As people outraged by the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny prepared protests across Russia last Saturday, social studies professor Nikita Tushkanov suddenly learned that officials had scheduled extra classes without an explanation.
Mr Tushkanov gave up his plan to drive two hours to the nearest large city and spent an hour in -20 ° C weather in Mikun, a town of around 10,000 in wealthy northern Russia. gas, holding a sign saying “BE QUIET OR DIE”.
The next school day he was abruptly taken to a meeting with provincial officials who insulted his mother, accused him of taking bribes from Mr Navalny and demanded his resignation.
For Mr Tushkanov, 26, the incident embodied the years of pent-up anger at the rampant crackdown and spiraling corruption that led him to protest in the first place.
“How can you teach children about free speech and the justice system in humanities classes when there is all this blatant anarchy in the country?” Said Mr. Tushkanov. “Even if you are not a supporter of Navalny, what happened to him is the last straw. People can’t take it anymore. “
Mr Navalny was arrested last week upon his return from Germany to Russia, where he was recovering from poisoning with a nerve agent. He continued his fight against President Vladimir Putin from his prison cell. An investigation into a richly decorated palace on the Black Sea coast allegedly built for Mr Putin has racked up more than 100 million views on YouTube, as tens of thousands took to the streets in more than 120 cities of the country.
U.S. President Joe Biden called on Mr. Putin to release Navalny during their phone call this week, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday.
Mr Navalny’s allies say the film and the protests cemented his status as Mr Putin’s most important opponent. But the experiences of people like Tushkanov demonstrating – often under difficult conditions and out of the sight of the media – in towns thousands of miles from Moscow may indicate that Russians’ concerns are broader and deeper than arrest and poisoning of Mr. Navalny.
“Society wants change, and you can feel it in school. The children were all born under Putin after 2005, but they can sense that something is wrong. They see the school is pretty run down – they know we have [the gas industry] in the city, but even so we really don’t have anything, ”Tushkanov said.
Mr Navalny has made concerted efforts in recent years to broaden the base of his anti-corruption activism beyond the liberal middle class of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia’s wealthiest cities. However, this has not been enough previously to help him break through barriers erected by state television, where he is portrayed as a greedy tyrant determined to destroy the country at the behest of the United States.
In polls carried out by the Independent Levada Center after his poisoning last year, Mr Navalny’s approval ratings were only 20%, while 50% were disapproved. As many Russians have said, his poisoning was either staged or “a provocation by Western intelligence services”.
Mr Navalny issued a letter from jail on Thursday in which he tacitly admitted he had yet to translate his online hearing into a critical mass of protesters. “If 2% of viewers take to the streets, it will be enough to bring regulars to [Putin’s] aqua disco to their senses, ”he wrote, referring to an installation at the palace.
Mr Navalny’s arrest, however, clearly struck a nerve among Russians tired of declining living standards, the Kremlin’s uneven response to the coronavirus, and entrenched corruption like Mr. Putin has indefinitely extended his two-decade reign Last year.
Last Saturday, dozens of protests erupted in towns where Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation does not have a presence, including remote places such as Yakutsk in northeast Siberia, where a few hundred have gathered. gathered outdoors at temperatures of -50 ° C.
The Kremlin uses Mr Navalny’s popularity on social media to portray him as a figure of the Pied Piper leading underage children to be beaten and tear gas by riot police, even laying criminal charges to this effect on Thursday against Leonid Volkov, who heads the regional network of Mr. Navalny. .
Danil Dudko, 18, a musician in Barnaul, West Siberia, said he and other young Russians were as motivated by the hope for a better life without Mr Putin as by sympathy for Mr Navalny.
“I don’t really have a policy, but. . . I realized that my future is in this country, I have to live there, and if I don’t protest, nothing will change, ”said Dudko, who had never participated in a demonstration before last Saturday.
The official response to the protests has been brutal. OVD-Info, an independent observer, has counted 4,002 arrests of protesters in towns from Pskov on the Polish border to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the Pacific.
In Zachache, a village just south of the Arctic Circle, police arrested local environmental activist Elena Kalinina for staging a “massive snowman demonstration” holding up satirical signs calling on Mr. Putin to step down. Unable to charge Ms. Kalinina, 44, with a crime, the police released her after destroying the snowmen. She resurrected them a few days later with inscriptions such as “I am very well” and “You cannot kill me.”
Ms Kalinina, a former agricultural leader, said the police response showed that “everyone has the same problem: people have found out that the country is impoverished because its resources are held by a small circle of people around the president “.
The Kremlin may choose to temper its crackdown in the hope that the protests will die out on their own. In Khabarovsk, where more than 30,000 people demonstrated each week last summer against the arrest of the popular local governor, only around 1,500 came to Saturday’s rally – likely a sign of fatigue after the Kremlin left the protesters alone, but refused to give in to their demands. .
Ms Kalinina and Mr Tushkanov, however, both had their teeth cut during two years of protests against a proposed Moscow mega-dump for garbage near where they both live in northern Moscow. Russia. Officials eventually abandoned plans for the landfill late last year.
Mr Tushkanov, who was inundated with such support from his students and their parents that he was able to keep his job, said small victories like these had helped people “feel strength in them and in society ”.
He added: “A lot of people lived with this attitude of ‘I will shut up, I will stay at home and nothing will happen to me’. Then it happened to them, they won and they realized we could do it.