ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Reports in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, say police have launched a probe into the appearance of a giant mural of jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny that survived only a matter of hours before authorities in Russian President Vladimir Putin's hometown painted over it.
Citing city law enforcement sources, reports said that the investigation was launched into "vandalism motivated by political, ideological, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred."
Investigators believe that several artists worked on the mural in which Navalny, Putin's most vocal critic, was shown smiling and making the shape of a heart with his hands with the slogan "A hero of a new time" next to them.
The mural in Putin's hometown was painted over in a matter of hours on April 28 after police came to the site to take samples of the paint and search nearby trash bins. It's not known who is responsible for the painting.
On April 29, another mural appeared in the same district, in which a masked police officer with a helmet and a gun was shown with the slogan "A hero of our time" above him.
It was not immediately clear if the mural was a sarcastic comment on the harsh crackdown on Navalny and his supporters, or a show of support for the police.
Navalny was arrested in January upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he received life-saving treatment for a poisoning attack in Siberia in August.
He blames the poisoning with a Soviet-style chemical nerve agent on Putin and the security services. The Kremlin has denied any role in the poisoning.
In February, a Moscow court ruled that while in Germany, Navalny had violated the terms of parole from an old embezzlement case that is widely considered to be politically motivated. He is currently serving a 2 1/2-year sentence at a prison in the Vladimir region.
Navalny's incarceration sparked numerous protests across Russia that were violently dispersed by police.
Leondid Volkov, a close associate of Navalny, said earlier on April 29 that the Kremlin critic's regional network will be disbanded just ahead of an expected court hearing over a request from prosecutors to declare the main pillars of Navalny's political organization as extremist.