As Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken domestic critic, Alexey Navalny, who is currently serving a two-year-and-eight-month sentence in a Russian prison where he has been described as being “seriously ill”, has become an internationally recognised figurehead of the country’s opposition.
When he returned to Moscow from Germany in January, where he had received treatment after being poisoned with a nerve agent, he was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
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World leaders condemned his treatment and protests broke out across Russia from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. Tens of thousands took to the streets and by the end of February, approximately 11,000 protesters had been detained.
Foreign media broadly labelled the protests as “pro-Navalny”, but does this narrative accurately reflect the mood on the ground in Russia?
Al Jazeera spoke to five young Russians who have little, if any, recollection of a Russia that wasn’t governed by Vladimir Putin and asked them their views on both men.
Anna*, 19, Ekaterinburg – ‘I just want my voice to be counted’
Anna is a 19-year-old undergraduate student at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in St Petersburg. Like most students, she is waiting out the pandemic with her parents, having moved back to her hometown, 100km from Ekaterinburg. It is a small, conservative city and even at the peak of protests in late January, demonstrations did not take place there.
But while she could not participate in the protests, Anna says she supports those who did.
Since Navalny’s arrest, she has followed Telegram channels that she describes as “anti-Putin”, but says that she believes the protests were about neither Putin nor Navalny.
“Defenders of the Putin regime like to say that this [is] a confrontation between two figures and that [the] people who go out on the street want Navalny to be president,” she says.
“This is not true in fact. Although I have heard slogans at rallies such as ‘Navalny for president’, people come out because they are tired of the lies that they feed us every day.”
Lack of political change is partly to blame for her frustrations. She believes the “office swap” between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev from 2008 to 2012 – when Medvedev became president and Putin prime minister – only gave the appearance of Putin stepping aside when, in fact, he remained the real power broker in Russian politics. The president and, she argues, the whole administration, has never really changed in her lifetime.
But despite being critical of Putin, Anna does not back Navalny as his successor.
“I think he is important now because he is a charismatic leader … Any revolution needs a leader, but it does not mean that this leader is a good one for the ‘new’, peaceful country. I would not like him to be a president,” she says.
Anna’s distrust of Navalny comes from what she describes as his “all or nothing” approach to politics. She is particularly suspicious of what she considers to be his use of emotive, divisive language as a way of bolstering support.
“I do not support his anti-migrant policy. Navalny is a populist, he follows [the] mood of people. In Moscow, migration from near Eastern countries is a problem, but it does not mean [people] can be xenophobic or nationalist[ic] towards [them].
“He is quite controversial because he is talking about democracy and equal rights but at the same time, he is against people who come to Russia for many purposes,” she says.
Around the time of his arrest in January, a video Navalny had originally posted to his YouTube channel in 2007 resurfaced. In the pro-gun rights video, Navalny compares Muslims to flies and cockroaches. It concludes with Navalny “shooting” an actor posing as a Muslim who was about to “attack” him before stating, “In such cases, I recommend a pistol.”
In February, Amnesty International stripped him of “prisoner of conscience” status, saying that some of his past comments “reached the threshold of advocacy of hatred”.
Despite her criticism of some of Navalny’s policies and views, Anna says she does support his “opinion on freedom of speech and free mass media”.
Before speaking to Al Jazeera, Anna says she checked her university’s policies on students speaking to the press. She cited the case of Yegor Zhukov, a 22-year-old former student at HSE in Moscow. Last year, Zhukov was charged with “inciting extremism” after a court-appointed linguistics expert stated that his YouTube blogs called for protests that could turn violent. He was given a three-year suspended sentence and banned from blogging. In January, HSE introduced new rules regarding political activism by its students.
“I just want my voice to be counted and I want to not be afraid to express [an] opinion, and I definitely want our president to be changed more often than once in 20 years,” Anna reflects.
“There is no justice in our country and there is no fairness. If you tell the truth, you are put in jail, if you peacefully express your position, you are beaten in the street by police officers and then put in jail.”
Galina*, 28, Moscow – ‘Russia will be free’
Galina is 28 years old and works as an administrator at an IT company in Moscow. Long frustrated by what she believes is corruption in Russian politics, for her, the protests in January were the moment for which she had been waiting.
She attended protests in Moscow on January 23 and January 31, where she says there were approximately 10,000 to 15,000 demonstrators.
“I went out alone and I was scared, I had a backpack with everything necessary for the detention, I was preparing. No one I know has come out, everyone is afraid. They are afraid of criminal liability, they are afraid of losing their jobs or large fines,” she says.
Galina says she would leave the protests whenever police approached the demonstrators.
“[The police brutality] was scary to watch on the internet, but it’s even scarier to see it live … People were beaten up in front of me.”
Galina believes endemic high-level corruption became rooted in the Russian economy following then-President Boris Yeltsin’s mass privatisation campaign of state assets in the 1990s. Russia’s shock therapy transition to a market economy saw a select few dramatically increase their wealth and political influence while, many argue, sowing the seeds for severe economic inequality and corruption.
For many Russians, however, economic hardship appears to be worsening, with the price of potatoes, for example, increasing by 40 percent in the first five weeks of the year. It was against this backdrop that Navalny’s “Putin’s Palace” documentary went viral in January. The 113-minute report about the $1.31bn property on the Black Sea coast, which the video says was paid for “with the largest bribe in history”, has been viewed more than 115 million times. Putin has since said that the palace does not belong to him.
“In my opinion, [members of the current government] are thieves and crooks, they do not care about ordinary people. They only think about their own enrichment. We have such a rich country and such poor people, it’s terrible,” Galina says.
“I think that 80 percent of the protesters came out against the current government. Alexey is more like a symbol. The way he was treated shows that the authorities can do anything to anyone. And people are against it,” she says, adding that she would like Navalny to be president and that “those who are now in power should be in prison, not him.”
“The attitude to Navalny is twofold. But everyone agrees that the fact they tried to poison him and then put him in jail is unjust and abnormal.”
The main slogan of the protests, she says, was, “Russia will be free.”
For Galina, a free Russia means choice and freedom from corruption.
“People should not be afraid to speak out against the authorities. Elections must be fair. The people will have power, there will be a democracy and not an autocracy as it is now. Everything that is in our country belongs to us, the people. This is how it should be”.
Svetlana*, 33, Switzerland – ‘I support Putin’
Svetlana grew up and studied in St Petersburg. Last year, she moved to Switzerland and currently lives in a small town near the French border where she works as a painter. A vocal supporter of Putin, she strongly condemns Navalny, and those calling for change in Russia.
“For Russia, Navalny has never been and never will be the solution to the problem, and most importantly, what is the problem? Russian society is now more than ever, a stable and strong society,” she says.
“There are issues that need to be resolved, and Putin’s team is doing an excellent job with this, especially considering the pandemic.”
Svetlana, like Anna, is highly critical of Navalny’s anti-migrant stance and nationalistic tendencies.
“Russia is a multinational state, on the territory of which [lives] more than 190 [nationalities],” she says.
As an example of Navalny’s nationalist views, she quotes the concluding line of another of Navalny’s 2007 videos – one in which he is dressed as a dentist and appears to compare migrant workers to rotting teeth that should be removed, “We have the right to be [ethnic] Russians in Russia and we will defend this right.”
Svetlana believes life has improved for Russians during Putin’s tenure. “I support Putin. People do not just live better, [Putin] has radically changed life in Russia. Free education, medicine, development of science and technology,” she concludes.
Igor*, 24 and Dmitry*, 27 Moscow – ‘In Russia, citizens do not live, but survive’
Igor is a student at Moscow’s Institute of Economic Relations, and Dmitry is an engineer at a water treatment firm. Both are based in Moscow, where they play on the same sports team. Neither participated in the protests due to fear of obtaining criminal records.
Igor says he would like to see Navalny take power, explaining: “For me, he [would] be a good president, but not for very long.”
No leader should be able to rule for too long, he says, referring to legislation recently signed into law that would allow 68-year-old Putin – who has already ruled for more than two decades – to potentially remain in power until 2036.
“If Navalny were president, I would like to see from him a new constitution … you need to start everything from scratch. I would like to see independent courts. Governors should be chosen by the people, not appointed by the president. Return a fixed-term presidency for one person, no more than two terms of four years, maximum eight years without the right to re-elect under any circumstances,” Igor says.
“We always need changes and substitutions of different posts in Russia. It is not normal that the same guy [has been] sitting there for 20 years”.
Igor believes that it was anger at the current leadership rather than support for Navalny that motivated many of the demonstrators. “People [are] going out into the streets, but it is not so much for Navalny as it is against Putin and his crimes,” he says, listing “the murder of [Russian opposition politician] Boris Nemtsov [in 2015], the murder of [journalist and Kremlin critic] Anna Politkovskaya [in 2006], the poisoning of Navalny, propaganda in the media, [and] censorship on state channels” as some of the “crimes” that have angered the protesters.
“Navalny is the only representative of the opposition in Russia, therefore, the citizens of Russia don’t have a choice,” he adds.
Dmitry describes Navalny as a “real patriot” but says he does not want to see him take office.
“I don’t support Navalny for president because for him [it is] only black and white,” he says.
Neither Igor nor Dimitry think Navalny should have been stripped of Amnesty’s prisoner of conscience status. “Undoubtedly, Navalny is a prisoner of conscience in a country with rotten, criminal branches of government,” Igor insists.
They also say they support Navalny’s policy of reducing migration to Russia, arguing that the government exploits migrant workers as a source of cheap labour.
“The influx of migrants gives rise to unemployment of the indigenous population of Russia. This is not nationalism, but a sober assessment of the situation in Russia,” Igor says.
“There are low salaries, expensive food, the number of hospitals is decreasing, medicine is becoming more expensive, interest on loans is growing,” he says, adding, “In Russia, citizens do not live, but survive.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.