Inside the provincial Russian town that has turned on Putin over Navalny

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Law enforcement officers clash with participants during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow – REUTERS

After serving nearly ten years in special forces and training a platoon Dmitry Yevseyev last Saturday found himself at a political rally for the first time in his life.

For years he has been frustrated with the government, angry with Vladimir Putin’s broken promises and declining living standards.

But it was only when opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested that he felt compelled to take to the streets of his provincial city that is traditionally loyal to Putin.

“Navalny acted as a catalyst in a chemical reaction,” the 31-year-old retired lieutenant told the Telegraph.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 people took to the streets of Vladimir last weekend in what locals describe as its biggest political rally since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Vladimir, a city of 350,000 named after a medieval prince, was among over 130 towns where Russians rallied last weekend against Mr Navalny’s apparent political persecution.

More street protests are expected on Sunday, with the Kremlin bracing for rare demonstrations outside of the FSB intelligence agency, where Mr Putin began his career when it was known as the KGB.

A large number of people in Vladimir last Saturday were first-time protesters like Mr Yevseyv, a man with a military posture and bright pink-and-purple socks.

For most of Vladimir Putin’s two decades in power, opposition protests were marginalised and confined to the narrow circle of intelligentsia in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Mr Navalny’s sleek YouTube investigations into official corruption and, most recently, his own plight, have resonated with Russians far beyond Moscow’s hipster coffee shops as years of economic decline are beginning to take their toll.

“We’re seeing a very broad geography, protest numbers in many regions not seen in 30 years as well as the places where protests were previously unheard of,” Alexander Kynev, who specialises in local politics in Russian regions, said of the nationwide rallies on the Dozhd TV channel.

The city of Vladimir, one of Russia’s medieval capitals about 200 kilometres east of Moscow, is just a two-hour train ride away from Moscow but the wealth gap is stark: The average monthly salary here is half of what Muscovites make, and most of the city’s buses look battered and in need of replacement.

Ilya Kosygin, a 37-year-old political activist - Maria Turchenkova 
Ilya Kosygin, a 37-year-old political activist – Maria Turchenkova

Ilya Kosygin, a local activist who dabbles in journalism, got politically active in 2011 when Russia rose up against the results of a blatantly rigged parliamentary election. Yet, even then political rallies in Vladimir were much smaller.

“I don’t remember this size of protests here in my lifetime,” Mr Kosygin, 37, told the Telegraph in his office in a snow-covered street, dotted with two-storey wooden cottages.

“Maybe there was something like this in the 1990s, but I was too young.”

It all began with a near-fatal poisoning of Mr Navalny, the Kremlin’s most formidable critic, who fell into a coma last August before recovering weeks later.

He accused the Kremlin of trying to kill him and embarrassed Russia’s intelligence agencies even further by prank-calling one of the FSB agents suspected to be behind the attack and getting him to confess.

Defying the Kremlin’s threats of prosecution, the 44-year-old anti-corruption crusader flew back home on January 17th for the first time since he was airlifted to Germany. He was detained passport control and arrested for 30 days for allegedly violating the terms of his suspended sentence that ran out a month earlier.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a rally in memory of politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow - REUTERS
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a rally in memory of politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow – REUTERS

Public anger was also whipped by Mr Navalny’s latest investigation about President Putin’s alleged palace that got more than 100 million views on YouTube since it came out the day after Mr Navalny’s arrest.

Authorities have warned protesters across the country against what they called illegal gatherings, threatening with arrests.

That did not stop Vladimir Usachev, a soft-spoken businessman from Vladimir who said he was inspired by Mr Navalny’s daring return to a certain incarceration, from joining the rally last Saturday .

“It was a very brave thing to do,” he said of Mr Navalny’s return to Russia.

“I would have felt ashamed staying at home after he did that thing.”

The protest crowd, chanting “Putin is a thief,” rallied on the main square by the grey modernist cube of the local theatre and marched up the main street past Vladimir’s 12th century Golden Gate before the police moved in and arrested several dozen, including Mr Usachev.

The 45-year-old, who recently shut down his furniture store after nearly 15 years due to a steady decline in his clients’ disposable incomes, spent 48 hours in custody before he was released and fined 15,000 rubles (£145) for taking part in an unauthorised protest.

Vasily Grauer, Igor Golov and Vladimir Usachev became friends after being arrested for the participation in a rally in support of Alexey Navalny - Maria Turchenkova 
Vasily Grauer, Igor Golov and Vladimir Usachev became friends after being arrested for the participation in a rally in support of Alexey Navalny – Maria Turchenkova

Mr Usachev bonded with some of his fellow cellmates who, for the most part, were first-time protesters with university degrees and good jobs.

Over a pizza to talk about plans for the next rally on Sunday, the three men said that they all had been patient for too long, waiting for the Kremlin to deliver.

The zeal to protest is still there, but one of the men, Vasily Grauer, a 38-year-old engineer, is ambivalent after being told by his boss that he would risk losing his job if he were caught by the police at an opposition rally again.

“People are scared of losing the little that they have: People at work came by and shook my hand after the protest. Many say they would have come out too but they were too scared,” Mr Grauer, who works in a private water purification company, said.

“We all want to be seen and heard and included in the decision-making.”

People walk in downtown of Vladimir, the city 180 km. away from Moscow - Maria Turchenkova 
People walk in downtown of Vladimir, the city 180 km. away from Moscow – Maria Turchenkova

Russian authorities earlier this week double-downed on their crackdown on the opposition, placing four prominent activists including Mr Navalny’s close ally and his brother, under house arrest and searching a dozen homes in a broad criminal probe into violations of coronavirus restrictions.

The opposition raised the stakes earlier this week by announcing the Sunday rally on Lubyanka Square near the headquarters of the FSB intelligence agency.

The Moscow City Hall responded by ordering to shut down eight underground stations, divert a dozen buses and close off several central streets on Sunday in a security lockdown not seen since civil disturbances in the Russian capital in 1993.

Back in Vladimir, Mr Yevseyev, the retired officer who now works in banking, took the next week off at work so that he would not worry about getting arrested again.

“Of course, I’m going to go out. What else is there to do?”

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