NEW YORK – When Alexei Navalny was arrested in January 2021, tens of thousands of Russians filled the streets in protest, demanding that the top Kremlin critic be released and chanting slogans against President Vladimir Putin. Thousands were arrested.
Since then, Putin has unleashed the harshest crackdown since the era of the Soviet Union: Navalny was imprisoned and his organization outlawed. His associates and other activists were either prosecuted, fled the country or had their hands tied by draconian new laws. Independent news outlets were blocked and social media platforms banned.
And now, Russia has sent its military into Ukraine, the largest invasion in Europe since World War II.
But while the Kremlin has worked hard to crush political dissent and opposition to the war, flickers of defiance have emerged.
Antiwar marches of protesters chanting “No to war!” occurred in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere after the Feb. 24 invasion, with more than 15,000 people detained, according to the OVD-Info rights group that tracks political arrests.
A silent demonstrator in the city of Nizhny Novgorod displayed a blank sign and was promptly detained by police.
A live evening news broadcast on Russia’s state TV was interrupted March 14 by a woman who walked behind the anchor and held up a handmade poster protesting the war in English and Russian. OVD-Info identified her as Marina Ovsyannikova, an employee of the station, who was taken into custody and fined.
Navalny remained unbowed at a trial held in the penal colony where he is serving a 2 1/2-year sentence. On Tuesday, he was convicted on fraud and contempt of court charges and given nine years — a move that was seen as an attempt to keep Putin’s biggest foe behind bars for as long as possible.
The 45-year-old corruption fighter, who in 2020 survived a poisoning with a nerve agent that he blames on the Kremlin, said on Facebook in a sardonic comment that was posted by his team: “My space flight is taking a bit longer than expected.”
Navalny ally Ilya Yashin, who has vowed to remain in Russia, also spoke out against the increased jail time.
“Of course, nine years is a stiff sentence," Yashin said on Facebook. "Rapists, thieves and murderers in Russia often get less. ... But in reality (the sentence) doesn't mean anything, because everyone understands: Alexei will spend as much time behind bars as Putin will sit in the Kremlin.”
Addressing Putin, Yashin added sarcastically, “You're quite the optimist.”
Navalny's trial, which began a week before Russian troops rolled into Ukraine, prompted a small act of defiance by one of the witnesses for the prosecution. Fyodor Gorozhanko, a former activist in Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, who has since left Russia, testified that he had been coerced to give evidence against the opposition leader.
Navalny's foundation and a nationwide network of regional offices were outlawed last year as extremist and ceased operating. The Kremlin also turned up the heat on other opposition activists and groups, as well as on independent media and human rights organizations.
Dozens have been slapped with a crippling “foreign agent” label, which implies additional government scrutiny and scorn. Many have been forced to shut down under pressure.
With the invasion of Ukraine, the crackdown has been expanded — all but silencing most independent news sites. Facebook and Instagram were banned as extremist and were blocked in Russia. Twitter also was blocked, although Russians who use virtual private networks, or VPNs, are able to avoid access restrictions to the social media networks and news outlets banned in Russia.
A new law was rubber-stamped by the parliament, criminalizing content that deviates from the official line as “fake news” or which discredits the Russian military and its actions in Ukraine. Media outlets have faced pressure over calling the action a “war” or an “invasion,” rather than using the government’s description of it as a “special military operation.” The first criminal cases under the new law appeared shortly after it was adopted and, among others, implicated two prominent public figures who condemned the offensive on social media.
Navalny’s team has been undeterred by both the war and the trial of its leader, announcing it was rebooting the foundation as an international organization.
“Corruption kills,” read its new website. “As Ukrainian cities are bombed by Putin, this has never been more obvious. Putin and his circle have done everything to stay in power — and steal, and steal, and steal some more. High on their own impunity, they unleashed a war.”
“We will find all of their mansions in Monaco and their villas in Miami, and when we do, we will make sure Putin's elite loses everything it owns," the statement said. “We have been fighting Putin since 2011. We will fight him until we win.”
The Navalny team also promoted a new YouTube channel it has launched, Popular Politics, that since March 5 has attracted more than 920,000 subscribers.
On Monday, it released a video on YouTube alleging that Putin owns a $700 million super yacht, which is in an Italian port. The new expose has gotten over 2.8 million views by Tuesday evening. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the vessel's captain denied Putin owned or had ever been on the yacht.
The allegations came in stark contrast to Putin's recent ominous remarks condemning those who oppose the war in Ukraine and juxtaposing elites “who have villas in Miami or the French Riviera, those who can’t live without foie gras, oysters” to “our people” and “Russia.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian oil tycoon who spent a decade in prison in Russia on charges widely seen as revenge for challenging Putin’s rule, spoke Tuesday of his optimism for Navalny.
“Nine years were handed to Navalny. However, what does it matter? What matters is how much time Putin has left. And here I think there is some good news for Alexei,” Khodorkovsky tweeted.