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The Terrifying Potential of a Post-Navalny Russia

On the eve of being sentenced to a five-year term in a penal colony, Alexey Navalny blogged about puffer fish. The Russian opposition would be remiss to think of itself as a school of small fish being pursued by a big predatory fish (i.e. the Kremlin), he wrote on his blog. The predator was simply putting on an act to conceal its weakness.

Нынешняя власть – это не здоровая рыбина, это скорее рыба-шар или латиноамериканская жаба, которая при виде опасности раздувает себя с помощью телевидения, показывающего врущих проституток-телеведущих или чудиков из СК в синих мундирах, лопочущих, что они всех посадят. Ну кого они там могут посадить? Ну 20 человек, ну 50. Ну 100, если сильно постараются. Вот и весь страшенный потенциал.

The current government is not a mighty fish. It’s more akin to a puffer fish or South American toad that puffs itself up in the presence of danger – by means of TV that broadcasts the lying anchor-prostitutes or nitwits from the Investigative Committee in blue uniforms who babble that they can jail everyone. But whom can they jail? Maybe 20 or 50 people. Maybe 100, if they try extra hard. That’s their entire terrifying potential.

Alexey Navalny, screenshot from YouTube.

Alexey Navalny, screenshot from YouTube.

Navalny winked and tweeted his way through the monotonous reading of his 100-page verdict, which he had fully anticipated, his bravado only showing a crack when he embraced wife Yulia before bailiffs escorted him out. For the most part, he used these three hours in the courtroom to populate his Twitter feed with characteristic bursts of snark and glee.

Posting a head shot of grinning Vladimir Putin, he quipped,

Такое впечатление, что только мы с ним вдвоем слушаем приговор без ненужной грусти

I get the impression that he and I are the only ones listening to the verdict without undue sadness.

And once the judge announced a jail term of five years (along with a four-year sentence for his co-defendant and business partner, Pyotr Ofitserov), Navalny used his last tweet to mete out the final bits of advice to his supporters:

Ладно. Вы тут не скучайте без меня. А главное – не бездельничайте, жаба сама себя с нефтяной трубы не скинет.

Alright. Don’t get bored without me. And most importantly, don’t be lazy. The toad won’t knock itself off the oil pipe.

Following an unprecedented filing of an appeal by the Prosecutor’s General’s Office, Navalny was released from custody less than 24 hours after being arrested, until his conviction legally takes effect later this summer. There is even a chance that he will decide to continue his underdog bid for Moscow mayor, a scenario that has certain advantages for the government: it would render the near-certain victory of incumbent Sergei Sobyanin more legitimate.

The verdict sent several thousand protesters—representing at least a small chunk of Navalny’s online army—marching into the streets. Crowding on the sidewalks near the Kremlin and Manezhnaya Square (the intended meeting place that had been locked down just prior under the pretext of construction), they chanted “Navalny is our mayor” and “Navalny, we’re with you.”

Because the protest had not been sanctioned by Moscow administration, protesters risked being arrested and fined. Yet many stayed for at least four hours under the watchful eye of the security forces, who did ship off several busloads of detainees but for the most part were unwilling to escalate the tensions.

For some denizens of the Russian Net, this mass turnout was an indication that even with Navalny behind bars, the movement will throttle ahead. A Yekaterinburg-based blogger, Dmitry Kolezev, tweeted, elatedly:

Получается, болотное дело не сработало, никто не испугался

This means that the Bolotnaya case hasn’t borne results, no one got scared.

Another blogger, designer Artemy Lebedev, voiced the commonly shared hope that even in prison, Navalny will remain at the helm of the Russian opposition, though temporarily in a different, more symbolic role:

Теперь из жж-юзера, который дает ссылки на государственные сайты и зарегистрированные СМИ, мы получим на ближайшие годы героя, который переплюнет Ходорковского, Магницкого и Пусек. Феерическая тупость власти.

Now, in place of the LiveJournal user, who posts links to government websites and registered news sites, we’ll get in the forthcoming years a hero, one who will outshine Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky, and Pussy Riot. An astounding stupidity on behalf of the government.

Navalny himself has asserted repeatedly that the movement he had helped spark has matured enough to become self-sustainable in his absence. This is how he put it in a Wednesday, July 17, 2013, blog post:

[...] понятно что делать, понятно как делать, понятно на что делать. Главное набраться смелости, отбросить лень и делать. Никакого особого руководства и не нужно, на самом деле.

[...] it’s clear what to do, how to do it, and with what means to do it. The most important thing is to muster the courage, get rid of laziness, and do it. No additional guidance is necessary.

And yet, ironically, the July 18 rally showed that Navalny’s army in fact needs quite a bit more coaching on what to do. The crowd that came out in his support on Thursday was thousands strong and swelling with anger and frustration, but it was directionless and, so clearly on this evening, leaderless. Absent were Navalny’s closest associates who accompanied him to Kirov. Absent, too, from both the streets and the Twitter feed was Sergei Udaltsov, another fixture in the opposition movement who once campaigned side-by-side with Navalny, but has since fallen under house arrest and launched his own bid for Moscow mayor.

Among the people who did come, a prominent online sentiment was dark resolution mixed with confusion.

Moscow photographer and popular blogger Ilya Varlamov noted that while attendees were well stocked with pro-Navalny flyers and stickers (many of which ended up on the walls and doors of the Russian Duma) they were less ready when it came to a plan of action:

У людей очень много символики за Навального, хорошо подготовились. Но по-моему, люди не знают что делать.

People have a lot of pro-Navalany paraphernalia, they are well prepared. But it looks like the people don't know what to do.

Activist, blogger, and photographer, Mitya Aleshkovsky, wondered,

Я не понимаю что мы тут делаем. кто всем руководит?

I don’t understand what we’re all doing here. Who is in charge of everything?

And, reflecting the opposition movement’s worrisome tendency to bicker, blogger and journalist Ilya Azar could not help but poke fun at fellow activist and entrepreneur Alena Popova, who is sometimes seen as not committed enough to the cause:

Пришел лидер протеста – Алена Попова. Наконец-то люди не одни

Here comes the leader of the protest, Alena Popova. Finally the people are not alone.

And as the rally wound down, opinions remained divided over how well it went.

Kirill Goncharov, a 21-year-old activist, blogger, and leader of the youth wing of the Yabloko party, tweeted enthusiastically,

Это лучшее, в чем я участвовал в своей жизни. 100 метров от Кремля, атмосфера солидарности и свободы. Свободу Навальному!

This was the best event I’ve ever participated in in my life. 100 meters away from the Kremlin, an atmosphere of solidarity and freedom. Freedom for Navalny!

Yet almost at the same moment, Ilya Azar grumbled,

Откровенно говоря для акции по поводу посадки лидера оппозиции на пять лет в колонию это полный провал

To be totally frank, for an event marking the five-year imprisonment of the opposition’s leader in a penal colony, this is a complete failure.

From both standpoints, though, the outlook would be much brighter with Navalny on the other side of prison bars—and not just for a short reprieve before serving a long five years.

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