Supporters of Alexei Navalny are lighting up the night. The imprisoned Russian dissident’s followers stepped outside their homes and shined their cellphone flashlights on Sunday. It was a display of unity, despite efforts by Russian authorities to douse the protests.
Navalny spent five months recovering in Germany from a nerve-agent poisoning. (See “Navalny Re-Arrested.”) Navalny blames his poisoning on the Kremlin. But the Russian government denies involvement and claims it has no evidence of Navalny’s poisoning.
Navalny has spent most of his adult life opposing the ongoing leadership of Vladimir Putin in Russia. He and his team believe his poisoning and his more recent arrest are tied to his growing popularity.
The team supporting the opposition leader announced a new protest format: shining cellphone flashlights. Over the weekend, Navalny’s supporters sent photos of small groups with lit-up cellphones in cities from Siberia to the Moscow region. It was unclear how many people participated overall.
No arrests were immediately reported. However, police detained nine people at a daytime demonstration in the city of Kazan. The activists were calling for the release of political prisoners.
The group says security guards at Moscow State University recorded the names of people leaving a dormitory to take part in a flashlight rally there.
Russian officials spent days trying to slander the protests. Officials accused Navalny’s allies of acting on NATO’s instructions. (NATO is an organization of allied European and North American countries.) Kremlin-backed TV channels claimed that flashlight rallies were part of major uprisings around the world. State news agencies cited unnamed sources as saying a terrorist group was plotting attacks during unapproved mass protests.
The suppression attempts represent a change of tactics for Russian authorities, who used to simply ignore Navalny.
Weekend protests erupted in scores of Russian cities last month over Navalny’s detention. They represented the largest outpouring of popular discontent in years. The unrest appears to have rattled the Kremlin. Police reportedly arrested about 10,000 people. Many demonstrators were beaten, while state media sought to downplay the scale of the protests.
In recent days, official media coverage focused on the flashlights-in-courtyards protest, accusing Navalny ally Leonid Volkov of acting on instructions from his Western handlers.
“The Kremlin is awfully scared of the flashlight action,” because such a peaceful, light-hearted event allows the opposition to build a rapport with new supporters, Volkov says. “I saw many posts on social media [saying], ‘When Navalny’s headquarters announced the flashlight rally, I thought what nonsense . . . But when I saw the Kremlin’s reaction, I realized they were right to come up with it.’”
(People draw hearts with cellphone flashlights in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, February 14, 2021. AP/Pavel Golovkin)