The persecution of Alexey Navalny is Russia’s never-ending story. The country’s most prominent blogger and opposition leader, Navalny has remained the face of the protest movement, despite living under house arrest since late February. For the past year, Navalny has appeared in courts to face various criminal charges and lawsuits. He’s currently serving out a five-year suspended sentence for embezzlement. Navalny’s house arrest, levied in connection with a different criminal case, doesn’t expire for another 161 days (after which, it might very well be extended a second time). In mid-March, the Attorney General ordered state censors to block Internet access to Navalny’s blogs.
A man who used to be ubiquitous in Russian civil society, Navalny now appears in public only when being transported between his home and the courtroom.
Alexey Navalny was always more to the Russian opposition than a single man, however, and a team of paid staff and volunteers continues to manage his anti-corruption projects and update his social media. A talented group of techies has successfully battled Russian censors, mirroring Navalny’s blog on various sites, which the government keeps blocking and Navalny’s supporters keep replacing. This game of cat and mouse is now two-months-old, and the Kremlin isn’t winning. So it’s no surprise that pro-Kremlin activists are now taking aim at the volunteers who manage this censorship-circumvention process.
Today, May 20, 2014, the Kremlin-connected newspaper Izvestia wrote that an Internet group has appealed to the Attorney General to investigate a supposed computer virus that freezes users’ devices, until they donate money to an online account. That account, it seems, is the same one found on navalny.us, which redirects visitors to mirrors for Navalny’s main blog. The website belongs to Vladislav Zdolnikov and Ruslan Karpuk, who collect donations for their work to keep Navalny’s blog accessible. The same online wallet, hosted at Yandex.Dengi, was once how Zdolnikov funded his Internet-television project, i2TV. (The station’s money account is now different.) Zdolnikov and Karpuk now work together on a new Internet project called Newcaster.TV.
Aleksandr Litke, who manages the Internet group featured in Izvestia, claims that Navalny’s programmers inserted a virus into a plugin that Internet users can install to access mirrors for his blog. Litke even unveiled a new website dedicated specially to propagating this theory, asking on the site, “Did the famous anti-corruption crusader decide to rob Internet users?” Karpuk, who helps maintain the mirrors to Navalny’s blog, first noticed this “virus accusation” more than a month ago. On April 19, Karpuk noted that a series of identical trouble-shooting messages appeared in several Web forums in early April. The only evidence yet to surface has been a photograph of a supposedly frozen computer screen, displaying the text, “Say NO to censorship! Donate 100 rubles to fighting it,” with an option to send money to the navalny.us online wallet. According to Karpuk, the image is a fake.
Judging by his social media accounts, Litke is a committed Eurasianist, dedicated to expanding Russia’s geopolitical strength, and regularly posts racist, homophobic, and anti-American materials. His group, which exists as a public community on Vkontakte, is dedicated to combating obscenities online. Litke is a capable digital artist, producing photoedited images with flashy captions that resemble the “amusing pictures” that appear on the popular nationalist website Sputnik & Pogrom.
There are already more serious charges facing Navalny in his many other criminal cases, so it is unlikely that Litke’s accusations present any real threat. Moreover, there is no true evidence of any virus planted to steal from Navalny’s supporters. The idea itself, after all, is rather ludicrous. None of this likely bothers Litke and the pro-Kremlin entourage, however, as the goal from the start was probably only to spread yet another nasty rumor about Russia’s famous anti-corruption crusader. By targeting the mirror sites readers use to circumvent state censors, there is also the opportunity to intimidate the techie volunteers on whom Navalny now desperately relies.
So far, however, neither Karpuk nor Zdolnikov seem to be deterred. They understand that it is risky business working for Russia’s most persecuted man.