the protests, and was warned Moscow would take action against the outlet under domestic law if it made such calls again.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it had told a German diplomat that calls made by Deutsche Welle were “unacceptable”.
The bigger picture
In March 2018, Putin won a landslide re-election victory and the mandate to stay in office until 2024, but independent observers alleged widespread fraud and ballot stuffing.
Russia’s constitution declares the country a democratic state but experts such as The Economist Intelligence Unit class it as “authoritarian”.
Putin has held power for nearly two decades and balancing the veneer of a democracy whilst keeping a tight grip on the country is a tricky job.
In the 2000s, Putin was helped by a rise in living standards fulled by a major boom in oil prices and controversial decisions such as the annexation of Crimea are seen as, in part, a strategic move to boost his approval ratings.
But there are only so many popular wars Russia can wage and oil and gas prices remain low so how Putin tries to deal with the latest protests, beyond using brute force, remains to be seen.