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In Russia's Provinces, Navalny's Besieged Movement Says It's 'Again Gathering Force'

In the city of Vladimir, people complain about crumbling infrastructure and potholed roads, but living standards are the biggest gripe.
In the city of Vladimir, people complain about crumbling infrastructure and potholed roads, but living standards are the biggest gripe.

VLADIMIR, Russia -- Ivan Tumanov was born three days before Vladimir Putin first became Russia's president at the turn of the millennium. Now the 21-year-old who lives with his mother is the newest coordinator of an opposition movement that Putin, still president, is accused of using brutal tactics to dismantle.

Since Putin's biggest critic, Aleksei Navalny, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on February 2, his acolytes throughout Russia have been systematically targeted with raids, criminal charges, and police beatings amid a sweeping crackdown ahead of parliamentary elections expected in September.

But far from capitulating, his team this month announced the launch of 10 new regional offices to add to its Russia-wide network of branches that investigate local corruption, organize protests, and contest elections. Tumanov, a straight-talking, bearded third-year law student, got the nod in his native Vladimir, a placid provincial city 180 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

"We're once again gathering force," the newly minted Navalny coordinator said in an interview near a former nail salon he is turning into a campaign office. "And the danger we face by opening an opposition hub is nothing compared to the danger that our country faces if we don't engage in politics."

Ivan Tumanov was selected to lead Navalny’s branch in Vladimir.
Ivan Tumanov was selected to lead Navalny’s branch in Vladimir.

The regions chosen to host the new branches are seen by Navalny's team as offering fertile ground for the opposition to make inroads in advance of the crucial elections to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament and a major staging point for turning Kremlin initiatives into law.

Vladimir, a historic city of 350,000 named after a medieval prince, saw its largest protest in years on January 23, when some 2,000 people came out to denounce state corruption and Navalny's jailing after he returned from Germany following treatment for a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin. Nationwide, more than 100,000 people joined protests that day and on January 31, prompting a violent crackdown that saw some 10,000 arrested.

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Vladimir is less than two hours by train from Moscow but average monthly salaries, at 35,000 rubles ($460), pale in comparison. Residents complain about crumbling infrastructure and potholed roads, but living standards are the biggest gripe. Disposable incomes plunged in the second quarter of 2020 by the largest margin since Russia's 1998 default, and years of falling wages and rising consumer prices are fueling the protest mood even as the Kremlin works to limit dissent.

"People just don't have money," says Vladimir Usachyov, a 45-year-old Vladimir entrepreneur who closed his once-thriving furniture business after almost two decades due to lack of demand. Usachyov blames the government, saying it has squeezed citizens dry and made it impossible for most small businesses to survive. "Because of Putin's policies, life has become much tougher," he said.

Vladimir Usachyov was forced to close his furniture store and blames the government for squeezing small businesses.
Vladimir Usachyov was forced to close his furniture store and blames the government for squeezing small businesses.

He didn't warn his wife when he left home to join the protest on January 23, and he returned home more than two days later after a stint in a police cell with other protesters and a fine of 14,000 rubles ($187) for attending an illegal gathering. The unemployed father of three sons now hopes to join Tumanov's team as a volunteer, but said, "I don't see a future for my children while this government is in place."

'Job Of Your Dreams'

Against this backdrop, the mandate of Navalny coordinators across Russia is to reach new constituencies while highlighting the results of the corruption they expose. In January, Navalny's video report about a sumptuous Black Sea estate allegedly built for Putin went viral online and helped spark the protest wave - Tumanov and his colleagues hope their future investigations have the same kind of impact.

"We can't lock a Putin supporter up in an asylum, slap an electric helmet on him, and tell him what freedom is," Tumanov said. "No, we must show people: 'This is how well you could live, and this is why you don't. Because members of our government have palaces.'"

Tumanov is part of a generation that embraced activism during a nationwide protest wave in March 2017 prompted by the release of another Navalny probe targeting then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's wealth. Navalny had launched a bid to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election, and he arrived in Vladimir that month to open a campaign office. Tumanov signed on as a volunteer tasked with managing its social-media presence.

When the government barred Navalny from running, the Vladimir campaign office and another several dozen across Russia closed, though some 40 remained to coordinate local activism during Putin's fourth presidential term. But this month, Leonid Volkov, who is responsible for Navalny's regional network, announced an expansion and a series of vacancies for regional managers.

"A friendly youthful team, the chance to improve Russia, parcels to your jail cell as part of the benefits package -- simply put, we have the job of your dreams," Volkov wrote in an acerbic post on his website on March 9.

Tumanov sent his resume and aced a set of interviews that focused heavily on his past experience in opposition politics. He was asked about his biography and his convictions, and questioned on ways the authorities might apply pressure on him and his family. His first tasks on the job were to build a team and secure office space with natural light and street access for residents seeking help or involvement in the movement. The former nail salon on the city's main drag fit the bill perfectly.

'Enormous Pressure'

But in a particularly fraught time for the opposition, many landlords are loath to take the risk. A bid to open a Navalny office in Makhachkala, the capital of the Daghestan region in Russia's North Caucasus, ended when Navalny coordinator Ruslan Ablyakimov failed to find a willing landlord and ultimately fled Daghestan in February after multiple threats and an attack by unknown assailants outside the city.

Navalny is serving out his sentence at a prison just 80 kilometers from Vladimir, in the town of Pokrov, and many of Tumanov's counterparts across Russia are serving jail time or facing criminal prosecution.

In Nizhny Novgorod, a city on the same eastward railway route out of Moscow as Vladimir, Roman Tregubov appeared in a video renouncing Navalny and urging his supporters to boycott the protests, only to later reveal the clip was recorded under duress in police custody. He has since been charged with creating a risk to public health by advocating street rallies. "The pressure on us is enormous," he told RFE/RL in a phone interview.

In Kurgan, near the border with Kazakhstan, 24-year-old Aleksei Shvarts spent two months in jail and faces potential prison time for publishing a leaked conversation in which two officials appear to be plotting voter fraud. Anton Talykov, Shvarts's deputy, told RFE/RL the persecution signaled a far darker stage in the authorities' campaign against activists in Kurgan. Neither of the officials in the leaked call has been charged.

Tumanov was also briefly swept up in the dragnet. The evening before the January 23 rally, a group of plainclothes police officers arrested him outside his home, and he spent 48 hours in custody before a judge sentenced him to five days in jail for organizing the protests.

Tumanov, who has a year of school left and regularly finds himself assuring his worried mother, predicts a dark future for Russia if its citizens shy from challenging the state on the streets and at the ballot box, and if opposition activists like himself are prevented from playing a part.

He acknowledges the risks that come with his position, but believes that in Navalny's absence, the movement he built will only gather strength. And having spent his whole life under Putin's rule, he wants a key role in that process.

"Is it dangerous? Yes, it's dangerous," he says of his work. "But if today we don't sacrifice some of our welfare or sit out our five days in jail, then later on, our whole country will pay a far higher price."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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