In September 2020, Sergei Boiko, then the head of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s local office, unexpectedly won a seat on the Novosibirsk city council. At the time, he told RFE/RL that his association with Navalny had been nothing but a plus for him.
"Navalny’s offices are a sort of brand that guarantees you will never join with United Russia," he said after his win, explaining why many opposition-minded voters preferred his campaign to those of ostensibly independent candidates who were often tied to the Kremlin-backed ruling party.
Now, the 38-year-old Novosibirsk lawmaker is in self-imposed exile in Greece, unwilling to return to Russia for fear that a criminal case is brewing against him. Looking back over the past year, he says he could not have predicted how events in Russia would have played out in such a short time.
"If you told me that they could shut down the entire network of Navalny’s offices, which we spent five years building, with just one court decision and that they would put Navalny himself in prison without some sort of huge public reaction, I would have said that was impossible," Boiko told RFE/RL in a telephone interview this week. "That they could just ban the second-largest political force in the country – I wouldn’t have believed it."
In June, Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation (FBK) and his network of regional offices were deemed “extremist” organizations and banned by the Russian government. Since then, many of Navalny’s regional coordinators have come under pressure from security agencies. A November 29 report in the daily Kommersant said that 14 of the opposition leader’s 38 regional coordinators have already left Russia, while the whereabouts of three others remain unknown. Only nine were still involved in politics.
For Boiko, the last straw in his decision not to return to Russia was a criminal case on charges of “belonging to an extremist organization” brought against Navalny’s coordinator in Bashkortostan, Lilia Chanysheva, late last month.
News of Chanysheva’s arrest reached Boiko when he was abroad with his wife and son on a business trip, he told RFE/RL.
“We had our return tickets,” he said. “But the details of her case could easily be about me – just change the name and the city. There were a lot of similar nuances.”
“When Lilia’s case was announced, I made some inquiries, and it turned out that similar materials about me already existed. I understood that if I arrived [in Russia], I’d be taken directly from the airport to pretrial detention,” the municipal deputy said. “I was faced with the choice -- either I get on the plane and fly off to prison or I don’t get on the plane.”
'An Almost Biblical Story'
Boiko expressed admiration for Navalny, who returned to Russia in January -- following treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on President Vladimir Putin -- despite knowing that it was extremely likely he would also face prison. The coverage of Navalny’s return and detention made powerful statements about Putin and about the Russian opposition, Boiko said.
“It was an almost Biblical story,” he said. “But I have a much smaller following. A million people aren’t going to be watching me, and there would be no sense to my arrest.”
As long as he can, Boiko said, he plans to continue working as a city councilman remotely, relying on his staff and the handful of other opposition-minded deputies.
“I have an obligation to my constituents and for me that is a very serious point,” he said. “But in prison I definitely can’t help anyone.”
Since Russia’s national legislative elections in September, the country has entered a new phase of repressions in which the security organs are not acting to achieve specific political ends but simply out of “inertia.”
“Take, for example, the Chanysheva case -- there is no sense, logic, or goal in it,” he said. “Why do it? Because they can.”
“When this begins and the system runs wild, it can’t be stopped,” he added. “When paranoia reaches such a level, it can only increase.”
He predicted that, after Navalny’s supporters, certain genuinely opposition-minded Communists, like Saratov regional lawmaker Nikolai Bondarenko, could be the next targets.
“But they’ll run out of active Communists pretty quick,” he said, drawing parallels with the purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. “And then they’ll start cleaning out their own ranks. Leftists, ‘right opportunists’ -- you can always find enemies. In order to preserve the regime, the repressions will expand.”
“When you live in Russia,” he concluded, “you have to be prepared for the possibility that they will arrest and imprison you.”