What to gift the man who is barred from receiving anything, and also is Vladimir Putin’s biggest political foe?
How about a mass demonstration?
That’s what supporters of Alexei Navalny are ginning up for the jailed Russian opposition leader’s 47th birthday on Sunday.
From exile, they are calling Russians to action, both inside and outside the country.
“Let’s show him on his birthday that he has not been forgotten,” Georgy Alburov, who works for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), said in a YouTube video posted in mid-May. “Wherever you are, whichever country, go out to support Navalny.”
Sunday marks the third birthday that Navalny will spend in prison since he was arrested after recovering from a poison attack, which his team says was carried out on Russian President Putin’s direct orders.
“Putin wants Navalny to feel alone. Moreover, he wants every single one of us to feel that way,” Lyubov Sobol, another Navalny associate, said in the video calling for protests.
The Navalny team is counting on Russian exiles spread around the globe to participate in the protests. Demonstrations have been announced in dozens of countries, from Australia to Brazil to Japan.
‘The real heroes’
But Russians still in the country are given special status in the call to protest.
“Those who come out in protest [in Russia] are the real heroes,” another political activist, Ruslan Shaveddinov, said in the video.
The demonstration drive is designed to be a unifying moment, but it has exposed divisions among those Russians who have stayed in Russia and those who have left. And it has hit a nerve among some of Navalny’s staunchest supporters.
At stake is the question: Who has the right to ask Russians to take to the streets to protest their government, and is it worth the risk they run?
Since Navalny’s jailing, his supporters still in Russia have been living on a knife edge.
A Russian court decision in June 2021 labeling his movement as “extremist” has led to his network of campaign offices being dissolved. His allies have fled, gone underground, or been locked up. Any day now, Lilia Chanysheva, a former regional coordinator of Navalny’s team, is expected to be sentenced to 12 years in prison on extremism charges.
The pressure on Navalny himself shows no sign of abating, either, now that he has been transferred to a maximum-security prison in Melekhovo, a town some 250 kilometers east of Moscow. New criminal charges are constantly being lodged against him, including for extremism and most recently terrorism, which could see his sentence of 11 and a half years extended by decades.
His team members say he is being harassed in jail and being denied food and access to medical care. The only way to save him, they argue, is to keep him in the public eye.
Admitting the risk of prosecution for Russians inside the country, they have promised to provide legal and financial aid to those who are detained on Sunday.
But that has sparked further irritation, with some pointing out that in today’s Russia, any link to Navalny is toxic. Critics question the logic that to help one man, supporters must expose themselves to jail sentences; they accuse Navalny’s team-in-exile of being detached from the reality on the ground.
“[In Russia,] anyone who stages even a one-man picket can be slapped with criminal charges,” Alexei Vorsin, a former Navalny coordinator in Khabarovsk, wrote on Telegram on May 29. Vorsin has fled the country after being charged with extremism.
Vladimir Pastukhov, a Russian analyst based in London, drew a parallel with Bloody Sunday in 1905, when Father Gapon famously led a march of peaceful protesters right into the path of the Winter Palace’s guards’ bullets.
”It’s a question of responsibility [that Navalny has] toward his congregation, and the right to use it as cannon fodder against the Kremlin,” Pastukhov said in a YouTube video broadcast of “Khodorkovsky Live.”
Activists in Russia have been issued with pre-emptive warnings by the authorities not to act on the June 4 protest call, and several are already facing charges of organizing an unsanctioned event, for simply sharing information on the protest online.
Nonetheless, there are those like Moscow opposition politician Elvira Vikhareva, who has gone as far as publicly announcing her intention to take to the street.
“I am convinced that politically motivated murders, the persecution of dissidents, and assassination attempts will continue as long as we allow these scoundrels to continue making a fool out of people,” she said in a post on Telegram.
In a written comment to POLITICO, Vikhareva, who in March said traces of poison had been found in her blood, specified that she thought it was “up to every individual to decide” which risks they were prepared to take.
Faced with public backlash over the potential dangers, Navalny’s team has partially backtracked or at least softened its message. It recently released a second video saying there were other, less risky, ways of showing Navalny “that he is not alone.”
Leonid Volkov, one of Navalny’s closest allies, recently listed a number of such “in-between options” during a breakfast radio show hosted by the Russian journalist Alexander Plushev. They included putting up flyers at building entrances, “talking to acquaintances on social media,” or chalking Navalny a birthday message in a public place.
But Volkov defended his team’s overall strategy, saying that there was a demand for protest, and that excluding Russia from a worldwide demonstration would be “strange.”
Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst based in Riga, told POLITICO that even a high turnout in Russia, which he thought unlikely, would not impact the Kremlin’s current course.
“This type of regime does not listen to street protests, and easily suppresses them,” Oreshkin said.
And yet, he argued, the alternative is for Russians “to sit at home and do nothing,” normalizing their government’s politics of repression and war.
“That is the monstrous ambivalence facing Russians today.”