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In Russia, Even Snowmen Can't Escape The Navalny Crackdown

Yelena Kalinina's snowmen in the village of Zachachye in the northern Arkhangelsk region.
Yelena Kalinina's snowmen in the village of Zachachye in the northern Arkhangelsk region.

As Russia erupted with a wave of anti-government protests in support of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny on January 23, mother of four Yelena Kalinina was unable to attend.

So she ventured out into the bitter cold one recent morning to stage her own, unique demonstration.

Outside her house in the village of Zachachye in the northern Arkhangelsk region, she made four snowmen to which she stuck pieces of cardboard with slogans reading “Down With The Tsar!” and “This Is Our Country!”

“A mass picket in Zachachye,” she wrote on social media, appending images that soon prompted a blizzard of comments and "likes."

Police came to Kalinina’s home early the following day. They removed the cardboard signs and whisked her off to a nearby village for questioning.

“They told me this was a decision from above, from [the regional capital] Arkhangelsk,” she said in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, adding that the police officers soon released her without charge because they apparently couldn’t settle on one.

As Russian authorities raid the homes of Navalny supporters in Moscow and move to prosecute people who took part in the rallies in more than 80 cities, even small-scale actions like Kalinina’s are eliciting a tough response.

Surveys by sociologists have shown that around 40 percent of participants in the January 23 protests were taking part in demonstrations for the first time, a fact that has rattled the Kremlin and fueled a campaign to hold organizers accountable and prevent a repeat.

Leonid Volkov, a top Navalny aide, has been charged with inciting minors to protest, an accusation he denies but one which has been promoted in state TV propaganda aimed at discrediting the opposition movement.

Kalinina is not one of the growing number of first-time dissenters. The 44-year-old gained prominence in Arkhangelsk in 2018 as one of the organizers of a local protest movement against plans to build a huge landfill site in the region to process Moscow’s trash.

Navalny Supporter Defiantly Plays Piano As Russian Police Raid Her Home
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WATCH: Navalny Supporter Defiantly Plays Piano As Russian Police Raid Her Home

She attended multiple demonstrations in Arkhangelsk, and was slapped with several fines for her participation.

“People ask me: Do you support Navalny?” she wrote in a post after the opposition leader’s return to Russia on January 17 after recovering in Germany from a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin. “I answer: I’m against Putin!”

Despite the targeted crackdown this week and official warnings about the consequences of joining anti-government protests, Russia’s opposition has called for another series of rallies on January 31.

Unfazed by her latest reprimand, Kalinina said she would continue to make her voice heard.

“The only way to change the situation in our country is to speak out and not be afraid,” she said. “As for the snowmen, they’re still standing. Perhaps they’ll pull another trick.”

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Matthew Luxmoore based on an interview by Karina Zabolotnaya of the North Desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service
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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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