Alexei Navalny is Vladimir Putin’s most dangerous foe. Yesterday showed why.
Tens of thousands of Russians in scores of cities turned out, even in temperatures below -50C, to protest against their rulers’ greed, lies and thuggery.
Kremlin spin doctors dismiss the anti-corruption campaigner as a crook, a Western stooge and an extremist. They mock the story of his near-lethal poisoning by the novichok nerve agent. They dismiss his excoriating investigations into the regime’s corruption.
Indeed, inside Russia, Navalny is officially a nobody. Putin refuses to mention his name. The supine state-controlled television channels ignore him. Most Russians say they have heard little or nothing about the pugnacious 44-year-old.
And even if they have, many believe that their vast country is better off with the Putin regime, for all its faults.
Millions of Russians have watched Navalny’s witty, hard-hitting appearances on YouTube. They are subtitled in English
Over the past 20 years the judo-loving ex-KGB man has brought them stability and modest prosperity. For all the repression meted out to critics, most of Russia’s 140 million population enjoys a large measure of personal freedom.
By the bleak, blood-drenched standards of past centuries, the past two decades look like a golden age to many. But Navalny’s videos are puncturing that illusion.
His latest – released just after his arrest – shows one of Putin’s palaces, a pharaonic folly that epitomises the corruption and cronyism that infest Russia’s political system.
Millions of Russians have watched Navalny’s witty, hard-hitting appearances on YouTube. They are subtitled in English. I urge you to watch them too.
His investigations show not only how Russia’s elite loots the country, but also how it stashes its ill-gotten gains in the West.
Navalny's latest YouTube video – released just after his arrest – shows one of Putin’s palaces (pictured), a pharaonic folly that epitomises the corruption and cronyism that infest Russia’s political system
I met Navalny in London a few years ago. He launched a blistering attack on the City of London, and the bankers, lawyers and accountants who act as enablers for Russia’s thieving rulers. He was right. And events since then have underlined his point.
Inside Russia, Navalny’s campaign is gaining momentum, while Putin’s regime has never looked more threadbare.
The continued hesitancy of Western governments, including Britain’s, in tackling Kremlin kleptocracy is shameful.
The tide of dirty money corrupts our own system of government, allowing rich people to buy protection and influence. It also stokes the narrative, assiduously promoted by the Russian propaganda machine, that our talk of democracy and the rule of law is mere window-dressing.
In the end, our system is just like theirs.
A smoke bomb lies on the street as protesters were detained during rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, near Matrosskaya Tishina prison, in Moscow
Our hypocrisy is a bitter blow for the brave, idealistic Russians like those who demonstrated yesterday, who yearn for liberty and dignity. Shamingly, they believe in our values more than we do ourselves.
Navalny’s personal bravery should inspire us. He has freely chosen to return home, to the clutches of a regime that tried to murder him, to lead the fight for his country’s future.
How many of our politicians can we imagine showing similar fortitude?
Our response so far is empty phrases. The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is ‘gravely concerned’ about Navalny’s arrest.
The hard men in the Kremlin will hardly tremble at that.
A supporter's face is bandaged and covered in blood after attending the unauthorised rally in Moscow on Saturday
They are used to criticism. And to our double standards.
Angry words fly out from London. Dirty money and private jets fly in. The message is clear: Britain talks about democracy – but profits matter more.
Navalny’s campaign last week asked Western governments to target eight top super-rich Russians with sanctions.
They include the Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich and the former Arsenal shareholder Alisher Usmanov. Both men deny any involvement in corruption.
The Biden administration looks ready to act. So too do some EU countries. Will we in Britain choose courage or cowardice?
Our decision will send a powerful signal, to Moscow – and to our allies.
Palace protests rock ‘thief’ Putin: Wife of poisoned Kremlin critic is among 3,400 held as Russians take to the streets days after he posted video of President’s $1billion mansion
By IAN GALLAGHER FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
Evenin the coldest city on Earth, where frostbite can strike in just two minutes, the people were determined to vent their fury.
It was -51C yesterday in Yakutsk, a Siberian port not normally given to street protest, so it was a measure of the depth of feeling aroused by the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny that its fur-clad citizens left the warmth of their homes to face police in the snowbound main square.
Some chanted anti-Kremlin slogans, and in doing so risked their health as well as their liberty. For never mind chanting, at -51C doctors advise talking is kept to a minimum to protect lungs.
On a much grander scale, protest raged 5,000 miles away in Moscow, where more than 40,000 gathered, and across the whole of Russia, from Volgograd to Vladivostok, and more than 80 cities in between. Everywhere they expressed the common refrain: ‘Alexei is not afraid. We are not afraid.’
The wife of Alexei Navalny has been detained at an anti-government demonstration in Moscow while major anti-Kremlin demonstrations broke out across Russia on Saturday in support of the jailed Putin-critic. Pictured: Yulia Navalnaya
From all walks of life, they came in peace. Dignified but quietly insistent (so different from Donald Trump’s Capitol Hill mob) and armed with nothing more deadly than banners. Yet still they fell beneath flailing batons.
Police arrested more than 3,400 people, mostly plucking them indiscriminately from crowds and roughly bundling them into vans. Some, though, were deliberately targeted.
None more so than Mr Navalny’s 44-year-old wife Yulia, who was arrested while attending a Moscow rally, having earlier paid tribute to her ‘brave’ husband.
Later she posted an image of herself on her Instagram account as she was carted off.
The caption would have met with approval from her husband, renowned for his sardonic humour. It said: ‘Apologies for the poor quality. Very bad light in the police van.’
Talk of revolution may be premature but whether this extraordinary day of dissent – Moscow saw its biggest unauthorised rally for years – will come to be seen as a watershed remains to be seen. Some held banners that dared to dream: ‘Russia will be free’.
There has long been frustration at falling wages, a situation made worse by the pandemic.
On top of that, public anger was sharpened last week by a video released by Navalny giving details of a secret $1 billion palace – with a strip club, casino and theatre – allegedly built for Putin on the Black Sea coast.
Some protesters carried toilet brushes in reference to the £600 Italian-made luxury brush the video suggests Putin uses.
Mr Navalny, 44, was arrested when he returned to Russia last Sunday from Berlin. A court ruled on Monday that he had violated parole conditions and must remain behind bars until at least mid-February.
Law enforcement officers clash with participants during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow
Police block the street during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia
High-profile detentions and trumped up charges are nothing new in Russia.
But Mr Navalny’s poisoning and dramatic arrest enraged many whose support he has never previously enjoyed.
The Kremlin did what it could to prevent the demonstrations taking place. And it has denied the report about the Black Sea palace.
Russian celebrities made plain their dismay at Mr Navalny’s arrest, using social media to urge people to take to the streets.
Igor Denisov, a former captain of the national football team, said: ‘I’d like to support Alexei Navalny and his family – he should be freed.’
For now Navalny remains in a detention centre, in fear for his life.
Police in Rostov-on-Don detain a participant in an unauthorised rally in support of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny
In a chilling message passed to his lawyer, Mr Navalny said: ‘Just in case, I declare: I have no plans to hang myself on the window bars or slit my wrists or throat with a sharpened spoon.’
Several of Mr Navalny’s close aides, including his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, were arrested earlier in the week. In Moscow’s Pushkin Square police bellowed through loudhailers: ‘This is an illegal gathering – please leave.’
Passing drivers sounded their horns in support of the protesters, with one hanging a pair of underpants out of his window, a reference to Mr Navalny’s poisoning. The would-be assassins had applied the novichok to his underwear.
Mr Navalny was flown to Berlin for emergency treatment after being poisoned during a trip to Siberia in August. Russian doctors who initially treated him claimed he had been left fighting for his life because of ‘low blood sugar’.
The Kremlin denied any role in the poisoning but Mr Navalny continued to point the finger at Mr Putin as he recovered in Germany.