Russians living in more than 100 cities around the world held demonstrations on Sunday to support jailed dissident Alexei Navalny on his birthday.
It was Navalny’s third birthday since he narrowly survived an assassination attempt in Siberia, recuperated in Germany, and was thrown in prison upon arriving back in Moscow.
Navalny turned 47 on Sunday and will remain in prison until he is 77 if all of the sentences passed against him are punished in full. His supporters say the charges against him are purely political, contrived to sweep him off the table and keep him locked away for life because he was an effective critic of authoritarian President Vladimir Putin, and he exposed the corruption of Russia’s political and business elite.
Navalny was originally jailed on fraud, corruption, and parole violation charges when he returned to Russia after being poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent. The Putin regime had already banned Navalny and his party from running candidates in Russian elections, but Navalny enraged Putin by developing a smartphone app that helped his followers practice “smart voting” – in essence, rallying around whichever opposition candidate had the best chance of beating any given Putin ally in major elections.
After he was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, 2021, Navalny was convicted of fraud for allegedly stealing money from his Anti-Corruption Foundation and sentenced to nine years in prison. On Twitter, he poked a bit of fun at his sentence:
9 years. Well, as the characters of my favorite TV series “The Wire” used to say: “You only do two days. That’s the day you go in and the day you come out”
I even had a T-shirt with this slogan, but the prison authorities confiscated it, considering the print extremist.
— Alexey Navalny (@navalny) March 22, 2022
More time was heaped onto Navalny’s sentence over the ensuing years. Last Wednesday, a Moscow court set the date for hearings on what he dismisses as “absurd” charges of “extremism” and “terrorism.” The extremism charge could add up to 30 years to his sentence, and if a military court chooses to try him for terrorism, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
Navalny says he has been abused in prison. He was hospitalized in April 2021 after going on a hunger strike for three weeks to protest his lack of medical care. His legal team says he is routinely harassed in prison and frequently thrown into “punishment cells” for small infractions. Navalny said on Sunday he spent his birthday in such a cell.
“On the morning of your birthday you have to be honest with yourself, so I ask myself the question: am I really in a good mood, or do I force myself to feel that way?” he asked in a social media post from jail on Sunday morning.
“My answer is: I really am,” he continued.
Let’s face it, of course I wish I didn’t have to wake up in this hellhole and instead have breakfast with my family, receive kisses on the cheek from my children, unwrap presents… But life works in such a way that social progress and a better future can only be achieved if a certain number of people are willing to pay the price for their right to have beliefs.
On Friday, Navalny released excerpts of his frequently sarcastic correspondence with prison administrators. Among other things, he asked for moonshine, a pet kangaroo, a megaphone for an especially noisy cell block neighbor “so he can yell even louder,” and a black belt in karate for a fellow prisoner who “killed a man with his bare hands.”
“When you are sitting in a punishment isolation cell and have little entertainment, you can have fun with correspondence with the administration,” Navalny explained.
“I will continue to fight for my inalienable right to own a kangaroo,” he vowed.
Pro-Navalny demonstrators rallied in cities across the world on Sunday, frequently mixing chants and banners opposed to Putin’s war in Ukraine with their demands for Navalny’s freedom. Some of the rallies included calls for the release of other political prisoners.
In Russia, demonstrations were held in Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, and Yekaterinburg, where supporters spray-painted “Freedom to Navalny!” on the sides of buildings. The Moscow Times reported demonstrations in many smaller Russian towns as well:
“I am against the policy of Russia and I am for the release of political prisoners. Such protests cannot change the authorities in the country, but it is rather psychological support for those people who are being held hostage in prison and who are suffering for us,” a Russian demonstrator told the Moscow Times.
“These demonstrations are an important reminder that Alexei has not been forgotten and there are people with a different political opinion,” a protester in Amsterdam said.
The Putin regime responded with a massive crackdown, arresting well over a hundred demonstrators in 23 cities. A woman in St. Petersburg told Reuters she was arrested with her “underage kid” for demonstrating against the Ukraine war.
“The more there are such people, the smaller the price each has to pay. And a day will certainly come when it will be routine and not dangerous at all to tell the truth and stand for justice in Russia,” Navalny said in a birthday message to his supporters.
“My plan for the previous year was not to grow brutal and embittered and not to lose the nonchalance of behavior – this is where defeat begins. And if I succeeded, it was only thanks to your support,” he wrote.
“I do believe that this will end sooner or later, because the historical truth is on our side and, well, Putin is old and his regime is obsolete and he just can’t survive, with all this new life and brand new things that are appearing,” Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said.
In a YouTube video in mid-May, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which was reborn as an international organization after Russian courts shut down the original, encouraged demonstrations on the founder’s birthday. The Russian government issued a preemptive warning that anyone who answered this call on June 4 would face arrest.
“Putin wants Navalny to feel alone. Moreover, he wants every single one of us to feel that way,” Navalny associate Lyubov Sobol said in the video.
Politico quoted some Russians opposed to the Putin government who thought it was dangerous, and perhaps a little selfish, to encourage people to demonstrate on Navalny’s behalf when the regime has made him so utterly toxic and vowed to crack down hard on his supporters.
“It’s a question of responsibility toward his congregation, and the right to use it as cannon fodder against the Kremlin,” London-based Russian analyst Vladimir Pastukhov said.
“This type of regime does not listen to street protests, and easily suppresses them,” said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, who lamented the “monstrous ambivalence” that has festered in the terrorized Russian public.
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