The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russian protesters urge boycott of presidential vote even as opposition leader is arrested

Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny took part in anti-corruption protests in various cities across Russia on Jan. 28. (Video: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

MURMANSK, Russia — From central Moscow to the Arctic, thousands of Russian protesters on Sunday called for a boycott of the upcoming presidential election even as the authorities detained organizers and raided the office of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Police detained Navalny, who branded the boycott a "voters' strike" against Russian President Vladimir Putin's government, shortly after the protests began. But more than 1,000 people took to one of Moscow's central thoroughfares nevertheless. Thousands more turned out on squares and streets in St. Petersburg, in Siberia and in places as remote as Murmansk, a port city in the far north where the temperature Sunday afternoon was 8 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. 

"By sitting at home on our couch and talking to friends, nothing will change," said Alexandra Sokolova, a 31-year-old financial adviser who joined the Moscow protest. "Maybe my kids will live in a better country."

The protests Sunday were unusual in their scope, with Navalny supporters organizing some 115 events across the country. But they appeared smaller than the demonstrations he orchestrated last June, when Russian news media estimated that at least 50,000 people protested nationwide. 

The protests are unlikely to have an immediate political impact in Russia, where voters will go to the polls in the March 18 presidential election and deliver what is expected to be a resounding endorsement of a fourth term for Putin. But they showed the resilience of a vocal minority of Navalny supporters, even in Russia's far-flung regions, who are willing to risk arrest to back his grass-roots campaign to unseat Putin. 

"I support Navalny because I want something to change," said Vita, a 19-year-old protester in Murmansk who declined to give her last name. "It may be for better, it may be for worse. I totally understand that."

While some Putin critics will be on the March presidential ballot, the most prominent one — Navalny — will not. The anti-corruption activist launched the campaign for a boycott of the vote after Russian officials rejected his bid to run for president last month because of a past fraud conviction that he says was politically motivated. Navalny's camp says that without their man on the ballot, the election is a sham, and they hope to embarrass the Kremlin by depressing turnout. 

Boycott or vote? Putin foes split as Russian election nears

Navalny, analysts say, is playing a long game this election season, continuing to build up the infrastructure for a fight against Putin that could last years. Navalny is using his call for a boycott to expand a nationwide network of supporters. And he is honing his use of social media to get around the state-controlled television channels, which largely ignore him. 

"I have been detained. But that doesn't matter," Navalny's Twitter feed said Sunday afternoon alongside a video showing him being pulled into a police bus. "You are coming out not for me but for yourself and your future."

Police appeared to be focused on disrupting Navalny's efforts without detaining protesters en masse or using a great deal of force. In Murmansk, the local Navalny chapter reported that its two top staffers were detained Sunday before the protest began and later freed along with 25 others. In Moscow, police detained Navalny and sawed through the doors of his Fund to Fight Corruption, where a YouTube live stream about the protests was being produced.

Police lined the route of the protest in Moscow but made few arrests. Sokolova held up a sign that used a diminutive form of Vladimir: "Stop reigning, Vovka, our choice is protest."

"I'm most afraid of what could come over the next six years if I don't change something and if we as a whole don't change something," said Paulina Gruseva, 22. "If we don't come out, then nothing will change, for sure."

In Murmansk, a city of 300,000 more than 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, more than 100 people gathered in front of a New Year's tree in the center of town even though the city didn't grant permission for the demonstration. Police dragged some of the Navalny backers into a bus and tried to talk some schoolchildren into leaving. 

Watching from the fringe, a 50-year-old named Natalia, who said she worked in the education sector and declined to give her last name, said she was attending the first protest of her life because Russian media coverage was so one-sided.

"When people keep prodding you in one direction, then you don't want to do what they are forcing you to do, out of spite," she said. 

The head of the local Navalny office, 28-year-old Violetta Grudina, said in an interview before she was detained that her team's mobilization efforts represented one small step toward breaking through the political apathy in this remote region. Grudina said she initially got involved in activism by campaigning against higher prices for public transit in 2016. 

"People aren't used to taking a stand," she said. "They'd rather sit at home in the kitchen and talk about how bad the authorities are."

Khurshudyan reported from Moscow. Andrew Roth in Moscow contributed to this report. 

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