An empty portrait frame on a bare wall is what now remains inside the regional headquarters of Alexei Navalny’s opposition office in the southern city of Krasnodar.
His supporters are not unaware of the Kremlin’s pressure, but on Monday the government launched its largest operation, declaring Navalny’s entire movement an “extremist” network based in al-Qaeda.
Mr Navalny’s activists have now closed all their offices this week, or face a prison sentence like the politician, who already faces up to three years in prison in February.
“Everyone who went to work for Navalny knew how it could end. “You will probably have problems if you openly oppose the government,” said Sofia Pilukova, a 23-year-old political scientist who was a political scientist.
“Working here has been an important part of my life. I felt I was part of something bigger. ”
The huge regional network of Mr. Navalny’s supporters was officially disbanded, and on Monday the court hearings on appointing the Navalny movement as an extremist organization began. Anyone you associate with can now face up to ten years in prison.
Mr Navalny’s allies say the pressure is a calculated attack ahead of the September parliamentary elections. A recent poll by a Levada Center sociologist found that the ruling United Russia party polls at just 27 percent, down from eight years ago, as Putin’s party brand, which has been plagued by ongoing corruption scandals, grows. Toxic.
When Navalny emerged as the only opposition figure outside the Moscow city elite, his network of regional activist offices became a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
In recent years, activists have gained a foothold in remote parts of Russia, training election observers, investigating corrupt local officials, and endorsing opposition candidates.
On Monday, Ms. Pilukova and four other staffers rushed to her office in an indescribable crowd in central Krasnodar, clearing themselves of their presence for fear that a police raid might rob them of all their leaflets և Mr. Navalny’s portraits. Hoping that they would one day be hanged again, the activists hid them in an undisclosed location.
They have long been accustomed to being watched. When Ms. Pilulkova, a tall young woman with straight hair reaching her waist, was taken to police just before a mass rally in support of Navalny in January, an officer told her: “Sofia, you are finally here.”
The Navalny movement has been undermining President Vladimir Putin’s popularity for years, exposing his regime as irreparably corrupt and self-serving. But last summer, from a nerve agent, Mr. Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning ը Returning to Russia in January, the Kremlin began to seek to eradicate his movement.
Ivan Pavlov, a prominent lawyer trying to fight the extremist appointment of the Navalny movement, was arrested for questioning on Friday.
Mr. Navalny’s network in 42 cities employed about 180 people, including thousands of unpaid volunteers. In some parts of Russia, such as the Siberian city of Tomsk, activists occupy seats in the local legislature and understand how they can proceed now.
Heads of local Navalny offices in several regions have already fallen into the river for fear of prosecution. One regional coordinator declined to be interviewed by The Telegraph due to legal concerns. Recently, unknown men kidnapped and physically threatened someone.
Leonid Volkov, the driving force behind Mr Navalny’s regional network, described the extremist designation as a “gut” that activists did not know how to respond to.
“There are those who want to quit their jobs, those who want to keep working, those who are unsure,” he told the Telegraph. “We have no idea how the legal practice will develop, what orders will be given to the regional authorities (from the Kremlin) for repression.”
Anastasia Panchenko, who headed the Krasnodar office until Monday, said that in recent months many local politicians have begun to avoid any contact with Navalny activists or even to name him.
On Thursday, he and another Navalny activist drove out of town to pick up a fellow prisoner who had spent ten days posting a video of a TalTok advertising a pro-Navalny protest.
Alipat Sultanbekova, 29, a small-bodied woman with curly black hair, radiated as she walked out of a painted prison gate. He became politically active only after Mr Navalny was attacked last year by a nerve agent who was heavily accused of Russian intelligence.
“When a person appears in your country who wants to change things, այդ he is attacked like this, you have to do something so that his sacrifice does not disappear,” he said.
Mr. Volkov, who is proud to have promoted a new generation of political activists throughout Russia, hopes that groups of activists from around 30 cities will continue their work, regardless of the Navalny movement.
Ms. Panchenko, who will pack her bags next month to join the campaign of a former Navalny employee in St. Petersburg, admits that local activists can hardly raise money or break if they can no longer use the Navalny brand.
But he believes the Kremlin’s persecution will only further anger angry activists like him.
“Navalny’s regional heads were not about the office building, but about the people,” he said. “People are still there.”