Thousands of Russians, armed with blue underpants and toilet brushes, symbols of their discontent, have become Vladimir Putin’s biggest headache in decades. They went out again this weekend against the arrest of Alexei Navalny, a well-known anti-corruption activist. The protests resulted in at least 4,500 arrests in more than 60 cities, on Sunday alone, according to Russian media, including Navalny’s own wife, Yulia, who was detained in Moscow.
Behind the dissatisfaction is the poisoning of Navalny, 44, who spent months between life and death in a German hospital in August. He was the victim of novichok, a nervous agent known as the favorite of the Russian secrets, who will have been placed in his underwear – hence the blue underwear.
The activist, who was on probation on charges of fraud, missed the deadline to stand before Russian justice and ended up being detained on his return to Russia. But not before launching a documentary entitled Putin’s Palace. History of the biggest bribe in the world, about a monumental mansion on the Black Sea coast, valued at more than one billion euros. Among the items listed, many Russians did not fail to notice a luxury toilet brush, worth 700 euros – hence the toilet brush protests in hand.
However, Putin has denied ownership of the palace, having one of his childhood friends, the oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, declared to be the real owner. But many have doubts that Arkady is more than an iron man, and tensions are on the rise, after more than 93 million people have watched the documentary in recent weeks.
On Sunday in Moscow, the disaffected even had the temerity to call for protests outside the Russian secret silk door, the FSB. The riot police did not tolerate him, charging quickly over the crowd, dispersing the demonstrators and chasing them around the city.
Some tried to fight back by throwing snowballs, in the middle of the cold Russian winter, others formed desperate human chains, while watching their companions being dragged en masse into police vans.
On Tik Tok, a very popular application among teenagers, videos of protesters singing, “I’m going to end up in prison” have gone viral. And many were, some for something as simple as building snowmen, with a message like “Down with the Tsar”, AFP said.
Tide of protests That Navalny defies the all-powerful Putin, who remains a very popular figure in Russia, is nothing new. What has changed is the scale of the demonstrations for his release, which have brought together the fragmented and persecuted opposition to the Russian President. These protests ride a wave that has been noticed since the municipal elections in the capital, in 2019, when the opposition had substantial gains, after big protests against the exclusion of several of its candidates.
As far as Navalny is concerned, “the Kremlin has always insisted on minimizing its importance and popularity with the public,” said the Moscow Times – in fact, Putin always refused to even pronounce his opponent’s name, so as not to legitimize him.
“Conversely, his admirers in the West routinely exaggerate his significance in Russian politics, overestimating his support,” added the independent newspaper. Noting that the surveys at the Levada Center – the only Russian institute that conducts surveys where the name Navalny appears – always show confidence levels around 4%. With a slight increase in recent months, especially among white collar professionals and entrepreneurs.