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Navalny's Arrest Triggers Release Of Pent-up Anger With The Kremlin

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been jailed since last month, when he returned to Moscow from Germany. He'd been recovering there from a poisoning he blames on the Kremlin. His imprisonment has sparked protests across Russia and more than 10,000 detentions nationwide. But as NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow, the demonstrations are reflecting something more than just concern over Navalny's fate.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Svoboda. Svoboda.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: The Russians took to the streets chanting svoboda - or freedom - last month, freedom for Alexei Navalny but also freedom for their country as a whole. Lev Gudkov, Russia's leading independent pollster, says people protested for a variety of reasons.

LEV GUDKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: He says Navalny's arrest was just a trigger that released pent-up anger with the Kremlin, especially after a year of economic pain brought on by the pandemic.

GUDKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: Many liberals in Moscow were euphoric about the turnout at the protests, Gudkov says, while closing their eyes to just how conservative Russia still is. A poll Gudkov's agency released last week shows just 19% of respondents support Navalny's activities, while 56% disapprove. President Putin, for his part, consistently maintains 60% approval ratings in Gudkov's polling.

GUDKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: But what's significant, Gudkov says, is the wide geographic spread of the protests, from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Even in Krasnodar, a conservative agricultural center 700 miles south of Moscow, demonstrators filled the city's center last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KIM: Putin is a thief, people shouted at a January protest. Alexander Savelyev, a local journalist and human rights activist, says such rallies are unprecedented for Krasnodar.

ALEXANDER SAVELYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: Savelyev says there's been a generational shift, and young people are demonstrating against injustice and corruption in general, rather than for Alexei Navalny specifically.

SAVELYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: What Navalny has managed to do, he says, is bring the protest movement out of the big cities. Now there are rallies even in smaller towns outside Krasnodar. Natalia Zubarevich, a geographer at Moscow State University, says the widening protests are not about Navalny but something much deeper.

NATALIA ZUBAREVICH: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: She says Navalny may be a driving force, but only because Russian society itself is changing and already on the move. Without other factors like Russia's economic crisis and COVID-19 restrictions, Zubarevich says, Navalny would not have been able to mobilize so many people.

ZUBAREVICH: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: She says the protests will continue to spread because it's part of the unstoppable process of modernization, even if there are stutters and reversals along the way. Russians, she says, are slowly becoming citizens of their own country. Pollster Gudkov says the Kremlin is struggling to understand how Navalny has brought so many people out on the street.

GUDKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: He says the Kremlin is worried the protests could mushroom into something like the pro-democracy movement in neighboring Belarus or even a violent uprising like in Libya. Gudkov says that explains why Putin has dropped any Democratic pretenses and chosen the path of intimidation and repression.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.