Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger jailed two weeks ago, was released in the dead of night, at 2:30 a.m. today. His detention earlier this month at an anti-government rally has turned the 35-year-old lawyer into the indisputable hero of the Moscow protest movement – and the greatest hope for opponents of Vladimir Putin.
In past years, the parliamentary opposition to Putin’s ruling United Russia has consisted of three parties that play a merely decorative role. The “non-system” opposition, which is blocked from even participating in elections, is headed by squabbling leaders compromised by past government service and ties to the West. Navalny upset the status quo by rejecting liberals’ traditional calls to boycott the December 4 parliamentary elections and encouraging citizens to vote for any registered party besides United Russia.
As charges of vote-rigging by the government piled up after the polls closed, Navalny showed up at a December 5 demonstration in central Moscow that drew thousands of incensed voters. Navalny and hundreds of other activists were arrested. A judge gave him 15 days for insubordination.
At 1:00 a.m. this morning a taxi deposited me and two colleagues at a snow-swept intersection on Simferopolsky Boulevard in southern Moscow. Here was the detention center where Navalny and more than a dozen other protesters had been held for the past two weeks. Nobody was sure that he’d actually be released here, since the authorities – after clumsily bestowing him with the distinction of political prisoner – would hardly want to create a media spectacle.
The detention center is a squat five-story building made of concrete panels, set off from the street by a black metal bar fence. Supporters and journalists were gathering in front of a 24-hour convenience store across the street from the entrance. There were some familiar faces: Oleg Kashin, the journalist who was beaten within an inch of his life last year, and Pyotr Shkumatov, coordinator of the “blue buckets” movement targeting abuse of blue siren lights on government cars. A bundled-up policeman politely told the exuberant, iPhone-toting crowd to keep off the street, which was narrow enough without the accumulating snow and parked cars. I noticed minivans from state-run Rossia channel and Gazprom-owned NTV. Around the corner was a police bus.
Alexander Sokolov, 30, a burly truck driver from Moscow, was among the waiting supporters. He’d written “Freedom Navalny,” in English, on the grime of his 12-ton MAZ truck parked across the boulevard. Sokolov said he had his own blog but was more of a blog-reader. He discovered Navalny by chance six months ago when he stumbled across the Rospil web site, an internet project that encourages citizens to report dubious government tenders and purchases.
As a driver, Sokolov became civically involved through the “blue buckets,” a movement whose supporters put blue plastic buckets on their cars to protest the impunity and recklessness of officials’ limousines.
“Why is the business of a Duma deputy more important than mine? Everybody knows they’re just trying to get to the banya, restaurant or whorehouse.”
“Why is the business of a Duma deputy more important than mine?” Sokolov said. “Everybody knows they’re just trying to get to the banya, restaurant or whorehouse.”
Sokolov said he’d voted all his life. In this election he cast his ballot for the Communists, just in order not to vote for United Russia. In the end, Communist Party boss Gennady Zyuganov “betrayed” his voters by claiming there was ballot stuffing but not boycotting the results to help force a new election, Sokolov said. The same went for the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democrats, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
I asked Sokolov what his personal political convictions were.
“I’m for freedom and justice,” he said.
The snow was getting heavier. About 50 people had gathered in front of the convenience store. It was late and cold and nobody knew what the hell was going on. Someone inflated a condom to the size of a balloon in mocking reference to Putin’s remark that the protesters’ white ribbons reminded him of the rubber contraceptive. Laugher. Kashin, who has little to no hair on his head, donned a red-and-white keffiyeh like a babushka’s headscarf. More laughter.
Sergei Zavisha, 41, stood apart from the crowd, studiously smoking a cigarette. He lived in Israel for 12 years and now works as a department head at an oil-and-gas exchange.
“Moscow isn’t a city where United Russia gets 46 percent. They spat in our faces,” Zavisha said. “People consciously voted against United Russia, and we hoped they wouldn’t have the nerve to fake the vote. If they try this again at the next election, these protests will look like peanuts compared to what happens then.”
Zavisha said he was so angry after the parliamentary vote that he went to his first rally ever, on December 6. “Navalny has brought together the entire opposition,” he said.
“They spat in our faces. We hoped they wouldn’t have the nerve to fake the vote. If they try this again, these protests will look like peanuts in comparison.”
What about Navalny’s unvarnished sympathy for Russian nationalists, I asked. Wasn’t that a concern? Zavisha was unruffled. Navalny has a “positive influence” on nationalists, he said. There’s been less skinhead activity since Navalny started talking to the nationalists.
I asked Zavisha if he didn’t think Navalny was still too unknown to become a national politician who could pose a serious challenge to Putin. Zavisha shook his head. After all, Navalny’s cheeky nickname for United Russia, “the party of swindlers and thieves,” is now known from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka. (If a Google search in Russian for “swindlers and thieves” turned up United Russia in second place a few days ago, today the party is in first place. Incidentally, last week Google announced that Navalny was the second-most searched person on its Russian-language search engine, right after Steve Jobs.)
A young guy with one beer bottle in his hand and a second one in his coat pocket interrupted us. He said he didn’t have enough money for a fare when he hailed a cab to Simferopolsky Boulevard. But when the driver heard that he was going to the detention center to greet Navalny, he gave him a lift for free.
At 1:55 we got word that Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy for the social democratic Fair Russia party, was now with Navalny at the Marinsky Park police station, almost 10 miles away. Within seconds the crowd of supporters and journalists had dissipated into a dozen cars that raced through desolate suburbs of socialist-era tower blocks.
Within a quarter of an hour the group had reassembled in front of the gates of a nondescript, five-story administrative building. More people arrived, and I counted more than 100 heads, including dozens of photographers and cameramen.
Punctually at 2:30, the door swung open and Navalny, in a blue parka, appeared with Ponomaryov at his side. A roar went up from the crowd, then applause, as he came down the steps to the gate. White flashes and the click-click-click of cameras. Pushing and shoving as the press scrum made way for him and jockeyed for the best position. I held out my arm and stuck my dictaphone into the thicket. This is the most unpleasant part of being a journalist.
“Something amazing happened,” Navalny said. “We served our 15 days in one country and came out in a different one.”
The only result of the two weeks in jail was that a new “furious group” of activists had been formed. Navalny promised not to relent until the protesters’ demands were met, including registration of all parties and a re-vote where there had been violations. Without a computer or phone for so long, Navalny was cautious to comment on any specific events concerning the planned December 24 demonstration.
The strategy of “voting for anybody but the party of swindlers and thieves” had proven itself in the parliamentary elections, Navalny said. The same thing must happen in the March 4 election.
“Putin won’t become the lawful president,” he said. “It will be an illegal succession to the throne.”
“Something amazing happened. We served our 15 days in one country and came out in a different one.”
Navalny thanked the crowd and tried to move on. Somewhere his wife Yuliya was waiting for him. But the journalists and his fans were relentless. “Will you run for president?” a young woman shouted. Navalny answered that only once the election system was fair would he consider running.
“What about the nationalist threat?”
“There is no nationalist threat whatsoever,” Navalny said. “The threat is that swindlers and thieves usurped power in Russia. We need to fight against them, and not some mythical nationalists.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“I’m not afraid,” Navalny said. “These 15 days strengthened my belief that there’s nothing to fear. We are not at all alone; the majority is behind us. We are the majority. They’re the ones who are scared, and we see and feel that.”
In fact, the protests had already brought some results, Navalny said. The government’s talk about liberalizing the selection of governors and other political reforms is thanks to direct pressure from the people, he said.
Somebody asked about the attitude of the police.
“The cops have more pro-opposition conversations in the detention center than anybody else,” Navalny said. He spent most of his time in his cell playing backgammon.
The pack of journalists and supporters didn’t let Navalny go. Every time he moved a few steps forward, he was quickly surrounded again. He seemed flattered and grateful for the attention. But Navalny reminded the crowd that other political prisoners remained in jail, including Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, who was in poor heath after going on a hunger strike to protest his detention.
“I didn’t say I feel like the leader of the opposition. I’m applying all my strength to our common victory. All this talk about leader-not-leader is pointless.”
“Navalny! Navalny! Navalny!” the crowd chanted. A firecracker went off. Navalny got up on a photographer’s step-stool and thanked everyone once again for their support. Somebody thrust a bunch of flowers into his arms.
Now he made his way across a snow-covered intersection that a traffic cop was futilely trying to keep open. A woman in a BMW leaned on her horn in frustration.
Finally Navalny reached his wife’s silver Mitsubishi SUV. Last questions from journalists.
“I didn’t say that I feel like the leader of the opposition,” Navalny said. “I’m applying all my strength to our common victory. All this talk about leader-not-leader is pointless.”
Applause as he finally climbed into the car. Nationalist leader Vladimir Tor pushed photographers out of the way so the Navalnys could finally drive home.
Tuesday afternoon, before Navalny’s release, I called a colleague to ask if he was going to the vigil at Simferopolsky Boulevard. I joked that not going would be like missing Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from prison or Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile in 1979.
Of course the comparison was off by several orders of magnitude. The scheduled 2016 release of imprisoned billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed eight years ago, will be the more comparable event.