Following mass rallies that saw thousands of detentions, supporters of jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny have been using light from cell phones, flashlights, and candles as a new form of protest.
The February 14 protest action, called by Navalny’s team under the motto “Love is stronger than fear,” began in Russia’s Far East where darkness falls earlier than elsewhere in the country, including in the cities of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Vladivostok, and Khabarovsk.
Photos shared on social media showed small groups of people standing outdoors and holding flashlights or standing by candles arranged in the shape of a heart to mark the Valentine’s Day protest.
In the Russian capital, more than 20 people could be seen at Moscow State University forming a heart while holding flashlights.
It was not possible to determine how many people participated in the nationwide action, during which no detentions were reported.
Navalny’s team had called on people across Russia to switch on their mobile phone flashlights for 15 minutes beginning at 8 p.m. local time and shine the light into the sky from their homes or the courtyards of their apartment buildings, or to arrange candles in a heart shape.
In the afternoon in Moscow, about 200 women took part in a so-called Chain Of Solidary And Love along Old Arbat Street in support of Russian women prosecuted for political reasons. A similar protest attracted about 70 people in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city.
Images shared on social media showed women holding a white ribbon, as well as red roses, balloons, and heart signs with the names of female political prisoners written on them. Demonstrators also sang, “Love is stronger than fear.”
The organizers said on their Facebook page that the rallies were dedicated to the women who were “beaten and tortured by police during peaceful protests,” as well as “to everyone who spends their days in courts, police buses, and special detention centers.”
The protests were also dedicated to Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, lawyer Lyubov Sobol, Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina, municipal deputy Lucy Shtein, Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh, and Doctors’ Alliance head Anastasia Vasilyeva. They all face criminal charges for calling on supporters to rally for Navalny’s release last month.
Navalnaya flew to Germany on February 10. Although no explanation was given for her departure, Navalnaya had recently been detained for taking part in unsanctioned rallies in support of her husband.
In the Urals city of Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, police detained nine people after an approved rally against political repression that was organized by the opposition parties Yabloko and PARNAS, as well as the Left Front movement, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info.
Six of the activists were later released while the other three were charged with violating the law on rallies. They are accused of using a slogan that was not on the stated agenda of the demonstration.
More than 500 people participated in the rally, which was authorized for only 200 people.
The candle-lit protest across Russia is designed to make it difficult for the police to take action, but the Kremlin has signaled its contempt for the event.
Russia’s federal media regulator ordered media outlets on February 12 , including RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time TV, to delete all reports about the planned protest.
The official order from Roskomnadzor said Russian authorities would consider any reporting about the flashlight protest to be a call for people to take part in an unsanctioned public demonstration and mass disorder.
Navalny’s team in Tomsk said they were also warned by the city prosecutor’s office on February 12 that they could be held liable for staging an unsanctioned protest action.
Leonid Volkov, director of Navalny’s network of teams across Russia, has announced a moratorium on street protests in response to police crackdowns against mass demonstrations that have led to tens of thousands of arrests across Russia.
Volkov called the protest using light a nonviolent way for Russians to show the extent of outrage over Navalny’s treatment without subjecting themselves to arrests and police abuse.
Navalny, 44, a staunch critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was arrested on January 17 after returning to Russia from Germany where he had been treated for a nerve-agent poisoning he says was ordered by Putin. The Kremlin denies it had any role in the attack.
Navalny’s detention sparked outrage across the country and much of the West, with tens of thousands of Russians taking part in street rallies on January 23 and 31.
Police cracked down harshly on the demonstrations, putting many of Navalny’s political allies behind bars and detaining thousands more — sometimes violently — as they gathered on the streets. The crackdown led Volkov to call for a pause in the street demonstrations until the spring.
A Russian court on February 2 ruled that Navalny was guilty of violating the terms of his suspended sentence relating to an embezzlement case that he has called politically motivated. The judge ruled that he violated parole conditions while recovering from the near-fatal poisoning in Germany.
The court converted the sentence to 3 1/2 years in prison. Given credit for time already spent in detention, the court said Navalny must serve another two years and eight months behind bars.
Law enforcement officers on February 13 conducted another search of one of Navalny’s offices, activists said.
The search in Chelyabinsk took place while nobody was present in the office, the activists said on Twitter.
“We came to the headquarters and found this,” the activists tweeted together with several pictures of the ransacked office. “The premises were raided while we were working remotely,” the activists said.