In the weeks before Texas was shut in by snow and ice, Russians were out on their own snowy streets, protesting from Siberia to Moscow against President Vladimir Putin’s imprisonment of popular and charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Navalny, jailed thirteen times since the 2011 beginning of his political career, founded the “Anti-Corruption Foundation,” which fights corruption and has repeatedly targeted Putin. On January 19th, Navalny’s team published a documentary “Putin’s Palace,” which has as of today over 113 million views on YouTube. It claims to show an ostentatious palace built for Putin and has angered many Russians, especially the already opposition-minded.
But the protests en masse exploded with the January 17th return of Navalny to Russia after being medically evacuated to Berlin from poisoning by a nerve agent in August 2020. The Kremlin denies the poisoning.
Upon landing in Russia, Navalny was immediately arrested for violating his parole from a 2014 fraud charge and detained by a makeshift court to await a February 2nd trial.
“Free Navalny” quickly appeared on signs in over 190 Russian towns and cities, as tens of thousands of people gathered to call for the politician’s release. Reuters has estimated a crowd of about 40,000 to have protested in Moscow on one day alone, although the Russian government’s official number is 4,000.
The protestors clashed with police. Over 4,000 protestors were arrested, and officials claim that forty police officers sustained injuries.
As Putin did not budge on releasing Navalny, Russians turned out in possibly even greater numbers the next weekend. The state media reports that these protests contained many fewer and less angry citizens, but other sources disagree.
On January 31, for example, records show that over 5,600 people were arrested countrywide.
Navalny’s team then largely called a halt to the protests until spring, although February 2nd and 14th still saw demonstrations, and other small protests have continued.
Across the board, the official Russian media response to the movement has been to minimize the protests on official channels, suppress independent reporting and information-sharing on them through state censorship, and to deny police brutality though it is well attested.
The state television network NTV, on January 31st, showed footage from a one-person picket in eastern Russia while omitting coverage of large protests in Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, and St. Petersburg. On another channel, Rossiya 1, live footage of thousands demonstrating was described as “low hundreds.”
State censors have blocked protest-planning internet links and attacked TikTok and Instagram for providing dangerous information to help young people gather. Russia’s official censorship agency, Roskamnadzor, even contacted independent news outlets like Meduza to remove from their own website an article that contained information about planned February 14th protests.
But what has happened to Navalny himself?
After two successive hearings on February 2nd, the politician was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. His parole from 2014 became an active incarceration, while he was also fined. Shortly after the sentencing, new protests broke out in Moscow and over three hundred people, possibly up to 1,500, were arrested.
This is not altogether new for the Navalny family. For the same case for which Navalny was put on parole, his brother Oleg went to prison for three and a half years on a ruling that the European Court of Human Rights later called “arbitrarily and manifestly unreasonable.” Navalny, according to a November 2020 Financial Times interview, saw this as a hostage-taking move at the time, underscoring the troubled relationship he and many others have with Russia’s judicial system even independent of his own now-fourteen jailings.
Navalny is only one politician, an especially adept manipulator of the currently burgeoning investigative journalism scene in Russia; his sentencing, one might think, surely cannot personally affect as many people as have been protesting.
But it is the criticisms of Putin’s government that he makes and the quickly decided, stringent judicial action he now faces that have inspired action such as an open letter signed by over one hundred Russian and Western scholars and scientists. Published on January 31st, it calls on the Russian authorities to “respect citizens’ right to protest peacefully and establish a dialogue with society,” which censorship, punitive prison sentences, and makeshift courts do not encourage.
The protests also express larger concerns about Russia’s judicial system. In 2020, 99.64% of people criminally tried were convicted, which does not bode well for the thousands arrested and hundreds now facing charges for protesting.
The government under Putin has shown its willingness to suppress dissidence. What can be done about it? In a February 5thstatement to Meduza,a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg and the University of Helsinki called for increases in scale. “Going forward, everything depends on the scale of [popular] mobilization,” said Vladimir Gelman. “The greater the scale, the less likely you are to be punished.”
The Russian protests of this year reveal a populace increasingly frustrated with Putin’s bullying style of politics. At this point no one knows what, if any, changes this may lead to. But there can be no doubt that the popular pressure for change is increasing.
Natalie is a junior from Overland Park, Kansas studying history, Latin, and English. She loves etymology, singing, potatoes, dumpster diving for furniture, and National Treasure, and aspires to be a history teacher or folk song collector.