When Aleksei Navalny addressed supporters at a St. Petersburg banquet hall to promote his campaign to unseat United Russia's candidates in local elections this spring, he called for mass protests and civil disobedience if the opposition is barred from running.
"If they don't register you, we will go and close the roads. Agreed?" he shouted, as the crowd erupted in applause.
But amid the rush of media coverage that followed the February 2 event, some commentators drew attention to another meeting Navalny was accused of holding that day, setting off a bizarre chain of allegations and denials involving the opposition leader and a controversial Russian businessman popularly known as "Putin's chef."
On February 3, popular Telegram channel Nezygar published photos it claimed were proof that the opposition leader had met with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman indicted by Washington in February 2018 on charges of orchestrating Moscow's meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and suspected of funding Russia's military involvement in Syria and Africa.
Two of the photos purport to show Navalny walking on the sidewalk outside the Sokos hotel with his secretary Kira Yarmysh; another shows a man resembling Prigozhin passing what appears to be the same balcony of the hotel. The post does not clarify when the photos were taken, and none of the photos shows the two men together.
In a text accompanying the photos, Nezygar alleges that the meeting had taken place on the sixth floor of the Sokos hotel in St. Petersburg, and that Navalny afterward climbed into a Volkswagen parked outside while Prigozhin walked by foot to a nearby building. The address it cites for the building -- 7 Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment -- belongs to Concord Catering, the restaurant business Prigozhin allegedly owns.
Navalny immediately took to Telegram to denounce the claims as "black PR" and Telegram channels as an unreliable source of information. He explained that he had been part of a group of seven people that checked into the Sokos hotel on February 2, and the published photos likely came from people that followed his team throughout their stay in the city. He denied that he had met with Prigozhin and alleged that the businessman reputed to have close ties to the Kremlin had himself ordered Nezygar to spread the rumor.
In November, investigative outfit Proyekt published a report claiming that political channels on Telegram had been infiltrated by people close to the Kremlin and were increasingly being used to discredit the Russian opposition, and Navalny in particular.
Among the claims made in the investigation is that Nezygar, one of the most popular channels among journalists and the elite with over 200,000 followers, is controlled by the deputy head of Putin's administration, Aleksei Gromov.
'Have Things Gotten THAT Bad?'
But by the time Navalny mounted a campaign to quash the rumor, it had spread online. Popular Prague-based blogger Rustem Adagamov tweeted a link to the Nezygar post, appending a summary of the claims made. Navalny angrily rebuffed it in the comments section.
"Rustem, I understand that you live in a foreign country. You have no money. You've sunk so low that you're working for [Ksenia] Sobchak," Navalny wrote, referring to the controversial socialite who ran against Putin in the 2018 presidential election. "But do you really have to become an old revolting prostitute? Have things gotten THAT bad?"
Other Twitter users reacted with humor, mocking the Nezygar post. "Shocking news! Navalny paid a visit to Chip 'n' Dale to discuss a plan to rescue Russia! I attach photo evidence," reads one tweet, alongside an image of Navalny pressing a door buzzer and another of the two cartoon characters.
Eventually Navalny himself joined in the mockery, tweeting a photoshopped version of a photo of Prigozhin serving a meal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Putin replaced by an image of Navalny eating noodles from a takeaway box.
"Anonymous Telegram channels have published proof that simply destroys me," reads the caption. "There are no more justifications. Forgive me, friends."
There was, however, another round of allegation and denial. The twist came when the BBC's Russian service published comments it received from Prigozhin's press service, in which the businessmen's representatives confirmed a meeting with Navalny had taken place.
One of the topics discussed, they say, was an offer Navalny allegedly made to stop publishing compromising material about Prigozhin's business in exchange for "loyalty" toward Navalny's team during the upcoming municipal elections in St. Petersburg. Prigozhin is cited as responding: "I don't exchange soldiers for a marshal."
Navalny repeated his denial of the rumors. "Prigozhin is lying and no meeting took place," he told the BBC.
Navalny had come to St. Petersburg to launch his "smart voting" program, a campaign to oust United Russia deputies from the city's parliament. In a speech to several dozen supporters beside the Smolenka River on February 2, he said that 90 percent of the municipal deputies in St. Petersburg represent the ruling party, and urged the opposition to band together to unseat them.
"If we don't start now, then by 2030 nothing will have changed," he said.