In the icy Yakutsk, in the Russian Far East, with temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius, in the Siberian Tomsk, in Moscow, where the closed streets prevented reaching the city center. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 60 Russian cities this Saturday in support of Alexei Navalni. The protesters have demanded the release of the opponent, arrested just after returning to Russia from Germany, where he recovered from the poison attack he suffered in August in Siberia. The security forces have detained more than 2,200 people, according to the specialized organization OVD-Info. Neither the cold nor the arrest these days of the main Navalni collaborators, or the threats from the authorities that the marches were prohibited have deterred the protests. The opposition’s allies have assured that despite the repressive wave, the mobilizations will continue, and they are preparing for a long-term fight against the Kremlin.
Marina, Sasha and Svetlana say that they are “tired” of the political and social repression in Russia. Fed up with high-level corruption. This Saturday is his first demonstration. They are not supporters of Navalni, but explain that they could no longer stand idly by. “It is a matter of principle, what is happening in Russia is scary”, highlights Sasha, 33 years old. Like her friends, she prefers not to give her last name for fear of retaliation in her work as an architect. “They arrest anyone who stands up to Putin or poison him. What will be next ”, asks Sasha in the Moscow march. With a red sign with the slogan “I am not afraid”, Viachesav Subaev explains that he is demonstrating for the future of Russia. “Corruption is intolerable and overwhelming. I love my country, I want to have children here, grow old here, ”he says. Until recently he was not interested in politics. He has never voted. The demonstrations on Saturday, which are sweeping across Russia as a challenge to the Kremlin at a time of economic recession and declining political and civil liberties, are the largest in years, analysts say.
Independent media estimate that some 110,000 people have participated in the unauthorized protests in different parts of Russia. They are the first mobilizations since a new package of laws was approved last December, which toughens fines for participating in an unauthorized event and further restricts the right to demonstrate in a country where it was already very limited. The Russian Interior Ministry has also assured this week that the demonstrations are “encouraged” from abroad.
“Freedom!”, Tens of thousands of people have chanted in the center of the Russian capital, encouraged by the drivers of the cars, who as they passed by the river of protesters honked their horns. “Putin, thief”, the citizens shouted trying to cover the sound of the loudspeakers of the police cars, which broadcast non-stop warnings about the illegality of the marches. In Pushkin Square, crowned by a statue of the writer and a regular meeting point for opposition demonstrations, the riot police, dressed in black and wearing helmets and shields, charged the protesters with truncheons and electric pistols. At another point in the march, several groups of protesters confronted police with snowballs, a rare sight in a country where demonstrations are eminently peaceful.
A few meters away, the police also took Yulia Naválnaya, the wife of the opponent, who is serving 30 days in provisional prison pending an upcoming court hearing that could sentence him to several years in prison. The opponent is accused of violating the terms of a controversial six-year conviction that had imposed him a suspended jail sentence and probation for failing to go to the corresponding reviews while he was in Germany, recovering from the attack with a neurotoxin for military use created in the former USSR. Naválnaya, who has said that her house has been under surveillance by the police since she returned with the opponent from Berlin, has been held for several hours.
Despite accumulating legal proceedings and a good number of arrests, in addition to vetoes to participate in elections, Navalni has woven a support network over the years that reaches the Russian provinces, where his anti-corruption organization has opened local offices. The opponent is invisible to the Russian state media, but his open, close and somewhat populist style and his presence on social networks have generated support especially among young people, especially in their twenties and thirties. And increasingly among adolescents, with whom he connects through his videos about the corruption of the Russian political and economic elite. Fearful that teenagers and new voters will join the ranks of Navalni supporters, the authorities this week carried out a major campaign to block messages calling for demonstrations on social networks such as TikTok, where videos supporting the opponent numbered in the hundreds. In addition, many universities have declared this Saturday as a class. Others have threatened their students with expulsion if they go to the marches. This Saturday, at the Moscow march, people in their 30s were in the majority, according to an independent media poll. Among those detained in the capital, a hundred minors and thirty informants who covered the marches.
In the center of Moscow, wearing a red star-shaped badge and a typical Russian hat, a man in his 60s who introduces himself as “Tovarich [camarada] Ivanov ”, says that he attended the demonstration with his colleagues from the Russian Revolutionary Labor Party (Trotskyists). Not so much for Navalni, he says, as against “the repression of the political opposition.” In front of them, vigilantes, a group of men from self-styled “citizen brigades” controlled the protesters and reported some protesters to the police.
In a video recorded by his lawyers and posted on his Instagram account, the opponent remarked on Friday “just in case” that he has no plans to kill himself or have “a sudden heart attack.” “My psychological and emotional state is completely stable,” said Navalni, who on Monday at the judicial hearing that the authorities improvised for him at the same police station where he was detained, called on Russian citizens to demonstrate. The opponent, who was in a coma for 20 days in a Berlin hospital due to the poisoning, attributes the attack to Russian President Vladimir Putin. A journalistic investigation, which used flight data and telephone records, has identified several of the alleged agents of the Russian secret services who poisoned the opponent in the Siberian city of Tomsk last August.
The 44-year-old activist is the most visible critic in the West against Putin. The 68-year-old Russian president has been in power for more than two decades and has changed the constitution to serve two more terms. Banned by the authorities from running in various elections, it is difficult to estimate the real support of Navalni, an openly nationalist politician who has become known for his anti-corruption work. On the only occasion he was allowed to put his name on a ballot, in the Moscow mayoral elections in 20013, he obtained 27% of his votes and finished second, just behind a Putin ally. The slap in the face for the Kremlin was great. And since then, Navalni has faced numerous court cases. In December, the authorities opened another trial, this time for large-scale fraud.
Amid the tide of people in Moscow, many cheered a group of girls proudly waving white toilet brushes. “They cost 1,000 euros, like the ones in Putin’s palace,” one joked. On Tuesday, with the opponent already in prison, his team published a powerful video about the supposed palace of Vladimir Putin, financed with fraudulent funds and as large as 39 times Monaco, with an ice rink, a church and even a pole dance hall. The investigation into that mansion in the Black Sea, whose video has accumulated more than 60 million views since Tuesday, has caused more mobilization.
Observers say the main concern for the Kremlin is whether these mobilizations can become an element of long-term resistance and mobilize more people before the parliamentary elections scheduled for September. The strength and sustainability of the protests will be a thermometer not only of Navalni’s strength, but they may also be decisive for the judicial process he faces.