By candlelight this Sunday (14), which celebrates Valentine’s Day in Russia and dozens of other countries, supporters of Alexei Navalni, the main name of the opposition to President Vladimir Putin, staged acts of protest despite warnings that they could be arrested.
After police arrested thousands of people in recent weeks during protests against Navalni’s arrest, his allies took to the streets at least until early next month, but called on the Russians to light up candles – or their cell phones – forming heart designs in the backyards for 15 minutes on Sunday evenings.
On social media, many people posted pictures of themselves with flashing lights across Russia. Despite the symbolism of the act, the vigils were mostly small and sporadic, unlike the huge protests which angered the Kremlin.
“Putin is fear. Navalni is love. That’s why we are going to win,” Leonid Volkov, one of his opponent’s close allies, wrote on Twitter in a call for people to meet on Sunday.
He asked people to flood the platform with photos of his protests using a hashtag in Russian that can translate to “love is stronger than fear.”
In Moscow and St. Petersburg, militant groups have formed human chains in the afternoon since Sunday to show support for Navalni’s wife, Iulia Navalnaia, and other women affected by police repression against the demonstrators. Despite the intense cold, the acts involved more than 100 women in the center of the Russian capital and a little less than that of St. Petersburg.
Russian officials have said since last week that people who participate in unauthorized gatherings can face criminal charges. Although the government alleges a risk of coronavirus contamination to ban the actions of opponents, activists and human rights groups accuse police of using disproportionate force to quell protests.
Downplaying Navalni’s influence on the Russian political scene, Putin said the thousands of people who have taken to the streets in recent weeks were motivated by “fatigue” caused by the pandemic.
“This defendant is being used precisely while the fatigue of people is showing up all over the world, including in our country,” the president said, referring to Navalni without citing him by name. According to him, “irritation has built up” and people have used the opponent as an outlet for their anger at the authorities.
Navalni was poisoned in August 2020 and directly accused Putin of the assassination attempt. He was treated in Berlin, where doctors claimed to have found the famous Russian secret service poison Novichok in his body.
Next, Navalni released the recording of a prank call he gave to one of the FSB (Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB) agents named as the perpetrators of the attack – in him, the The spy thinks he’s talking to a superior and admits to putting poison in his 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.
Navalni was arrested upon his return to Russia on January 17. He is formally accused of violating the terms of his probation – he was sentenced to a commuted prison sentence for fraud in 2014, in an action he calls judicial harassment. Although nominally independent, the Russian judiciary is generally aligned with the Kremlin.
Earlier this month, the activist was ordered to serve another two years and eight months in prison in a penal colony.
Blogger and lawyer, Navalni appeared in public during protests against Putin in 2012. The following year, he ran for mayor in Moscow and won a whopping 27% of the vote.
But it was in 2017 that he appeared to the world, commanding via the Internet the call for a day of protests that united thousands of people in the streets of Russia. Due to legal proceedings, he was not allowed to appear against Putin in 2018.
He then moved on to a tactic within politics: to favor 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. Now, with him in prison, his wife, Iulia Navalnaia, is expected to gain prominence against Putin.