Notes from tomorrow’s underground Navalny’s activists batten down the hatches ahead of new protests and a likely ‘extremism’ designation, moving to remote work and fleeing Russian social networks
Moscow’s City Court won’t begin reviewing a lawsuit to ban Alexey Navalny’s political infrastructure until next week, on April 26, but the Russian authorities are already treating the nationwide network of opposition activists like an illegal extremist movement. Police officers have come to local coordinators’ homes and raided Navalny’s offices across Russia on an almost daily basis. Beginning on Monday, April 19, some staff started working remotely, but the team says it has no plans to cut back preparations for the next mass protests against Navalny’s incarceration and mistreatment in prison. Meduza asked a handful of activists how they’re handling these tumultuous times.
What’s happening with Navalny’s campaign offices across Russia
State prosecutors want Moscow’s City Court to designate Alexey Navalny’s entire anti-corruption and political infrastructure as “extremist” organizations, effectively outlawing all of these groups. Specifically, officials are targeting the Anti-Corruption Foundation and the Citizens’ Rights Protection Foundation (both of which Russia’s Justice Ministry has already designated as “foreign agents”), as well as Navalny’s nationwide network of campaign offices. The court registered the lawsuit on April 19 and scheduled a pretrial hearing for April 26.
On April 16, immediately after Moscow prosecutors declared their intention to seek the dissolution of the various organizations that comprise Alexey Navalny’s political network, the Team Navalny Telegram channel posted a message from chief-of-staff Leonid Volkov and Anti-Corruption Foundation director Ivan Zhdanov, warning that an “extremism” designation is now only a matter of time. In the same statement, however, Volkov and Zhdanov said Navalny’s groups will continue to operate. Preparations for mass demonstrations to support Navalny, as well as campaigning ahead of Russia’s parliamentary elections in the fall, will also carry on.
Two days later, on April 18, Volkov and Zhdanov announced a new round of protests, breaking with a previous plan to wait until half a million supporters signed a petition pledging participation in rallies to demand Navalny’s freedom. The protests do not have official permits and will likely trigger mass arrests. “They’re killing [Navalny] right now, and we can’t wait any longer,” the two oppositionists explained.
Volkov and Zhdanov will not join protesters in Russia’s streets, however. Both men are now abroad for their own safety. On April 19, Navalny team member and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov joined them in exile, also to avoid possible arrest and imprisonment.
As usual, organizing the new protests falls to Navalny’s campaign offices in cities and towns across the country, where the local authorities have been busy intimidating Navalny’s activists. On April 19 alone, the following incidents took place:
- Police arrested Denis Mikhailov, the former head of Navalny’s campaign office in St. Petersburg;
- Officers came to the home of Ksenia Seredkina, the coordinator of Navalny’s campaign office in Rostov-on-Don;
- Police raided the office of Navalny’s headquarters in Chelyabinsk; and
- An unidentified man broke into the Navalny campaign’s office in Kurgan and destroyed a radiator, flooding one room.
Russian law enforcement has a long history of trying to intimidate and disrupt Alexey Navalny’s political network. Raids on regional offices and arrests of local coordinators have happened before in connection to specific criminal investigations, but the harassment has become almost daily over the past month. Activists at one campaign headquarters told Meduza that today’s police activity is unlike anything they’ve experienced since 2019 when officials raided Navalny’s offices simultaneously in more than 40 cities as part of a money-laundering case. (Initially, investigators accused Navalny’s nonprofit groups of laundering roughly 1 billion rubles — more than $13 million — but later reduced this sum to 75 million rubles — about $975,750. The case is still under investigation and charges remain pending.)
The mounting pressure has forced Navalny’s campaign teams to operate under a state of siege. To reduce their exposure, many local headquarters have temporarily closed their offices. “Friends! Due to recent events, we have to be more careful when it comes to your safety and ours. The team will be working remotely this week, and the office will be closed temporarily to all visitors,” Navalny’s activists in Novosibirsk announced this Monday on their Telegram channel. The team in St. Petersburg released a similar statement that same day. “Our office is closed this week,” Navalny’s Yekaterinburg headquarters said next.
Many of Navalny’s regional teams have also started removing their accounts from Russian social networks. Internet users in Omsk, Tver, Pskov, and Vladivostok have reported the disappearance of Navalny’s local offices on VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. “These [websites] cooperate the most closely with Russia’s security agencies,” one regional Navalny activist told Meduza. “It’s now clear that the repressions are intensifying and the legal framework is being tightened. In these circumstances, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki will start deleting our posts and groups, and they’ll begin fighting our presence on their networks very soon. The decision to leave these sites even seems overdue. It’s just necessary now.”
At the same time, individual activists in Navalny’s movement say they’ll keep their VKontakte accounts, at least for the time being, one campaign office told Meduza.
Leonid Volkov declined to tell Meduza if all Navalny activists have been advised to work remotely and delete their offices’ group accounts and pages on Russian social networks.
What the activists themselves are saying
Ksenia Seredkina, Rostov-on-Don office coordinator
I think [prosecutors] filed the lawsuit so they can finally steamroll our campaign offices, once and for all. It’s hard to predict, but it will definitely complicate our activity. I myself won’t pretend to be brave. I’m raising a daughter on my own, and it of course terrifies me to think about how she’d get by without me. But I don’t plan to surrender.
A representative of Navalny’s campaign office in Murmansk (who asked to remain anonymous out of personal safety concerns)
There’s no verdict yet [in the case to designate Navalny’s network as extremist], so the campaign office is working like usual and preparing for the protest. For now, there’s nothing here to discuss. We’ve got our game faces on, like we always do before demonstrations. A lot of journalists have been asking about this, but I’ve no interest in commenting on abstract events — it distracts from more important things, like organizing these protests. Our office is actively involved in this now.
Ekaterina Ostapenko, Vladivostok office coordinator
I first learned about the lawsuit when I woke up in the morning. It shocked me, of course, but once [Putin] compared us to terrorists after the January 23 demonstrations, I suppose it was only to be expected.
I can’t predict how hard they’ll hit Navalny’s campaign network or the Anti-Corruption Foundation, but I think it will be worse than the repressions against the folks at “Open Russia.” Elections are soon and I think Putin’s plan is to wipe us out completely, given his attitude about “terrorists.”
This news has frightened me, of course, but it’s also convinced me even more how pathetic and cowardly Putin is. And it’s made me want him out of the presidency even more.
Maria, a volunteer at Navalny’s campaign office in Tomsk (she asked Meduza not to reveal her surname out of personal safety concerns)
The Moscow prosecutors’ demand to designate Navalny’s campaign offices and the Anti-Corruption Foundation as “extremist organizations” is just the latest attempt to intimidate those who stand up to today’s authorities. It’s another obstacle to the formation and development of Russia’s civil society. I think it’s a response to preparations for elections this fall, which pose a threat to the current government.
I don’t know how this will affect the campaign offices’ plans, but I’m certain that it won’t be an issue for the “Smart Vote” initiative.
The lawsuit might frighten some of the doubters — some part of Navalny’s supporters — and I get it: it’s scary. But I think most people will nevertheless continue working with the campaign; they’ll keep fighting for their freedom and freedom in their country.
A representative of Navalny’s campaign office in Makhachkala (who asked to remain anonymous out of personal safety concerns)
The situation now is an emergency. The head of our office in Dagestan has been arrested. They’re steamrolling us. We’re focused on Makhachkala, but everything depends on the federal agenda, where they’ll probably declare us an “extremist organization.” Somebody’s finally gone off the rails.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock