As Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was sent to jail this week following his high-profile detention at a Moscow airport, supporters such as Lyubov Sobol were enduring their own battles with the security forces.
After she and other activists called on Russians to take to the streets this weekend in support of Mr Navalny, security officials demanded such “illegal” calls be scrubbed from the internet under the threat of arrest, and police turned up outside their homes.
“They file as many criminal cases against us as they can, search us all the time, and drag us in for questioning to make our work harder and frighten us,” Ms Sobol, 33, one of Mr Navalny’s top aides, told the Financial Times on Wednesday after her seventh interrogation in a month.
The following day she too was detained as part of pre-emptive measures ahead of the protests planned in dozens of cities across Russia that are expected to be met with a heavy police response.
“If you want to be a politician in Russia, you have to be prepared for this,” Ms Sobol said before she was taken.
Mr Navalny has for years been the public face of the Russian opposition movement — a lightning rod for grassroots protests and a thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin. On Monday he was jailed for a month in an impromptu court heart in a police station after returning from Germany, where he had been recovering from being poisoned last summer with the nerve agent novichok.
Less well known are the cadre of activists who support him and who also live with the threat of harassments and arrest. They will now be called upon to continue the work of Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as he faces the threat of a further three-and-a-half years in prison, followed by up to 10 in a separate case.
Alexei Navalny is escorted out of a police station following the court ruling that ordered him jailed for 30 days © AFP via Getty Images
Mr Navalny’s detention will not be his first lengthy absence. Before his poisoning — which the Kremlin alternately denies happened or blames on western intelligence agencies — he was jailed more than a dozen times for protesting against Mr Putin, nearly blinded with a chemical substance by a pro-Putin activist, and spent a year under house arrest on the suspended fraud charges used as the pretext to detain him this week.
The day after Mr Navalny’s arrest, his team published a two-hour video investigation alleging that oligarchs spent billions on a lavish palace for Mr Putin on the Black Sea coast. By Friday, it had racked up more than 53m views on YouTube.
Maria Pevchikh, 33, a London School of Economics graduate who runs the foundation’s investigative unit that researched the video, said Mr Navalny ordered her team to dig into the palace while he was still in intensive care in Berlin and helped ferret out leads as he recovered.
Maria Pevchikh runs the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigative unit that researched the video alleging that oligarchs spent billions on a lavish palace for President Vladimir Putin © Anti-Corruption Foundation
As he prepared for his return to Russia, Mr Navalny gave instructions on how to run the foundation should he be arrested, according to Ms Pevchikh, and prepared a list of oligarchs and officials he wants the US and EU to place under sanctions.
“We’ve been preparing for this for seven years. They could kill him, and have already tried to. But are we ready? Yes,” said Ms Pevchikh.
Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, this week told reporters that claims Mr Putin feared Mr Navalny were “absolute nonsense”. He later added that “Putin has no such palace” as the one featured in the documentary and said the president “had nothing whatsoever to do with [Navalny’s] arrest”.
But staff at Mr Navalny’s foundation say the Kremlin’s actions suggest otherwise. Last week, police arrested one of its cameramen on charges of “inciting extremism” in two tweets that could see him jailed for five years.
Bailiffs seized Mr Navalny’s apartment last year after a court ordered him to pay Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-connected caterer, more than $1m in defamation costs. Ms Sobol and others face similar lawsuits.
The crowd-funded foundation is labelled a “foreign agent” in Russia — a term Moscow can apply to any organisation it accuses of receiving overseas support — and faces separate money laundering charges after police raided Mr Navalny’s offices in 45 cities in 2019.
Leonid Volkov, who runs Mr Navalny’s regional network, fled Russia after the raids and now manages offices as far away as Vladivostok from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.
“Alexei and I weighed up the risks and decided that at this moment it was better for the cause for me to work abroad. The loss to our work would be great and there wouldn’t be much political benefit,” Mr Volkov said.
Leonid Volkov, left, with Alexei Navalny in Germany © Leonid Volkov/AP
Vladimir Ashurkov, the foundation’s executive director, sought political asylum in the UK in 2014 after facing unrelated money laundering charges.
Ms Pevchikh, who lives in London but regularly visited Russia, has no immediate plans to return after state media claimed she was a western spy who had poisoned Mr Navalny.
For now, Mr Navalny’s allies are focusing on defying police bans to hold rallies in his support on Saturday.
“You can’t be afraid all the time,” said Ksenia Fadeeva, head of the foundation in Tomsk, the city where Mr Navalny was poisoned in August. “This is our country . . . we must fight against what’s happening and not be afraid. It certainly makes us more angry and determined.”
Ms Fadeeva was elected to the city’s council a month later, defeating a candidate from Mr Putin’s United Russia party to become one of the few members of the Navalny team to hold elected office.
Mr Navalny wants to repeat those successes through “smart voting” in parliamentary elections due to be held later this year, where Ms Sobol is leading the foundation’s slate of candidates.
Ms Pevchikh, meanwhile, is already preparing her next corruption exposé. “We’re cancelling all our other plans for the next 30 days or the next three-and-a-half years. It depends on how long they jail him for,” she said.

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