The Russians that keep resisting

On the surface, it appears that Russia’s opposition is facing its darkest times yet. President Vladimir Putin is certain to be reelected for a fifth term following elections this weekend, which are heavily rigged and serve as merely a ritual to reaffirm his position as the nation’s one and only leader.

More than two years into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, human rights experts have warned of an ‘unprecedented’ crackdown on freedoms and repression against civil society and opposition. Nearly 20,000 people have been detained for participating in peaceful anti-war protests between February 2022 and January 2024. And the sudden and suspicious death of opposition leader and activist Alexei Navalny in prison last month appears to have destroyed what little hope was left for a democratic Russia.

In an Instagram post from a penal colony on 4 March after he received a ‘warning’ from prison authorities, opposition politician Ilya Yashin wrote

‘What warning is that? [A warning that] one of my blood clots will get detached if I continue to say mean things about Putin?’ Yashin was alluding to the reason given by state media about the cause of Navalny’s death.

Despite the climate of terror and the Kremlin's iron grip, many people in Russia are refusing to remain passive and are finding new ways to dissent. 

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Silent protests

Before his death, Navalny endorsed a campaign for a nationwide protest against Putin and the rigged election process.

Known as ‘Noon against Putin’, voters will head to polling stations across the country at 12 o’clock on 17 March, the final day of the election.

‘When we come to the polling stations, we will show others and see for ourselves that there are many of us. We can become a force that cannot be hidden behind [false] percentages,’ reads the campaign’s website.

Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya has also urged people to use this discreet method of resistance, despite the risks of monitoring and penalties by the authorities.

‘I cannot even imagine what this protest is going to look like. The idea is so clever and intriguing,’ said one activist from Saint Petersburg who requested anonymity for security reasons. ‘My friends and I will show up at the polling stations [on 17 March] even though some of us don’t see a point in voting.’

‘Of course we are afraid, just like everyone else, but we are prepared to keep resisting.'

The campaign follows a series of other acts of resistance and shows of solidarity with Russian opposition in recent months. In November 2023, a little-known journalist named Yekaterina Duntsova announced her intention to run for president. Her campaign promised a ‘peaceful Russia’, amassing over 300,000 followers on her Telegram channel by the end of December.

But shortly thereafter, Duntsova – who came to be perceived as a threat by the Kremlin – was barred from the presidential election for alleged ‘mistakes’ in her application to register as a candidate. In response, she called for her followers to support another pro-peace candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, instead. He too was disqualified from running after the 105,000 signatures of support he delivered to the Election Committee were deemed ‘unreliable’ or ‘invalid’.

Nevertheless, something important was happening – Putin’s critics were finally starting to see each other, albeit in necessarily discreet ways.  

'Tip of the iceberg'

Navalny’s death on 16 February sparked a new wave of solidarity in Russia and around the world. Hundreds of people risked arrest and jail time to lay flowers at improvised memorials across the country. Thousands more attended his funeral in Moscow on 1 March.

‘The crowd [at Navalny’s funeral] is only the tip of the iceberg,’ said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in an interview with the independent Russian media outlet Zhivoi Gvozd, a spinoff of Ekho Moskvy, a former Moscow-based radio station that was taken off the air by Russian authorities over its coverage of Ukraine. ‘Millions of people [across Russia] couldn’t attend the funeral.’

Silent opposition has persisted in Russia even in the face of the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent following the invasion of Ukraine. People have been taking actions including placing tiny anti-war stickers in public places, aiding men in avoiding military draft and wearing black as an anti-war symbol.

‘Of course we are afraid, just like everyone else, but we are prepared to keep resisting,’ said a woman from the Way Home group, which was formed by wives and mothers of men called to fight in Ukraine. Every Saturday, these women lay flowers at war memorials under the surveillance of the police – a silent appeal to the authorities to bring their men back home.

Reliable data on Russian public opinion towards Putin is hard to come by as most people don’t dare to openly criticize the Kremlin. But surveys suggest that at least part of the public is tired of Putin and his politics: a study by Russian Field revealed that 68 per cent of the respondents are deterred by a presidential candidate who is over 70 years of age – Vladimir Putin is 71. And according to the Extreme Scan survey, the war in Ukraine is one of the top three worry-inducing factors among the Russian public. 

Ahead of this weekend's elections, Russian authorities are doing everything in their power to demonstrate widespread public support for Putin. But much of civil society remains resilient.

The most important thing we can do for Navalny and ourselves is to keep fighting,' said Navalnaya in a video address, just three days after her husband’s death. 'We must use every opportunity: fight against war, against corruption, against injustice. Fight for fair elections and freedom of expression. Fight to take back our country.’