Alexei Navalny is everything Vladimir Putin is not: courageous, charismatic, highly intelligent, witty and politically savvy. Little wonder that Russia’s charmless president cannot bring himself to utter the name of his nemesis. Instead, he pretends Navalny does not exist, while surreptitiously having him jailed, beaten, harassed and, in August, poisoned with a Salisbury-type chemical nerve agent. Putin denies doing this, of course. Does anyone really believe him?
Denying Navalny’s existence – and the very real challenge he poses to a corrupt, repressive regime – became a lot harder this weekend. Despite fearsome official warnings and prohibitions, thousands of Russians in up to 100 cities and towns took to the streets across the country to protest at Navalny’s latest arrest last week. Security forces detained his aides and curbed social media in an attempt to pre-empt the demonstrations. It didn’t work.
A tidal wave of contempt and disgust, beginning in Siberia and the Russian far east and gathering force as it sped westwards through time zones, rolled across the nation on Saturday, squarely directed at the Kremlin. Putin, as is his wont in moments of crisis, was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he was hiding in his Covid bunker or in his secret Black Sea palace. But he could not avoid hearing the people’s message: free Navalny, free Russia, end Putinism.
Early reports suggested the police reaction to what may be the largest mass protests since 2011 was brutal. In the far east city of Khabarovsk, about a dozen demonstrators were detained, lined up against a wall and beaten while in custody, according to the independent police-monitoring website OVD-Info. Novaya Gazeta reported “tough detentions” in Vladivostok, with “at least one person taken to a police van unconscious”.
Yet many, many brave Russians defied official violence and intimidation. In the northern Siberian city of Yakutsk, even temperatures of -50C could not keep them at home. Such unbridled passion and anger are what most threaten Putin and his light-fingered mafia state cronies. As history shows, when Russians’ traditional inclination to political passivity and apathy is overwhelmed by a burning demand for change, revolution follows.
Navalny is not specifically calling for the regime’s overthrow, although he would doubtless welcome it. His recent efforts have focused on exposing high-level corruption, not seizing power himself. Denied a platform in rigged elections 10 years ago, he and likeminded reformers were forced online and on to the street. Putin’s persecution in the ensuing decade backfired, turning Navalny into a folk hero, an internationally famous rival – and de facto leader of the opposition.
Navalny’s latest media coup coincided with his renewed incarceration after his return from Germany, where he was recovering from the FSB’s failed novichok assassination. If Putin thought jailing him again would shut him up, he must think again. Millions of Russians are not listening to Putin today. If they are not out protesting, they are watching Navalny’s new YouTube video sensation: Putin’s secret palace, and “the biggest bribe in history”.
The highly detailed, two-hour investigation, viewed more than 50m times, alleges that old St Petersburg pals and on-the-make oligarchs funded construction of a lavish $1.4bn (£1bn) Putin palace on the Black Sea coast, including an indoor ice-hockey rink, casino, vineyard and pole-dancing stage. Putin flatly denies all the video’s claims. But given previous, credible corruption investigations into his self-interested activities during 21 years in power, the question must be asked again: does anyone really believe him?
The protests, and crude attempts to suppress them, will further fracture Russian society, whose cohesion has already been undermined by chronic misgovernance and economic mismanagement. The inevitable rigging of national elections, due in September, will add additional stresses. Russia urgently needs root-and-branch political reform – before something breaks. Navalny is not simply a person. He is a movement that cannot be beaten into silence. For Russia’s sake, Putin should recognise his time is up.