By Ivanna Biryukova
Russia, January 23rd, 2021. The streets of 198 cities were filled with slowly moving masses. A sea of down jackets, scarfs and hats. A sea of old and young. A sea of hope, rage, unfulfillment and disappointment. It was a cold, slippery day, a day when people would soon be met with overwhelming police presence. Thousands of them would end up detained and beaten up by law enforcement officers. It was two days after the infamous video “A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe” was released. It was also one week before Alexey Navalny would officially become a political prisoner.
Vladimir Putin’s difficult relationship with opposition
Russia’s president of 18 years Vladimir Putin is not the biggest supporter of the opposition in his country. A man who granted himself the opportunity to stay in office until the year 2036, he has a long-winded history in suppressing his critics. Today, almost every single independent news outlet and non-profit organization is either closed or falls under the “foreign agent” law. This law is used to punish disloyal media outlets that have little to do with foreign governments – it is simply another tactic of disempowerment and pressure. In contrast, even though 1990s Russia was a lawless and unsafe place to live in, freedom of speech thrived during that time allowing many of the most notorious anti-Putin journalists and politicians to rise to to fame after the Soviet Union fell apart.
“A reformer who never backed down”
One of these people was Boris Nemtsov (1959 – 2015), whose political career started off under Yeltsin’s presidency. Nemtsov stood loyally behind Yeltsin during a coup attempt in August 1991, and the latter rewarded him with the job of presidential representative in his native region of Nizhny Novgorod. After that, he secured the position as the governor of the same region.
The early years of Nemtsov’s political career were filled with change and progressive thinking: the West saw the future of Russia’s liberal and open politics in him. More so, Yeltsin introduced him to Bill Clinton as his “successor”. However, when Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in 1999, Vladimir Putin took over as president. The reasons for this are still unclear, but the fact remains that Putin, a former director of the Russian Federation’s Federal Security Service (F.S.B.), the same security service that poisoned Alexey Navalny last year, has been in power ever since.
As years passed, Nemtsov became more outspoken about his disapproval of Putin’s governance. He organized rallies and marches, was detained several times, and spoke out against the annexation of Crimea and the situation in Chechnya. In February of 2015, Nemtsov expressed fears that he might be killed. On February 27th, his body was found on a bridge near the Kremlin – he was shot from behind and died at the scene.
All eyes turned to the Kremlin. One of Putin’s most vehement opponents assassinated in front of the presidential office?
According to some journalists close to Nemtsov, he was working on a report that would have proven the presence of Russian military forces in eastern Ukraine, despite Russia’s denials. Others spoke of Ramzan Kadyrov’s (the Head of the Chechen Republic) involvement in the murder. After all, many critics of Chechnya’s leader face a similar fate. Kadyrov has obtained a license to kill, and many fear that he plays the role of executioner for another higher-ranking figure who sponsors him and covers up his crimes. Even if Putin was not on board with Nemtsov’s killing, he covered it up, which makes him an accomplice.
Ramzan Kadyrov and a woman’s attempts to unveil the truth
Why is Kadyrov’s possible connection so important? Because Anna Politkovskaya, a brilliant, fierce, and honest journalist, that described Kadyrov as the “Chechen Stalin of our days”, was murdered in the elevator of her apartment building in 2006. Politkovskaya reported from Chechnya – she was the person who showed the Russian public what was really going on behind the high peaks of Caucasian mountains. The Second Chechen War (1999-2009, a conflict between Russian Federation and Chechen separatists) was one of the most traumatic events modern Russia has gone through – and Anna Politkovskaya (along with many other journalists) put pen to paper.
She survived a poisoning attempt on a flight (a well-known tactic at this point), was a victim of a mock execution, received death threats from an OMON (Special Purpose Mobile Unit) officer and from Kadyrov himself. Politkovskaya managed to get Kadyrov to convey his feelings toward Putin in a 2004 interview during which he referred to Putin as “one of their own” and called for him to be the lifelong president of Russia.
Anna Politkovskaya was one of Russia’s most genuine journalists, and her honesty was not appreciated in governmental structures. On October 7th, 2006, she was shot 4 times. In 2014, four Chechen men were convicted of her murder – according to court materials, none of them had personal motives to assassinate Politkovskaya. October 7th, 2021, marked 15 years since her death – the person who hired the killers is still free.
The last hope of Russian opposition
On a domestic flight from Tomsk to Moscow, Alexey Navalny, a 45-years-old politician, and anti-corruption activist, fell ill. After an emergency landing in Omsk, he was brought to a hospital, where the authorities wouldn’t let his wife Yulia and his team see him. Yulia demanded them to release her husband to transport him to a better medical institution in Germany. It took 2 days, but on August 22nd Navalny was put in an induced coma and evacuated to the Charité hospital in Berlin. A month later, the politician was discharged, and Novichok agent (a chemical weapon) was pronounced to have been found in his blood work.
Alexey Navalny stayed in Germany until January 17th and while he was there, he and his organization FBK (known as “Anti-Corruption Foundation”) released investigative videos about his poisoning. They could prove that FSB was behind the murder attempt. The incompetence of the team that was ordered to poison Navalny was the only thing that saved him putting concrete evidence of their contribution into his hands. One of the films features a phone call with one of the poisoners, in which he essentially explains the poisoning process step by step. The Russian government denies any involvement to this day.
As soon as the plane that carried Navalny and his wife landed in Moscow, the politician was taken into custody – Navalny violated the terms of his probation by not contacting his parole officer while he was in a coma.
After Navalny was detained, FBK published an investigative documentary on their Youtube channel: “A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe”. The film calls for people to come out and protest for Navalny’s release and exposes Vladimir Putin’s 1.35-billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea. All hell broke loose – tens of thousands of people took it to the streets after seeing their opposition leader detained and their president in possession of a literal royal palace with 700€ gold pipe-cleaners, while millions of Russians live below the poverty line.
On February 2nd, 2021, Alexey Navalny was sentenced to 2.5 years in a penal colony. The protests went on, but so did the beatings and the detentions, and so FBK have called off the marches until further notice.
When addressing the court, Navalny said: “Murder is the only way he [Vladimir Putin] knows how to fight. He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner. […] I hope very much that people won’t look at this trial as a signal that they should be more afraid. This isn’t a demonstration of strength – it’s a show of weakness. You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. I hope very much that people will realize this. And they will. Because you can’t lock up the whole country.”
One of the characteristics of Russian mentality is to endure something for as long as humanly possible. So that slippery 23rd of January was not only a way to show disagreement with the government, but an important sign of unionization and mobilization of a normally passive nation. The Russian opposition finally managed to show Putin that they have had enough, they are here, and despite countless threats, they aren’t going anywhere.