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The Week In Russia: New Year, New Era, New Exile?

Lyubov Sobol (left) is a lawyer and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin's most prominent foe, Aleksei Navalny (right).
Lyubov Sobol (left) is a lawyer and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin's most prominent foe, Aleksei Navalny (right).

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In the Soviet era, and particularly during dictator Josef Stalin’s purges, one of the many fears was of a knock on the door when no guests were expected. Night or day, it could mean that agents of the state had come for you -- and that you could be arrested, condemned in a cursory trial, and sent to the gulag.

In a bizarre reversal of sorts, one that may be emblematic of this particular moment in the long era of President Vladimir Putin, a Kremlin opponent was arrested after knocking on a door -- or ringing a doorbell, to be precise.

Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and ally of Putin’s most prominent foe, Aleksei Navalny, was detained after ringing the bell at the apartment of a man whom a report by the open-source research group Bellingcat and its partners identified as a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer allegedly involved in Navalny’s poisoning with a nerve agent in the Siberian city of Tomsk in August.

Sobol was fined and released -- two associates who were at Konstantin Kudryavtsev’s door with her on December 21 were jailed for a week -- but was detained again on December 25. This time, she was held for 48 hours and accused of trespassing "with the use or threat of violence” -- and could be sentenced to five years in prison if tried and convicted.

Russian Security Forces Raid Home Of Navalny Lawyer Sobol
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Sobol says there was no violence or threat of violence, and there is no public evidence of any.

Her own apartment was subjected to more than a knock on the door: Black-clad, helmeted law enforcement officers broke an outer door and searched her apartment shortly after 7 a.m., seizing computers and phones, she and an associate said.

The prospect of a prison term for ringing a doorbell was far from the only outlandish development in a busy, bizarre few weeks of the continuing showdown between Navalny and Putin, which started more than a decade ago.

'Enemies' And 'Agents'

Sobol probably wouldn’t have been at that door had Navalny not managed to reach a man he says was Kudryavtsev in a phone call from Berlin, where the opposition politician is recuperating after the August 20 poisoning with what German and other authorities say was a variant of the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok, and -- by posing as a superior in the Russian law enforcement hierarchy -- elicited an apparent confession of involvement.

That phone call and the Bellingcat report were among several developments that have embarrassed the Kremlin -- or seemingly should have, given that they have exposed alleged corruption among people close to Putin or revealed other information that, for many audiences, appears to cast him in an unenviable light.

The case against Sobol is also far from the only sign of what Kremlin critics, rights groups, and foreign governments suspect is a stepped-up Kremlin effort to silence dissent and quash civil society ahead of parliamentary elections in 2021 and later a decision by Putin -- or the announcement of a decision already made -- to secure reelection in 2024 or not.

The authoritarian moves come at a time when the economy is struggling, Putin’s popularity is weaker than it once was, and the coronavirus continues to hit hard amid resistance among Russians to a vaunted vaccine. The government all but admitted this week that the real death toll from COVID-19 is more than three times higher than the official figure of about 57,000.

The measures include a slew of new laws strengthening Putin and tightening the Kremlin’s control over politics, further restricting public gatherings, and broadening the state’s ability to target journalists, activists, and others -- pretty much anyone, in fact -- by branding them “foreign agents,” a term that has echoes of the Soviet-era concept of “enemies of the people.”

While 2020 has been trashed worldwide as terrible year, a grim meme making the rounds suggests that the next one may not be better, at least in terms of rights and freedoms in Russia.

“Don’t buy a 2021 calendar -- just get out your old one from 1937,” it goes, referring to the darkest year of Stalin’s Great Terror. “They’re exactly the same.”

'Like Trotsky For Stalin'

Reaching back to the same era for an analogy, Russian political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov said that Navalny -- despite Putin’s refusal to utter his name -- is clearly being cast by the Kremlin as Public Enemy No. 1 some 80 years later.

“Navalny is the main foe, of course,” Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL's Russian Service on December 28.

“Navalny for Putin is like [Leon] Trotsky was for Stalin,” he said, referring to the fellow revolutionary and rival for power who was expelled from the Soviet Union after Stalin’s rise and assassinated in exile in Mexico City, in 1940, by an agent of Stalin’s NKVD secret police -- a precursor of the FSB.

Almost exactly a decade ago, former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky had his sentence lengthened to 14 years at a second trial.
Almost exactly a decade ago, former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky had his sentence lengthened to 14 years at a second trial.

The continuing struggle between Putin and Navalny also contains echoes of Putin’s rivalry with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon whose prosecution and imprisonment defined much of the first 15 years of the Putin era. A key part of it was the dismantling of Khodorkovsky’s huge oil company, Yukos, whose assets soon ended up making Rosneft, the state producer headed by a close Putin ally, Russia’s largest.

Three years after that, in December 2013, Khodorkovsky was pardoned by Putin -- who said he was acting out of “principles of humanity” because the jailed tycoon’s mother was ill -- and swiftly released from a remote northern prison and flown out of the country. He has not returned to Russia, where he could face further prosecution, and has remained a vocal foe of Putin.

Fast forward another seven years, to December 29, 2020. The Russian Investigative Committee -- also headed by a Putin ally -- announced new fraud allegations against Navalny, accusing him of stealing hundreds of millions of rubles donated to the organization that has been his platform for investigations into alleged corruption by members of the ruling elite.

'They're Going All In'

The announcement came eight days after Navalny released a video -- which had more than 20 million views in less than a week -- about his phone call with the purported FSB operative allegedly involved in his poisoning.

Like Khodorkovsky, Navalny has been tried and convicted twice on financial-crimes charges he contends were fabricated. He has been jailed many times for organizing protests but never imprisoned for a long period, as he was given suspended sentences in both big cases.

Navalny, who blames Putin for his poisoning, contended that the new allegations were the Kremlin's revenge against him for surviving and for seeking to exposing those who were behind it, saying he had predicted Putin’s government would "try to jail me for not dying and then looking for my [would-be] killers."

The Investigative Committee claims Navalny spent more than 350 million rubles ($4.8 million) of the money donated to his Anti-Corruption Foundation acquiring personal items and vacationing abroad -- allegations that seem aimed to suggest to Russians that he is, at best, no better than those in Putin’s circle whose wildly expensive real estate and lavish lifestyles he has sought to expose.

The new case -- as well as a claim by the authorities that Navalny has violated the terms of his suspended sentence in one of the previous convictions -- are also widely seen as an effort by Putin’s government to ensure that Navalny, 44, never returns to Russia.

“After the unsuccessful poisoning[,] keeping Navalny abroad is the second-best thing that the Kremlin could hope to achieve and they're going all-in,” U.S.-based political analyst András Tóth-Czifra wrote on Twitter on December 29.

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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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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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