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Praise And Humor -- And Words Of Warning For Putin -- As Navalny Returns To Russia And Is Detained

Navalny was detained not long after his arrival in Moscow.
Navalny was detained not long after his arrival in Moscow.

A cartoon posted on Telegram showed a police van with a set of stairs perched atop it -- a wry suggestion that Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny would be carted away straight from the plane upon arrival in Russia after five months in Germany recuperating from a poisoning that he blames on President Vladimir Putin.

In the event, his detention was not quite so immediate -- but it was close.

After exiting the Pobeda airlines jet that had been diverted from one Moscow airport to another and riding a bus to the terminal -- like countless travelers over the years -- he was met by a more unusual welcome: law enforcement officers who detained him before he could cross into Russia at passport control. His lawyer was not allowed to go with him, nor was his wife.

Navalny -- an attorney, opposition politician, and anti-corruption crusader who has been Putin's most prominent opponent for nearly a decade and was barred from challenging him in the 2018 presidential election due to criminal convictions he contends were fabricated pretty much for that exact purpose -- arrived on a flight from Berlin after dark.

In addition to a few other regular passengers, he was accompanied by numerous journalists who took the flight to stay close to what was probably the biggest story in Russia since, well, Navalny's poisoning with what Western labs and governments say was a variant of the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok in the Siberian city of Tomsk on August 20, 2020.

His arrival was also accompanied by Twitter posts, memes, and other remarks on the very social networks he has used as a medium for opposition in a country where the state dominates television and has drastically narrowed the independence of the media since Putin came to power about 21 years ago.

The messages, in many cases, came from critics of the Kremlin and contained praise for Navalny, who flew home despite warnings that he would be detained and despite criminal accusations -- all denied by him and his supporters -- that could eventually land him in prison for a decade or more.

"I called Navalny’s parents and told them that they have a remarkable son -- a worthy citizen of Russia, courageous and decent," Yevgeny Roizman, an opposition politician who was mayor of the city of Yekaterinburg in 2013-18, said on Twitter. It included a photo of Navalny and his wife, Yulia, that was also featured in other social-media comments.

In contrast to portrayals of Navalny as brave were suggestions that Putin was the opposite. Among other things, they pointed to the diversion of Navalny's flight, the heavy security presence at Vnukovo airport, where it had been scheduled to land, and the police crackdown on supporters who had gone there to greet him.

One pungent post surmised that "the Kremlin has run out of Pampers."

"The smell can no longer be hidden," Lev Shlosberg, an opposition member of the regional legislature in Russia's Pskov region, wrote on Twitter.

Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London, wrote before Navalny's arrival that "if the authorities are wise, they will let Navalny walk out of the airport on his own steam -- knowing they can always arrest him later -- in order to make all of the hype look ridiculous."

That did not happen -- even though Putin, in an annual press conference in December 2020, sought to suggest that Navalny is not important enough to the Kremlin for the state to try to poison him, adding, "Who needs him?"

Another possible sign that Putin does think about Navalny more than he lets on is the fact that he and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, studiously avoid uttering Navalny's name -- instead using euphemistic descriptions like "the blogger" or "the Berlin patient."

Peskov appeared to continue to imply that the Kremlin was hardly keeping tabs on Navalny: Shortly after his arrival, the media outlet Dozhd (TV Rain) quoted the spokesman as responding to a question about his detention by saying: "I'm sorry. Was he detained in Germany? I'm not up on it."

At the same time, Greene suggested that the heavy security preparations indicated that "the Kremlin's anxiety about Navalny thus far exceeds the public's enthusiasm for him" -- an apparent reference to the fact that while millions of Russians have watched his videos detailing alleged corruption among Putin's associates, the breadth of his popular appeal is unclear.

Navalny Detained At Moscow Airport
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Sarah Hurst, who curates the X Soviet feed on Twitter, played off observations of that sort in a darkly acerbic fashion, writing: "You may not like Navalny, but you can't have a choice of appealing Russian opposition politicians, because the others are dead."

Russian crime novelist and Kremlin critic Grigory Chkhartishvili, who writes under the pen name Boris Akunin, described the developments in simple, stark terms.

"My main impression, to put it briefly and without emotion, is that Aleksei Navalny is dealing a blow to Putin's regime while sacrificing himself," he wrote on Facebook.

And Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian journalist, analyst, and commentator at Bloomberg, suggested that Navalny's arrival was one step in a process that will take time.

"Courage is the ultimate weapon," Bershidsky wrote. "Putin cannot win. It's just taking him a long time to lose."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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