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Thousands of Russians protest against Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment

Millions more watch his video accusing President Putin of corruption

Millions more watch his video accusing President Putin of corruption

“WHO CARES about him?” Russian president Vladimir Putin smirked at a recent press conference. He was referring to Alexei Navalny, his main political challenger, who had survived an attack with the nerve poison known as Novichok and returned to Russia from Germany on January 17th. He was arrested at the airport on spurious charges before he even passed passport control.

Mr Putin has never uttered Mr Navalny’s name in public. But the answer to his rhetorical question came on January 23rd, when tens of thousands of Russians in more than 100 cities across the country braved police cordons to protest against Mr Navalny’s arrest and Mr Putin’s corrupt government. It was the largest unauthorised anti-Kremlin demonstration in years, and it resulted in 3,600 detentions.

In Moscow, some 40,000 people took to the icy streets according to a Reuters estimate. Protesters threw snowballs at baton-wielding police clad in body armour and helmets. There were a few incidents of violence: a car belonging to the FSB, the secret police, was smashed, and a woman was kicked in the stomach. But for the most part the crowds in Moscow were not radical, and the police showed restraint.

In burgeoning and sleek Moscow , where covid-19 restrictions have all but disappeared, commerce went on unhindered. Bars and restaurants continued to obligingly serve customers, and bike couriers squeezed their way through protesting crowds to deliver food orders. But although the city was not in a revolutionary mood, many residents’ sympathy lay with the protesters.

Leonid Volkov, Mr Navalny’s chief of staff, co-ordinated the protests from an undisclosed location outside Russia. He hailed them as “a victory of bravery and spirit over state terror” and called for another protest next Saturday: “We must get Navalny freed.”

The Kremlin is unlikely to pay heed. The government was unimpressed by the numbers, said Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, adding that many more people voted for Mr Putin than were protesting against him. That may say more about the nature of Russia’s presidential election in 2018, from which Mr Navalny was banned, than Mr Putin’s popularity.

It is true that the protests were small when compared with the half-million-strong demonstrations of the dying days of the Soviet empire. In Moscow, they were also less than half the size of those that swept the capital in 2011-13, when Mr Putin returned as president after serving one term as prime minister.

Yet today’s Russia is far more repressive than it was then and the turnout this time was held down not by support for Mr Putin, but by fear of being beaten up and arrested by police. In the run-up to January 23rd the Kremlin waged a massive campaign of intimidation. Employers ordered their staff not to protest. Schools told parents to keep their children at home. Some students were called in for unusual Saturday lessons. Others were threatened with expulsion. Police handed out formal warnings to activists. Most of Mr Navalny’s associates, including his spokeswoman, were preventively detained.

The Kremlin also went to considerable lengths to prevent images from spreading through social media and protesters from co-ordinating their movements through chat groups. A live coverage of the protest by TV Dozhd, an independent Russian internet television station, was interrupted when the police turned off the electricity in the flat from which it was streaming and detained its journalist. A hotel overlooking Pushkin Square, the protesters’ gathering point, was ordered by the secret service to clear out all rooms with a view of the square. Mobile internet and public wifi were severely disrupted.

The fear did its job. One woman, who asked that her name be withheld, watched the protest with her husband from behind a restaurant’s plate-glass windows, afraid to join in. “I feel ashamed, but I am simply too scared,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.

For Mr Putin, repression is a poor substitute for popularity. A more revealing signal of public attitudes than numbers on the streets is the 80m-plus views that Mr Navalny’s most recent and explosive film, attacking the president for corruption, notched up in its first five days on YouTube. The film exposes an obscenely opulent yet secret palace that was allegedly built for Mr Putin on the Black Sea by his cronies at a cost of $1.3bn. (Mr Putin denies that.) The president still commands the television channels that helped him to come to power, but it is Mr Navalny who dominates politics on Russia’s internet.

Mr Navalny’s film is a serious blow to Mr Putin’s legitimacy. “Two years ago people had to explain why they oppose Putin,” says Kirill Rogov, a Russian political analyst. “Now they have to justify why they support him.” Some children of Russia’s moneyed elite joined the protest. A number of pop stars have publicly withdrawn their support for the president. Alla Pugacheva, a legendary pop diva ever since Soviet days, has signed up for Mr Navalny’s Instagram account (and unfollowed the account of singer Filipp Kirkorov, her former husband and a Putin supporter).

According to some sociologists, 40% of those who protested at the weekend did so for the first time. One 15-year-old demonstrator said he overcame his fear because it might be his last chance to protest. It was not so much Mr Navalny’s politics that motivated him to brave the streets, but the abuse of human rights in Russia—including the rights of Mr Navalny himself. “I was shocked by the [police] brutality and the anger of the protesters,” he said afterwards. “I am amazed by how many people came out. And I feel this is just the beginning.”

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