In an impressive show of force against President Vladimir Putin, thousands of Russians faced freezing temperatures and took to the streets on Saturday to protest the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalni.
According to testimonies from organizers and regional media, the acts reached dozens of major cities in several Russian regions.
As they were not allowed to perform, they were dispersed by the police with varying degrees of violence – until 3:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. in Brasilia) there were 863 prisoners according to the human rights NGO. OVD-Info.
“I also did not expect so many people. And so many police officers,” said Ivan Stepanov, an activist with the Navalni Anti-Corruption Fund who spoke with the Moscow Messages application report. until he stops responding – it is not known if he was arrested.
Videos showed officers from the dreaded Russian riot police Omon, arresting a 14-year-old boy who was quietly giving an interview in Púchkin Square, a traditional meeting place in central Moscow. The group began to cross the capital and Navalni’s fiancee, Iulia, was one of the detainees.
Due to the 11 time zones of the world’s largest country, an appetizer from the wave of protests began to be seen for the first time in Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia. The crackdown, judging by social media videos, has been particularly brutal in the city, home to the Kremlin’s Pacific Fleet.
Coming west, to Khabarovsk (Siberia), a city that has been living with anti-Kremlin protests since 2020 due to the local governor’s impeachment, around 2,000 people were dispersed by shock troops.
One detail that catches the eye is that Russia is going through a difficult winter. In Yakutsk, known as the world’s coldest city, at least 1,500 people took to the streets and dozens were arrested, in a temperature of minus 52 degrees Celsius.
The same has been observed in places like Yekaterinburg (Urals, the center of the country), where 10,000 people demonstrated at minus 30 degrees Celsius. In Ufa, also in the Urals, protesters clashed with police with snowballs.
There was repression, as in Novosibirsk, Chelyabinsk and Krasnoyarsk, Siberian cities. In Irkustk (Siberia), the central square was full, but it emptied without violence.
The demonstration is a warning to the Kremlin. Navalni returned home last Sunday (17), 150 days after being poisoned in the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he helped file cases against the local Kremlin party leader who would run in the September elections. There, moreover, 2,000 people demonstrated this Saturday.
He was treated in Berlin, where doctors claimed to have found the famous Russian secret service poison Novichok (novice) in his body.
Navalni directly accused Putin and then released the recording of a prank call he made to one of the FSB (Federal Security Service) agents identified as the perpetrators of the attack – in him, the The spy thinks he’s talking to a superior and admits to putting poison in the activist’s underwear in the hotel room.
The Kremlin denies any involvement, and Putin joked at the end of the year that if Russia had wanted to kill Navalni, it would have done so.
Despite the contempt, the Kremlin did not hesitate to see Navalni arrested as soon as he arrived at passport control in Moscow – not until his flight was diverted to another airport, to avoid confusion with supporters.
He is officially accused of violating the terms of his probation – he was sentenced to jail for commuted fraud in 2014, what he calls judicial harassment. Although theoretically independent, Russian justice is generally aligned with the Kremlin.
Navalni can now face 3.5 years in prison and has called for the protest for this Saturday. It’s a risky tactic, considering he’s not a popular figure in Russia.
Research by the Levada Center, an independent public opinion institute, showed that in November, only 2% of Russians would vote for Navalni for the presidency, and only 4% supported his cause.
Like other Putin opponents over the years, such as chess player Garry Kasparov, his image is more polished in the West than in his own country.
“But he’s doing something that others haven’t done, and that’s finding out what’s bothering people,” says Levada’s social studies director Alexei Levinson.
He thinks Navalni is successful in talking about the issues that bother Russians during Putin’s two decades in power: corruption and the fossilization of politics.
The activist’s bet is as follows: channel dissatisfaction, even if it is obviously not known what he would do if he really gained more power, given that his platform is unique: to fight Putin, of which he was. even perceived as an unwitting pawn, for having acted files against members of the government, in palace intrigues.
Blogger and lawyer, Navalni appeared in the public arena during protests against Putin in 2012. The following year, he ran for mayor in Moscow and amassed 27%.
But it was in 2017 that he appeared to the world, ordering via the internet the call for a day of demonstrations that brought together thousands of people in the streets of Russia, many young people like the boy arrested this Saturday in Moscow.
Due to legal charges, he was barred from running against Putin in 2018. He then switched to a political tactic: favoring any candidacy at the regional level contrary to United Russia, the regime’s party.
He achieved significant symbolic successes in the local elections of 2019 and 2020, and his return to Russia was seen as preparation for the shock of the parliamentary elections in September.
The Kremlin, for all its rhetoric, has left no room for surprises and has also criticized what it calls foreign interference, with several countries calling for Navalni’s release. The new US president, Joe Biden, took a bite: he agreed to renew a nuclear deal with Moscow, but opened an investigation into the Navalni affair.
In addition to arresting Navalni and his allies like his spokesperson Kira Iarmich, those for promoting acts without authorization on Saturday, the Russian government attacked the heart of Navalni’s operation: the internet.
On Friday (22), he blocked the disclosure of “political content for minors” from the popular TikTok application and on VKontakte, Russian Facebook.
In addition, he fined 250,000 rubles (R $ 18,000) Liubov Sobol, one of the leaders of the Navalni fund, for Saturday’s acts. She was arrested in the early afternoon in Moscow, alongside the famous blogger Ilia Varlamov.
Arrested, Navalni released a video Friday saying he had no intention of killing himself in the cell, a subtle little message.
And to maintain the tradition, his fund posted a dossier on YouTube with suspicion of spending $ 1.4 billion for a Putin-attributed mansion on the Black Sea – which had 50 million visits on the first day of the antenna.
The play promoted one of the symbols of this Saturday’s acts: a toilet brush, an object carried by several demonstrators. According to the video, Putin’s alleged palace has brushes that cost 62,000 rubles (R $ 4,500) each.