What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. An old maxim which may be giving some in Russia’s corridors of power pause for thought.
That is what a botched poisoning attempt and a rush to incarcerate have done to the man President Putin refuses to call by name, Alexei Navalny.
The man who has courageously returned to Russia and into the hands of the authorities who he says tried to kill him – the Kremlin denies any association with his poisoning – because he cannot bear to stay silent in the face of their apparent lawlessness.
The man who today brought more than a hundred thousand to the streets in town after city across Russia’s 11 time zones to demand his release from jail and for whom 2,500 people found themselves detained.
“Who needs him?” President Putin had said at his annual news conference just before Christmas, with a smirk.
He won’t have been laughing this Saturday as the chants and car horns blaring in Navalny’s support echoed down Moscow’s central avenue, Tverskaya, towards the Kremlin.
Or as the reports of protest from nearly 70 cities – from Sakhalin to Vladivostock, from Yakutsk to Novosibirsk to St Petersburg – flooded in.
More than 3,000 people were reportedly detained amid the rallies on Saturday, prompting the US and UK to condemn “the Russian authorities’ use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists” as Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stated.
“Putin is a thief” has been a rallying cry at Russian demonstrations for years, ever since the so-called Bolotnaya protests in 2012, the first major set of rallies against President Putin’s regime.
Navalny emerged from those frozen weeks of protest as an opposition figure of note but the years of harassment and persecution he has suffered without falter have given him a moral force which more and more of his countrymen are coming to recognise.
“One for all and all for one” was the script on one of the placards held up in Moscow on Saturday, with a photograph of Navalny on it. “He is not afraid and we aren’t either,” said another.
Navalny’s investigation into the palatial residence he says belongs to President Putin on Russia’s Black Sea Coast has had 70 million views already.
It was only released on Tuesday. Pro-Navalny, protest-related content on the social media group TikTok was viewed 300 million times. But it was not only the younger, internet-savvy generation who came out this Saturday; all age groups, all demographics did.
The Kremlin has long insisted that Alexei Navalny is a marginal figure. Through a combination of their egregious missteps and his own extraordinary courage, his political currency is growing even as he sits in his prison cell, planning his next step.
This protest movement may have no short-term impact, and in all likelihood it will not secure Navalny’s release, but there is a momentum, a budding protest season in the making. Who knows where that could end up.
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