The mass of protesters started gathering at the Pantheon around 11 AM yesterday. The skies threatened them with an angry downpour, which never came to pass. Age-wise, they were an assorted bunch; from parents with toddlers to students to the elderly. Country-wise, they were from all over the world; from Germany to Russia, from Belarus to Ukraine, all united in one cry that echoed time and again: Svobodu Naval’nomu! Freedom to Navalny!
Alexey Navalny is a Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist who was recently detained upon his return to Russia. He came to international prominence by blowing the lid off the wide-spread, systematic corruption commonplace in the Russian state. Having been extremely vocal about his reformist ideas, it is safe to say that he has more than annoyed President Putin and his group of oligarch buddies. The Wall Street Journal even went on to call him “the man Vladimir Putin fears the most”.
If someone describes you in that manner, you’re extremely lucky to still be alive. Well, that’s exactly what Navalny was: extremely lucky.
He was hospitalized in August 2020 after being poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent (the government’s favourite way of silencing its enemies barring “suicides”) and was medically evacuated to Berlin in a comatose state. With the help of world-class doctors, Navalny survived the poisoning and was discharged in September.
Navalny has opposed President Putin’s policies and actions on multiple occasions. Many of his accusations of corruption and embezzlement of funds by the Russian state are widely accepted to have evidential backing, while others are not. Here, though, we will not go into the claims by either side, but rather, attempt to understand what Russians across the globe are protesting for.
The attempt on Navalny’s life has been directly linked to the Russian Federal Security Service by CNN and Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website founded by Eliot Higgins. Navalny, while in Germany, aided in the investigation and was able to, allegedly, dupe an agent into revealing how he was poisoned. Putin denies all allegations, stating that if Russia wanted him dead then, “they would’ve probably finished it”.
Even after the failure of the attempt, Putin would have been more than happy to have Navalny in exile in Germany, where he would have joined the ranks of the insignificant cast out opposition leaders, and later come to be ignored by both the state and the population. Navalny, though, chose to return to Russia.
As the flight taxied, he posted a video on Instagram of his wife saying the iconic line from the popular Russian movie Brothers 2: “Bring us some vodka, boy. We’re flying home.”
Right before landing, the flight was rerouted to another airport in Moscow stating, “technical reasons”. Navalny was detained by the police at passport control and was tried the next morning. This was justified on grounds that he did not attend court summons for a 2014 case where he had received a suspended sentence, which the European Court of Human Rights ruled as an unfair conviction. According to Russian courts (the word is a joke here, as the one that “tried” Navalny was a haphazardly put-up kangaroo court at the back of a provincial police station) though, he had violated his parole and hence had to attend the summons, even though he was recovering in Germany.
Even locked-up in a detention centre outside Moscow, Navalny and his team released their biggest investigation yet, this time into the infamous “Putin’s Palace” at Gelendzhik, where they uncovered state corruption amounting up-to 1.4 billion dollars. There was a report coupled with a two-hour-long documentary where he allegedly uncovered dubious financial schemes behind the grand construction. Putin’s spokesperson has denied any links between Putin and the estate.
Nation-wide protests were called for the 23rd of January, demanding Navalny’s release. Across 7 time-zones, 3324 demonstrators were detained (as reported by OVD-Info), as the protests were deemed illegal by the state and crackdown ensued. But this was not just a Russian phenomenon; people gathered in numbers in major cities across the globe.
I happened to be at the one in Rome, which was organized at the Pantheon. It was the most calmful affair, people socially distanced yet united regardless of ethnicity or even nationality. For the internationals there, it was a question of human rights. For the Russians there, it was a question of the future of the country. Toddlers holding signs that their parents and chanting slogans with the rest of the crowd were in cue with the previous statement.
(Photo courtsey- Michelle Pott)
I could catch Nadya, one of the highly spirited organizers, for a quick chat. I wanted to know what was driving these people, who are so far away from home, to come out onto the streets to demand justice for someone else.
The (idea behind the) whole movement is very simple. First off, we are asking the government to release Navalny, to release his friends who were also arrested in these days. Secondly, for a change. Putin has been in power for the past 20 years, 16 of which were illegal (unverified yet widely accepted claim). There is a whole generation of Russians that have only seen a single President. There’s no freedom of speech, there’s no freedom for political opposition and this has to change.
But what is different about Navalny? Putin has had a long history of silencing his opponents, some of whom never lived to tell the tale. That is a fate which Navalny seems to be evading, for now.
Navalny has been portrayed wrongfully by the Western media. It’s not their fault but rather due to language barriers. People don’t really have a clear picture.
The popularity that Navalny gained in the last 10 years is because he’s the one who continued without fear, even after Putin’s threats. He has continued to fight against corruption. But most importantly, he’s the one that gave voice to those who are marginalized. When you think about Russia, you think about St. Petersburg and Moscow, the cities financed by the oligarchs, but you completely forget about Siberia, about the Caucasus. Places without electricity, without infrastructure or healthcare. Nobody ever cared about them, and Navalny gained popularity, especially from the poor, because he wants them to be treated and represented equally.
It was not that they (the government) didn’t try (to silence him). In the investigation (the one done by CNN and Bellingcat) it came to light that they did try to poison him and his wife multiple times. Both were very sick a couple of times and they never understood why.
Navalny has not been silenced yet is because he is not afraid. He invited people to come out to the streets and be brave. He continues, even after his family and friends were threatened multiple times, fearlessly. The Russian people have risen against these kinds of acts before, but many were not brave enough. Now people dare to come out. The official photographer of Navalny’s movement was arrested this morning. He was in hiding at his girlfriend’s apartment, who is a friend of mine. Two days ago, the police came to her apartment looking for him (without a warrant), but she didn’t let them in. So, they stayed in front of the house the entire night and cut her apartment’s electricity and heating and it’s -20 degrees in Moscow. Nevertheless, they still continue.
Who are Putin’s supporters today?
A good part of the population is threatened into supporting Putin. Another group of his supporters are from the older generation and those who benefit from his regime, for sure. Putin was a KBG agent and his foreign policy and governing style are loosely based on the old Soviet model, threatening and bullying other countries. Putin’s supporters also include many young people who like his strong-man persona: the figure of the defender and father of the country. He was also a sex symbol for women early in his career and they regarded him as a saviour.
Then there are the ex-pats who support him, which I find very weird. They moved out of Russia for all its problems and yet they celebrate him, without realizing that if they were living in Russia they would be suffering. The guy that was here with the USSR cap, he’s my cousin and he’s pro-Putin. We have many discussions on the topic, and I tell him, “you came to Italy when you were one, and you idealize Putin. You haven’t really experienced his tyranny”. Again, the minority who benefit from his regime support him.
The protest displayed a smorgasbord of flags, signs, and posters, all pointing towards the tyranny of a leader, in solidarity with people who are deeply unsatisfied with the way things are now. Many got arrested, many got beat up. Some of them got arrested and may not see daylight, while others went back to their homes, worried for their kin, yet safe. The two groups are separated only by borders and different interpretations of freedom of speech.
(Photo Courtsey- Michelle Pott)