MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Russia.
The last two weeks in Russia show unrest among its people that nation hasn’t seen in years. This follows the arrest of popular opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: What does this mean for Vladimir Putin’s regime? And could the protests bring lasting change to Russia? WORLD correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt reports.
AUDIO: [Protesters shouting, sound of clubs, shouting]
JENNY LIND SCHMITT, CORRESPONDENT: Police violently beat and arrested more than a thousand protesters in Moscow and Saint Petersburg Tuesday night. The violence erupted after a court sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to two and a half years in prison. That followed arrests of over 5,000 people on Sunday as protesters turned out across the country for a second week of demonstrations.
In the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk, protesters braved temperatures of minus 40 degrees celsius, shouting “Putin is a thief.”
The Kremlin’s response across the nation was swift and violent. It denounced the protests as illegal and a threat to public health.
Protesters are demanding Navalny’s release from prison, where he’s been held since his return to Russia last month. From the police station after his arrest, he sent a message to supporters, calling for them to go out into the streets. “Not for me,” he said, “but for yourselves, for your future.”
NAVALNY: I’m asking you not to keep silent, to keep fighting. Go out on the street. No one but us can defend us. And we are many. And if we want something we will get it.
MUSIC: [Opening music from Putin’s Palace]
At the same time, Navalny’s organization released an explosive investigative documentary called “Putin’s Palace.” Over two hours it traces corruption between Putin and his cronies, showing how they diverted funds to build the Russian president an opulent estate on the Black Sea. This during a period when the government raised the Russian retirement age by five years and real Russian incomes dropped by 10 percent. The documentary has been viewed more than 100 million times.
The film motivated protesters to take to the streets. Some carried gold colored toilet brushes, a reference to the extravagances reported in the documentary. Others simply say Navalny’s detention is illegal, and they fear the erosion of civil rights.
KOLESNIKOV: It was the incentive for people who were not politicized to go to the streets. But these people were ready to be politicized.
Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow and Russian expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He says that there is a shift now, in that the social classes that have traditionally supported Putin also took part in the protests.
KOLESNIKOV: We’re talking about advanced classes, especially in the cities. Urban well-educated classes. Middle classes. It means that Navalny has changed something in this perception.
Kolesnikov says it’s also worth noting how widespread the protests are across the country.
KOLESNIKOV: But now he became the symbol of resistance in civil society. It means that Navalny has a new quality. He became not only a politician, but he became a moral force…
Bishop Albert Ratkin is the pastor of the Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith Pentecostal Church in Kaluga, about two hours outside Moscow. His church has experienced government corruption and meddling first hand. The congregation bought an old Soviet building 21 years ago. But the former governor had promised the land to someone else. So local authorities sided with developers trying to get the property to build a shopping center.
RATKIN: Twenty-one years now we’re in the courts, all kinds of courts, so many courts. Last year, 2020, we had 28 different sessions in different courts.
Last year the government sealed the building and prevented the church from renting space anywhere in town. They had to rent a large tent to hold services. They heat it, but it’s still bitterly cold now in the Russian winter.
In recent years the Kremlin also has used anti-extremist campaigns as an excuse to plague Protestants and other religious minorities with unclear rules.
RATKIN: If you invite someone to the church, the law says you must have a special document to invite people. We said, “No no no, it’s in our constitution we confess our faith!” They said: “No no no! You must have special documents from your religious organization to preach or to invite people.”
Though an interpreter Albert Ratkin says that while many Russian Christians believe that politics is dirty business, and others are afraid of the consequences, he must speak up as a citizen.
RATKIN: The whole of Russia belongs to a very small group of people, and other people don’t have a chance. I’m trying to protect the rights of believers in Russia. I think it is very important.
Alexei Navalny’s arrest and conviction has struck a chord in a country where average citizens feel disillusioned about the status quo. Many feel that if Putin isn’t stopped now, it will be too late. Relentless protests in neighboring Belarus encouraged Russia’s opposition groups. But as the situation in that country has shown, change doesn’t come overnight.
KOLESNIKOV: We must avoid euphoria. Because we can’t wait for a change of power because of street protests. The regime is still stable, and this is a full scale authoritarian regime which is ready to pursue a line of force.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Lind Schmitt.