Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Roman Udot, data analyst from the Golos election monitoring organization which is banned in Russia, explains fraudulent techniques the Russian government will use during the elections, in Vilnius, Lithuania, on March 14.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Roman Udot strode up to the Russian embassy in Lithuania, hoping to cast his ballot on the first day of his country’s presidential election and register his opposition to Vladimir Putin.

But while voting in the three-day election began Friday at polling stations across Russia, the embassy gates didn’t open for Mr. Udot. “Voting is only on Sunday,” a stern voice informed him through the embassy’s intercom. Mr. Udot, a professional election observer who is well-versed in electoral law, tried to argue. But the iron gates stayed shut.

Another prominent figure in Russia’s democracy movement watched the scene from a safe distance. Voting is an important act to Anastasia Shevchenko. But knowing that she’s on the Kremlin’s wanted list – and having already spent two years under house arrest – she didn’t want to set foot on Russian soil.

Three years ago, Ms. Shevchenko – a member of the Open Russia movement founded by prominent Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky – was the first person to be convicted under a new Russian law that prohibited membership in “undesirable” organizations. She didn’t want to also become the first person to be detained while trying to vote inside her country’s embassy.

“You never know when you’re going to be the first,” she said. “It’s not that I’m afraid of being arrested. It’s just that, emotionally, I don’t want to be in there.”

Instead of voting, she spent Friday morning tending to a makeshift memorial outside the embassy for opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who died – his allies say he was murdered – on Feb. 16 in an Arctic prison colony. Once a week, she said, someone tears down the red banner reading “Putin killed Navalny.” She has no doubt the vandal works inside the embassy.

Open this photo in gallery:

Anastasia Shevchenko from Open Russia brings a candle to a makeshift memorial to the late Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Vilnius, which she says is being repeatedly vandalized.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

These are strange and frightening days for Russia’s battered democrats. Those who have fought hardest for change are either dead or in prison. Those who fled, such as Mr. Udot and Ms. Shevchenko, were reminded this week of just how precarious their lives are when Mr. Navalny’s former chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, was hospitalized after being attacked by unknown assailants wielding a meat hammer outside his Vilnius home.

Vilnius has emerged as the hub of Russia’s pro-democracy movement since Mr. Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. As the Kremlin escalated a parallel crackdown on domestic dissent, Mr. Putin’s critics found succour in Lithuania, where the government has taken staunchly pro-Ukraine, anti-Kremlin stands since the start of the conflict. But suddenly, even this cozy European capital doesn’t feel safe.

The election process, which will almost certainly hand Mr. Putin yet another six-year term, is another reminder of how far Russia’s democrats are from their goals.

Knowing the result is predetermined, the scattered opposition is planning to stage the last of the many protests planned by Mr. Navalny. Shortly before he died, the opposition leader called for Russians to create chaos on the final day of the election by turning up at polling stations en masse at precisely noon Sunday – and vote for any candidate but Mr. Putin. The action is dubbed Noon Against Putin.

“We want to show that there is another Russia, that there are people who are against Vladimir Putin, who are against this war. Because Putin wants to show that all Russians are unanimous in their position,” said Ivan Zhdanov, the director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which Mr. Navalny founded.

Mr. Zhdanov acknowledged that the opposition has been badly weakened by the loss of the charismatic Mr. Navalny. This week’s attack on Mr. Volkov, he said, was another reminder of how far the Kremlin would go to silence its critics.

Open this photo in gallery:

Ivan Zhdanov, the director of The Anticorruption Foundation, an organization once run by Navalny, in Vilnius, on March 15.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

“After Alexey Navalny’s killing, the border for such type of actions from Russian government has melted. They crossed the red lines and now they can do anything they want,” Mr. Zhdanov said in an interview in the foundation’s office in Vilnius, which has escalated its security measures after the attack on Mr. Volkov. “They just want to show that they can do everything they want to anyone, even in a NATO country.”

The voting process this weekend will be stage managed by the Kremlin, but this is nonetheless the first time Russians have been consulted in any way since the start of the war.

Voting also began Friday in four regions of Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – that Mr. Putin claims to have annexed, even though his troops only partly control them. Polls will also open in Crimea, which Russia illegally seized and annexed in 2014.

After two anti-war candidates were barred from standing for election, the only names on the ballot besides Mr. Putin’s are those advanced by three parties that support the war.

Ekaterina Schulmann, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, predicted that the Kremlin would manage the process so it delivers something near 80-per-cent support for Mr. Putin, with a voter turnout of more than 70 per cent. The only possibly interesting development, she said, would be if the relatively unheard-of Vladislav Davankov finished second, ahead of more established candidates from the Communist Party and the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

Six years ago, when Mr. Putin won re-election in a similarly stage-managed affair, Mr. Udot was running a call centre in Moscow that collected reports of election violations. It was a hectic day filled with complaints about ballot stuffing and other types of fraud, but at least Golos, the non-governmental organization he co-chaired, was able to shine a light on those practices.

This time Golos has been banned. Mr. Udot is in exile, after a stint under house arrest in Russia, while his Golos co-chair, Grigory Melkonyants, has been detained for the past seven months without being formally charged. The group will still run its fraud hotline this weekend, but the possibility of a fair election is more remote than ever.

The sole purpose of the election, Mr. Udot said, is to make it seem as though the Russian public stands behind Mr. Putin and his war. “He needs some approval, some public acclaim, and the election is organized for that,” he said. “But this repression, it’s a telltale sign that they understand that they don’t have support.”

Mr. Melkonyants is one of more than 700 political prisoners recognized by Memorial, a human-rights organization founded to expose the crimes of the Soviet era that now dedicates much of its efforts to monitoring Mr. Putin’s regime.

Open this photo in gallery:

Sergey Davidis, the head of Memorial’s political prisoners support unit, seen here in Vilnius on March 14.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Sergey Davidis, the head of Memorial’s political prisoners support unit, is another Russian exile in Vilnius. He says the number of people behind bars in Russia for political reasons is certainly in the “thousands” – including at least 3,000 men jailed for refusing to fight in Ukraine – though not all meet Memorial’s strict criteria for inclusion on its official list.

Mr. Davidis said he would join the Noon Against Putin protest out of respect for Mr. Navalny. But the fact that so many of Mr. Putin’s critics would be protesting from exile, he said, symbolized “the failure of all our efforts.”

The Kremlin’s repression has reached all the way around the world. In January, the antiwar rock band Bi-2 was detained by police in Thailand at the request of Russian diplomats.

The group, which was released after an international outcry, was in Vilnius Friday night for its first concert since the episode. Frontman Yegor Bortnik said he hoped the show would help the many political exiles in the audience of 10,000 “forget about the nightmare outside for 2½ hours.”

Later, the crowd roared as the band sang the first song of the night in front of a giant screen that played a video of a dove taking flight.

Open this photo in gallery:

Yegor "Lyova" Bortnik, the frontman of Russian-speaking Bi-2 band performs on March 15 in Vilnius, Lithuania.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe