Russian arrests of Navalny mourners raise fears of major crackdown

Russian arrests of Navalny mourners raise fears of major crackdown

A bishop who planned a public prayer for Russian opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny was arrested as he left his home. Two men were arrested because they had a photo of Mr Navalny in a backpack. Another man laying flowers at a memorial said he was beaten by police for this small act of remembrance.

As thousands of Russians across the country tried to express their grief for Mr. Navalny, who died Friday in a remote Arctic penal colony, Russian police cracked down, temporarily arresting hundreds of people and placing more than two dozen in prison.

Until Mr. Navalny’s death at age 47, many observers believed the Kremlin would limit the crackdown until after presidential elections in mid-March, when President Vladimir V. Putin will be all but assured for a fifth term. But a lot now fear that these arrests portend a wider repression.

“Those who detain people are afraid of any opinion that is not linked to propaganda, to the ambient ideology,” said Lena, 31, who brought a sticker to the Solovetsky Stone, a monument dedicated to victims of political repression in the Soviet Union. . “Don’t give up,” the sticker read – part of a message Mr Navalny once recorded in the event of his death.

Someone else placed a copy of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” at the pediment, while others hung paper crane chains, candles and a photo of Mr. Navalny smiling with his fellow leader of the opposition Boris Nemtsov, assassinated in 2015 in the shadow of the Kremlin.

Léna, who only gave her first name for fear of reprisals, began to cry. “They are afraid of Navalny in prison,” she said, “they are afraid of Navalny dead, they are afraid of people who bring flowers here to the stone.”

She said: “That’s why it’s important to keep doing what we’re doing, what this man did. »

At least 366 people have been arrested in 39 cities across Russia since Mr. Navalny was declared dead, and 31 of them have been sentenced to spend up to 15 days in prison, according to OVD-Info, an advocacy group human rights organization based in Russia which tracks the arrests. . The others were released after being detained for a few hours. About half of those arrested were in St. Petersburg, said Dmitry Anisimov, the group’s press secretary.

In Samara, Russia’s ninth largest city by population, those who came to remember Mr. Navalny had to have their passports photographed before being allowed to lay their flowers in the snow, according to Caution, News, a independent media run by a Russian. worldly socialite.

Authorities have not released Mr Navalny’s body to his family – the official cause of death remains unclear – and no burial plans have been announced.

“Grief is a collective action, and all collective action is by definition political,” said Grigory Yudin, a Russian sociologist and researcher at Princeton University. “In Russia, if a collective activity is not ordered, it is basically prohibited.”

In Surgut, a town in the Khanty-Mansiysk autonomous region of western Siberia, Bakyt Karybaev said he was beaten during five hours of detention after laying flowers at a makeshift memorial for Mr. Navalny. He told The New York Times in a telephone interview that the officers hit him in the head with their palms, put a gun to his head and forced him to lie on the ground with his arms out. tense.

“They told me I was a fascist because I supported the fascist Navalny,” Mr Karybaev said. “Then they told me to confess the real reason I wanted to lay flowers. They asked me if I knew who the monument was dedicated to. I told them it was for people repressed in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Karybaev was released after signing a warning acknowledging that he would be subject to a criminal investigation if he reoffended. He said he was now taking sedatives to try to calm down.

In Moscow, two men were arrested on a bridge near the Kremlin where, since 2015, activists have maintained a memorial to Mr. Nemtsov, the political opponent assassinated that year. According to OVD-Info, the two men, Boris Kazadayev and Ilya Povyshev, were questioned by police, who arrested them after finding a photo of Mr Navalny in a backpack belonging to one of the men.

And in St. Petersburg, a bishop who planned to perform a public prayer for the dead in honor of Mr. Navalny was arrested as he left his home on Saturday and then hospitalized after suffering a stroke brain in police custody. Bishop Grigori Mikhnov-Vaitenko had planned to hold prayers near the city’s Solovetsky Stone, a monument similar to the one in Moscow.

While protests are effectively banned in contemporary Russia, religious leaders are legally allowed to hold public services without prior consent. Archbishop Mikhnov-Vaitenko, a member of the Orthodox Apostolic Church, had announced the day before his intention to celebrate the prayer on his Facebook page and his Telegram channel, which has more than 5,000 subscribers.

Her next post appeared to be a selfie that looked like a ID photo at the police station where he was detained. He was accused of organizing a public gathering constituting a “violation of public order”, punishable by up to 15 days in prison.

Then on Saturday evening, opposition politician Lev Shlosberg reported that the bishop had been hospitalized following a stroke.

Bishop Mikhnov-Vaitenko, a prominent human rights activist, severed ties with the Russian Orthodox Church in 2014, after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and fomented a proxy war in Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church, the country’s largest religious community, supported the Kremlin and endorsed the invasion of Ukraine. On Saturday, its St. Petersburg branch called on the public to ignore the bishop’s calls for public action. a publication on Telegram.

After his arrest, the prayer service was led by a colleague from the Apostolic Orthodox Church. Video The event shows several dozen people gathered around the Solovetsky Stone, covered in flowers. After the service ended, 10 people were arrested, according to MR 7. News, a St. Petersburg media outlet.

The severity of the crackdown drew condemnation from Mr. Shlosberg, a veteran of the Russian opposition from the western Pskov region.

“Is the inability to perform a legal and peaceful religious ceremony a serious or not yet serious enough consequence for society? he wrote on Telegram, saying that Russians are being denied the rights granted to them by the Constitution.

“Apparently, the authorities themselves do not understand where the limit of this anarchy lies,” Mr. Shlosberg said. “The intention to suppress any social manifestation, including even natural suffering, leads our country not only into the abyss of anarchy (there are no more rights), but also into the abyss of misanthropy .”

While all this was happening, state media regularly broadcast entertainment shows. Media reports carried reports on the Russian front near Avdiivka, the Ukrainian town that fell to Russian occupying forces on Friday, as well as on figure skaters at the All-Russian Exhibition Center in Moscow. And on Rossiya 1, the country’s flagship show, “News of the Week,” spent much of its time rehashing Tucker Carlson’s interview with Mr. Putin and the American media personality’s praise for the system Moscow public railway.

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from London.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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