Supporters of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny plan to hold candlelit gatherings in residential courtyards across Russia on Sunday despite warnings that they could be arrested.
Navalny’s allies have declared a moratorium on street rallies until the spring after police detained thousands of people at protests in the past few weeks against the opposition politician’s arrest and imprisonment.
But they want Russians to show solidarity with Navalny by gathering outside their homes for 15 minutes on Valentine’s Day evening, shining their mobile phone torches and arranging candles in the shape of a heart.
“(President Vladimir) Putin is fear. Navalny is love. That’s why we will win,” Leonid Volkov, one of Navalny’s close allies, wrote on Twitter when calling on people to gather.
Navalny was arrested in January on his return from Germany, where he had been recovering from a suspected poisoning by Russia’s FSB spy agency that left him fighting for his life. He was jailed on 2 February for violating parole on what he said were trumped-up charges.
He blames Putin for the poisoning, and western countries are considering fresh sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin denies any involvement and questions whether Navalny was poisoned.
Volkov, who is based in Lithuania, is one of several Navalny allies abroad or under house arrest in Russia.
He urged people to flood social media with pictures of Sunday’s gatherings – a new tactic by the opposition that resembles political actions in neighbouring Belarus – using the hashtag #loveisstrongerthanfear in Russian.
Another activist has called on women to form a human chain on a street in Moscow on Sunday afternoon in support of Navalny’s wife, Yulia, who flew to Germany this week, and other women affected by the police crackdown against protesters.
Russian law enforcement agencies said on Thursday that people taking part in unsanctioned rallies could face criminal charges.
Some rights groups have accused police of using disproportionate force against protesters in recent weeks. The Kremlin has denied repression by police and says the protests were illegal as they were not approved and risk spreading Covid-19.
Earlier this week, Putin blamed the pandemic for fuelling the protests and tried to downplay the role of Navalny. Speaking at a meeting of chief editors of mostly pro-government media, Putin refused to call Navalny by name, referring to him as “the defendant“.
“This defendant is being used just as people’s fatigue is emerging all over the world, including in our country,” he said. “Irritation has piled up, people have become disgruntled including by their living conditions, by the level of income.“
Navalny was in effect an outlet for anger at the authorities over the pandemic, he argued.
“Be it pandemic or not pandemic. Who is to blame? The authorities. But that’s the fate of the authorities.”