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Russian Pro-Navalny Protesters Show Support With Their Phones

NOEL KING, HOST:

Russia is a dangerous place to protest. Supporters of the detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny know this fact. Over the past few weeks, they have fought with police. Thousands of them have been arrested. So now they're trying something lower key. This weekend, Navalny's supporters stood in their front yards and courtyards and turned on their flashlights as a sign of civil disobedience. Reporter Charles Maynes is on the line from Moscow. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hey there. Good to be with you.

KING: Tell me about these protests.

MAYNES: Well, this was a Valentine's Day act that Navalny's team dubbed love is stronger than fear. They asked people to head out onto the courtyards at 8pm and turn on their cellphone flashlights. So I headed out in my neighborhood - this is in Moscow, in central Moscow - where I came across several people huddling in their parkas with cellphones turned on - cellphone lights turned on, including a 24 - 25-year-old IT worker named Volod (ph), who I asked what he thought this actually accomplished.

VOLOD: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: And he says this is so people can see one another and understand they're not alone in their support for Navalny. He said he'd already seen several people here with flashlights out that night. And there was a feeling of solidarity with them. But, you know, as you noted, this was a pretty lowkey affair. This is more symbolic than anything else. Tens of thousands took part in this action across the country. It was trending on Twitter last night, but, of course, few real crowds.

KING: Do Russian authorities care enough to respond to something that is largely symbolic?

MAYNES: Well, even before this happened, authorities were warning that participants could face real jail time for participating.

KING: OK.

MAYNES: The foreign ministry spokeswoman said this was a plan orchestrated by the West to undermine Russia. We had some universities even banning students from going out last night. You know, and this does tell you something about the Kremlin system of so-called managed democracy, which has this kind of allergy to uncertainty, even an impromptu flashlight vigil. And in the end, Sunday was pretty quiet, just a few arrests. But some people noted, in fact, their flashlights went out not because of anything Vladimir Putin did, but because their iPhone batteries couldn't handle the cold.

KING: (Laughter) Bless Russia. Let me ask you about larger context. So a few weeks ago, you had these mass demonstrations. They got a ton of attention. Is the opposition backing down to something that will get fewer people in trouble but will ultimately be less effective?

MAYNES: Well, that's, in a sense, what the idea was here. They certainly understood that holding a flashlight in the middle of the night is not going to shift the politics of Russia. It's not going to end up with Alexei Navalny released from prison. And there certainly were those who thought, among the opposition, that this was a pointless act last night. But in a sense, it was an attempt by Navalny's team to appeal to Russians who are unhappy with the Kremlin but aren't willing to risk confronting the police and going to jail, as we've seen happen to over 10,000 people over these past few weeks.

KING: Our correspondent Lucian Kim has described Navalny as, like, a mythic figure, a kind of superhero figure. Do people tell you that they can remain motivated if Navalny is still in jail for years, 2 1/2 years or so?

MAYNES: Yeah. It's funny you mention that. I mean, some people refer to him as Batman.

KING: (Laughter) No kidding?

MAYNES: You know, and there's a question on everyone's minds here, you know, can they function without the opposition leader? He's the only one trying to challenge Putin directly for power. But strangely enough, in conversations I have with people, I hear again and again that they're not so much devoted to Navalny as much as they say that his case, his imprisonment has become the latest example of injustice and why they're angry with the government.

KING: And very quickly, how much of a threat then really is this to Vladimir Putin?

MAYNES: Well, not so much. I mean, he's been - had threats before. He's been in power for 20 years. And without question, fear is the government's primary tactic to keep people off the streets. The message seems to be that if you want to join the protests, you'll pay a price.

KING: Reporter Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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