Few if any of the workers and volunteers in structures tied to imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was surprised earlier this month when prosecutors in Moscow began procedures aimed to officially label them "extremist organizations."
"From the very beginning...it was understood that sooner or later this structure would be deemed 'extremist,'" said Zakhar Sarapulov, head of Navalny's office in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. "About two months ago we had a staff meeting and we discussed this and predicted that it would happen in the immediate future."
Leonid Volkov, the director of Navalny's network of regional offices who is currently living abroad out of concern for his safety, told Current Time the same thing.
"I would quote a Russian classic -- 'I knew it would be bad, but I didn't know how soon,'" Volkov said. "We understood that there would be a new wave of attacks on our offices. We already survived a big attack in 2019, when all of our equipment was stolen, all our bank accounts were frozen, and so on. They thought that we couldn't adapt, but we did, and we found ways to continue our work."
"This new attack," he conceded, "looks even more frightening, I'll admit."
On April 16, the Moscow prosecutor's office appealed to the Moscow City Court with a request that three Navalny organizations -- the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the Citizens' Rights Defense Foundation, and his regional network -- be officially labeled "extremist organizations." The court has announced it will hold a closed hearing on the prosecutor's request on April 26.
The Russian authorities have been widely criticized for using the country's vague anti-extremism legislation for political reasons. "Anti-extremism laws are frequently used to increase censorship and state control: silencing political opposition, journalists, and civil society," the NGO Article 19 wrote in 2019.
If the Navalny organizations are deemed "extremist," all of their employees could face arrest and prison terms from six to 10 years. In addition, the organizations' donors -- tens of thousands of Russian citizens who have made donations -- could also face prosecution for purportedly funding extremism.
"There can be no doubt that the court will grant the prosecutor's request," Sarapulov said. "I think every employee here will have to make up their own mind what to do. I can't speak for the others. For my own part, I can say that I will continue working at Navalny's office even after it is deemed 'extremist.' Of course, we will try to minimize our risks by rebranding, although most likely they will not let us register another legal entity."
Navalny himself has been in custody since he returned to Russia in January following weeks of recovery from a nerve-agent poisoning that he says was carried out by Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives acting at the behest of President Vladimir Putin. In February, Navalny was given a 2 1/2-year prison term on charges he insists were politically motivated.
On April 23, he said he would begin winding down a hunger strike he started on March 31 to protest what he called a deliberate campaign to undermine his health.
Navalny's organizations flatly deny any extremist activity and are convinced the Kremlin is persecuting them for political reasons in the run-up to national legislative elections that must be held by September 19.
"Navalny's offices and the FBK have always been organizations that insisted on the right of citizens to protest peacefully," Sarapulov said. "We have never been extremists or terrorists. All that we have done is to investigate corruption and call on people to come out onto the squares of our cities and demand their constitutional rights."
Ksenia Pakhomova, a volunteer at Navalny's office in the Siberian oil city of Kemerovo, learned about the "extremism" threat when she emerged from serving a nine-day administrative jail term for participating in a demonstration outside the prison in the Vladimir region where Navalny was being held until he was recently transferred to another prison with better medical facilities.
"I wasn't surprised at all by the news that they want to proclaim us 'extremist,'" she said. "I was only surprised that it took so long. I thought Putin would try to shut us down earlier."
Pakhomova said the attack on Navalny's groups was motivated by growing public opposition to Putin, a 68-year-old former KGB officer who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since 2000. She said the relatively small number of people who turn out to protest was backed up by a much larger pool of behind-the-scenes supporters.
"When you are jailed, you know that you will not be forgotten," she told RFE/RL. "Someone will help you by gathering information about detainees. Others will give legal aid. Others will bring you water and food. Others will contact your relatives and friends. All this is happening naturally, voluntarily, but also effectively and efficiently. Any structure would envy such self-organization."
Employees of Navalny's organizations face risks from the looming "extremism" label, Pakhomova said, but volunteers are less vulnerable.
"Among volunteers who are getting no salary, as far as I know, no one is planning to give up," she said. "People who previously tried to avoid politics now have fewer illusions. Their minds are being changed by Navalny's investigations into the illegal assets of government officials and by Navalny's arrest. But most of all by the mass detentions during the protests in January and February."
"For example, my friend's father used to support Putin," she added. "But when he found out about my arrest and why I was arrested, he stopped watching [state-run] Channel One. He probably isn't going to go to a protest, but he definitely isn't going to vote for Putin and his kind anymore. And there are more and more people like him."
'A Protest Against Dictatorship'
Anastasia Korsakova, the head of Navalny's office in the southern city of Krasnodar, said the Moscow prosecutor's request was a sign that "they have given the green light to political repressions."
"But no one among our volunteers or staff has said they might quit or is even talking about the possibility of future problems," she added. "Of course, we are living in constant expectation of detentions, fines, trials, arrests. But you can't really prepare in advance for being imprisoned. No one is ready for prison."
Sarapulov, from Navalny's office in Irkutsk, said his group maintained a closed chat group in which he posted that anyone who wants to leave the organization was free to do so without judgment.
"No one is leaving," he said. "Not one person."
And he agrees that the protests in Russia will continue. "It doesn't matter what you are protesting against in Russia -- against raising retirement ages or the rape of the constitution or tax hikes," Sarapulov said. "It all comes down to one thing -- our country has been ruled by one person for 20 years.... Any protest is a protest against dictatorship. There is nothing more important in Russia today than the struggle between dictatorship and democracy."