Why Moscow's Man in the Vladimir Putin Mask Wants to Go to Jail

Roman Roslovtsev
Roman Roslovtsev prepares for another stroll in front of the Kremlin, wearing his trademark Vladimir Putin mask. He has been detained by police nine times so far for his simple act of activism. Facebook/Roman Roslovtsev

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. But in Russia, the real hardships fall on the head wearing a Vladimir Putin mask. One man knows this better than anyone.

Over the last few months, Roman Roslovtsev has been detained nine times for an offense he describes as "absurd." Now, when he stands in front of the Kremlin sporting a rubber mask of the Russian president's face and holding a poster saying "I do not fear 212.1," he expects to be met by police.

Several times Roslovtsev has been stopped and taken away within moments of stepping into Red Square. His offense, say authorities, is the violation of Russia's laws on what kinds of protests are acceptable. The cause he is protesting: the very punishment that keeps others from protesting.

Born and raised in Moscow, the 36-year-old is an accountant by trade and was taking a course in theology until the institute he was attending closed in 2013. While not an overtly political person, he says, when the crisis in Ukraine erupted three months later, Roslovtsev felt solidarity with Kiev's pro-European Euromaidan protest movement.

"I saw it as the people fighting for their own rights, and I supported them," he tells Newsweek. "I have actively participated in protests since."

But a recent and controversial change to Russian law is designed to curb opposition protests by threatening demonstrators with up to five years in jail, even for peaceful gatherings.

The new legislation adds muscle to Russia's already stringent protest laws. Since 2014, the country's criminal code has included Article 212.1, which allows repeat offenders of regulations on protest to be jailed for up to five years. Amnesty International has labelled the law "draconian" while Human Rights Watch has said it is an attempt to "criminalize public criticism."

Opposition groups in Russia have repeatedly complained about the seemingly arbitrary reasons cited to break up peaceful protests. But in December 2015, activist Ildar Dadin became the first person to be jailed solely for repeatedly protesting against the government.

Roslovtsev's protest is against Article 212.1 specifically, and he believes the Putin mask is the best way to draw attention to the banner he carries. His goal is to demonstrate the law's unfairness by getting detained enough times for authorities to qualify his activity as criminal and jail him for essentially wearing a mask and holding a poster.

"My family has a negative attitude toward my protest activity," says Roslovtsev, who's not married and has no children.

"My mother is always begging me not to protest because she does not approve and she worries for me," he says. "My brother also does not approve of it, because he supports the government and believes that those like me ought to end up in jail."

Moscow authorities have warned Roslovtsev to refrain from his activism. Last week, after yet another detention during one of his masked strolls, he was slapped with another $220 fine and his mask was confiscated.

"According to a court ruling, my mask will be destroyed by law enforcement officials," Roslovtsev says. "Basically, it seems I can only use one mask per protest, after which it will be taken away and destroyed."

With the government targeting him as a troublemaker and, he says, planning to put him in jail soon, will Roslovtsev continue with his protests? "Yes, of course," he says. "I will buy a new mask every time."