For the past few weeks, Russia has been in complete uproar as thousands of citizens take to the streets to protest their government. The immediate reason for the demonstrations is the arrest of Alexei Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken and successful opponents. However, the Russian people’s discontent runs much deeper than the injustices done to one man. Instead, it’s rooted in injustices against the entire country, and the protestors are demanding change.

Who is Alexei Navalny?

Alexei Navalny is a 44-year-old real estate lawyer who first gained popularity as a shareholder rights and anti-corruption activist, using his widely popular blog to expose damning financial information about the Russian elite. Navalny debuted politically in 2011, when he began leading protests against Putin’s announcement to run for his third term as president.

Putin was president from 1999 to 2008, but he lost the 2008 election to Dmitry Medvedev. Putin served as Prime Minister under Medvedev, but many Russians believed he still held most of the political power. Though many speculated Medvedev would run for a second term, he instead announced in 2011 that if the United Russia party won the election, he would switch roles with Putin, giving him the presidency. This surprised and frustrated many Russians who wanted a more liberal and democratic form of government.

Navalny used his social media as a platform to gather and organize protests against Putin’s presidency. Even after he was arrested for a few weeks, the protests continued. From these protests, Navalny gained a reputation as a powerful organizer and emerged as a political figure.

In 2013, Navalny ran for Mayor of Moscow and earned 27% of the votes. This was very impressive for someone who openly opposed the Kremlin (a term predominantly used for the Russian government), especially considering he was blocked from campaigning on TV.

While his influence was growing, he still was only known predominantly in Moscow and other big cities. This changed in 2013 when the internet became accessible across Russia and he began his Youtube channel.

Navalny’s channel was an extension of his other social media platforms, in that he used it to expose the corruption of the Russian elite. In 2017, he shared a video claiming that then-Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, embezzled a billion dollars from the government. Navalny’s blunt and engaging video attracted millions of views in just a few days.

Navalny called for protests against this corruption, and thousands of people across the country met the demand, indicating Navalny’s ability to use the internet to organize and unite people all across Russia to demonstrate opposition against the government. Navalny posed an intricate problem for the Kremlin, but Putin did not arrest him in 2017 during these widespread protests.

Putin has created what is known as a managed democracy, meaning he permits some remnants of a democratic society to give his people the feeling that there is freedom in Russia. Many analysts speculate that allowing oppositional figures such as Navalny to be outspoken has contributed to this illusion of freedom. With patriotism still high from the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Putin allowed Navalny to continue his oppositional work.

This all changed in 2018, when Putin raised the pension age dramatically. Navalny took advantage of Putin’s plummeting approval ratings and tried to add himself to the presidential ballot. While the government used a 2014 fraud conviction to prohibit Navalny from running against Putin, who was running for his fourth term, his ability to create a strong campaign openly opposing Putin was encouraging for the people of Russia and concerning for the Kremlin.

Navalny’s poisoning and arrests – what happened?

Last August, on a flight back to Moscow after meeting with supporters in Siberia, Alexei Navalny became extremely ill and fell into a coma. The pilot made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, Russia, where an ambulance crew discovered that he had been poisoned.

After immense pressure from the German government and Russian citizens, the Kremlin finally permitted Navalny’s evacuation to Germany for treatment. There, a German military lab determined the poison was Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent that Putin is known for using on his enemies.

Navalny awoke from his coma in September and boldly announced that he would return to Russia. Before his return, an investigation done by CNN and investigative online outlet Bellingcat determined that Russian agents were within 100 yards from Navalny’s hotel when the poison was likely administered. They also identified the agents involved in Navalny’s poisoning.

Navalny’s own investigation resulted in a full confession from one of the members of the elite toxin team assigned to poison him. Posing as a high-ranking Russian official, Navalny instructed Konstantin Kudryavtsev to debrief him on his assignment. The officer fell for the trick and outlined the entire mission, including that they applied poison to the seam of Navalny’s underwear.

When his flight landed from Germany on January 17, Navalny was promptly arrested for violating his parole and not alerting Russian authorities of his location, even though he was in a coma when he was taken to Germany after being poisoned by the Russian government itself. On February 2, Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for this charge.

Why are Russians protesting?

In response to his arrest, Navalny encouraged his supporters to take to the streets: “You need to protest. It’s not just about me. It’s about your future.”

Protests began on January 23 and have continued in over 100 cities throughout Russia for the rest of the month. On the night of Navalny’s sentencing, over a thousand protesters were arrested by riot police.

While Navalny’s oppositional influence and his arrest were major motivations for the protests, these demonstrations reflect a larger dissatisfaction among Russians. In fact, some liberal Russians do not even support Navalny due to his support of nationalist groups, including for a campaign that calls for Russia to stop federally subsidizing North Caucasus republics. However, many liberal Russians do support his mission to bring an end to Putin’s reign and address the corruption in Russia’s government.

The economic gap between the general public and the Russian elite is one of the protestors’ biggest frustrations. The country is the most unequal of the major economies in the world, with 10% of the people owning 83% of the country’s wealth. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made Russia’s economic situation worse, and Putin’s relief package totaled to less than a tenth of the aid America, Italy, and Germany gave to its citizens.

The last straw for many Russians was a video Navalny posted on January 19 claiming Putin and his closest allies purchased an extravagant palace on the coast of the Black Sea. This outraged citizens who are facing economic devastation and the highest rates of unemployment since 2012.

What is the future for Russia?

President Putin is likely not threatened enough by the protests to take immediate action. When thousands of people protested in Moscow in 2012 and 2017, Putin preserved his leadership without seriously responding to their concerns. However, this oppositional movement is not over yet. Leonid Volkov, one of Navalny’s chief lieutenants, said that the protests would continue closer to the parliamentary elections later this year. Navalny’s arrest and many calls to action may have been the push Russians needed to take to the streets, but their discontent with the government has been brewing for years and may mark the beginning of a new political movement in Russia.

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