What’s Happening in Russia?

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By Charlotte Freer, Staff Writer

In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of protests: The umbrella protests in Hong Kong, the election protests in Belarus, the Black Lives Matter protests here in America, the End SARS protests in Nigeria, and many more scattered across the globe.  Many of these protests have had significant social impact, and with the presence of social media, it’s now possible to watch protests and social movements in real time. 

On Saturday, January 23rd, protests were held in approximately 109 cities across Russia. Stretching as far east as Yakutsk (which is over five thousand miles away from Moscow with temperatures sinking to -50 degrees), and as far west as St.Petersburg, with the largest protest centered in Moscow. The protests were unsanctioned (in Russia a protest permit needs to be obtained 10 days before the planned protest), so an estimation of citizen turnout is hard to confirm, but Reuters approximates that about 40,000 people attended the protest in Moscow and about 110,000 people in total protested throughout Russia. The protests were organized mainly on social media under the hashtags “23января” (23 January) and “Свободу Навльному” (Free Navalny/Freedom for Navalny) and had a large presence of young Russians present. These hashtags were viewed over 50 million times on TikTok (via Moscow Times), despite the Russian government scrambling to take the videos down and warning minors against participating in the protests.

Holding cells across Russia have become stretched to capacity via EuroNews

These protests are a response to the arrest of prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his crusade against government corruption. Navalny was poisoned in August of 2020, and narrowly survived after being medevaced to Germany, where he recovered. Navalny has been an outspoken critic of the Russian Government for many years now, and multiple investigations uncovered that he had been poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union, an indicator of government oversight of the poisoning. He consistently insisted that he would return to Russia, despite authorities warning him that he was wanted for allegedly violating parole from a conviction of fraud in 2014, where he was given a suspended sentence.

He flew to Russia on January 17th, where he was arrested before he could even make it through passport control.  On January 18th, he was given 30 days in jail before his trial, where he will be tried on three separate counts, all of which he claims are politically motivated. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience. On January 19th, a day after his imprisonment, Navalny and his foundation, the FBK (The Anti-Corruption Foundation), released a two hour video on youtube called “Putin’s Palace. History of the world’s largest bribe”. The video– that as of January 24th has already clocked a whopping 81 million views– details reports of a “palace” for Putin worth an estimated 1.35 billion dollars. The video then goes onto to claim that the money for the palace was funneled through Russian oligarchs and close family members of Putin. In a country where coronavirus has strained the economy and roughly 20 million of its citizens live in poverty (Statista Research Department), it comes to no surprise that people were angry at the prospect of their president spending 1.35 billion to rebuild a secret residence, complete with a personal casino and hookah lounge. 

While the protests don’t pose a direct threat to President Vladimir Putin, the scale and violence of the protests show widespread discontentment. Videos of the protests in Moscow show protestors chanting “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a thief!” Despite young Russians making up most of the social media presence, there was a large diversity of ages in attendance. Some were staunch supporters of Navalny, while others didn’t necessarily agree with him, but felt that his poisoning and imprisonment was too immoral to ignore. According to human rights watch OVD-Info, an estimated 3400 people were arrested, a number much greater then the number of arrests from the last time Russia saw protests of this scale back in 2011. Protestors pelted snowballs at police, and there were numerous violent clashes. One video appears to show a police officer kick an elderly woman in the chest, sending her flying backwards. Members of the FBK were arrested and jailed prior to the protests in an effort to stop the spread of information and dissuade people from attending. 

  A protestor holding a sign with a picture of Alexei Navalny, reading “One for all, all  for one”
(Alexey Malgavko/Reuters)

So if the protests aren’t capable of toppling Putin from his billion dollar throne, what makes them noteworthy? Pro-democracy protests anywhere in the world are notable events, and with all the chaos in domestic politics, they’re easy to fall to the wayside. As of right now, it is unlikely that Navalny will be released from jail, but it is possible that this movement will maintain its momentum and continue to put pressure on the Kremlin. Protests are already being planned for January 30th, and if the protests continue on the same scale that we saw on the 23rd, there may be some conciliatory action from the government in order to quell the anger. However, it is almost guaranteed that in the wake of the January 23rd protests there will be a tight government crackdown on civil liberties. The Kremlin has already been floating the idea of restricting foreign media, such as instagram and youtube, which would veer Russia even further into authoritarianism. It’s also going to be very important in the following weeks to pay attention to the treatment of arrested protestors, who could be facing large fines or jail time for their participation in the protests. According to the New York Times, Russia has already started charging protestors with felonies such as obstructing the streets. Morbid sounding as it is, some arrested protestors may “disappear”, or suffer intimidation and brutality from the authorities. Navalny himself has already made a statement via instagram that he is in perfectly fine health and has no intentions of commiting suicide, indicating that if he ends up dead, it was not his own doing. If the attempted poisoning of Navalny wasn’t enough, the videos of extreme violence make it clear that the Russian government isn’t afraid to use force and intimidation to silence dissidents. These next few weeks, as well as the outcome of Navalny’s actual trial could have long withstanding ripples across Russia. 

Images from the protest in Moscow on January 23rd, via Twitter


On February 2nd, Navalny was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison (although because he had already spent time under house arrest, he is expected to actually remain in jail for 2 years and 8 months) for failing to show up to his parole meetings for his 2014 case. In an impassioned speech prior to the sentencing, Navalny did not hold back from attacking Putin, calling him the “thieving little man in his bunker”, and “Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner” (On a prior phone call with one of the men responsible for his poisoning, Navalny and other investigative journalists were able to determine that the Novichok was placed in his underwear). Navalny also said his imprisonment was being used to “scare millions.” In his closing statements, Navalny told the audience, “ I am fighting as best I can and I will continue to do so, despite the fact that I’m now under the control of people who love to smear everything with chemical weapons. My life isn’t worth two cents, but I will do everything I can so that the law prevails” 

While this verdict is unsurprising, it remains no less significant. Navalny has now become the most prominent political prisoner in Russia. Responses have been rapid and violent. On February 2nd, people could be arrested for simply walking by the courthouse where Navalny was on trial, and most of Moscow was cordoned off and guarded by riot police. As of February 1st, a monitoring group had estimated that 5,100 people had been arrested across Russia in response to Navalny-related protests. Considerable brutality has also been documented via social media, where videos and pictures have shown arrested protestors being beaten and tased by police. Diplomats from Germany, Sweden and Poland have been expelled from Russia for allegedly participating in protests, exacerbating an already tense time for Russia’s relationship with the global community (via the Financial Times). 

Police arrest a protestor / Sergey Ponomarev for the NYT

As of right now, many close allies of Navalny have been arrested or forced to flee for safety reasons. Team Navalny has called for an end to the current protests and instead will try flash mob style protests (citing Belarusian protests as an example) while Russian officials are warning of felony persecutions of participation in “riots”. Clearly this power struggle is nowhere near over.