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Alexey Navalny’s captivity has galvanized more than just his die-hard supporters in Russia: It’s stirred discontent with official corruption and Putin’s long reign

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Young Russians watch a demonstrator climb a lamppost in Moscow's Pushkin Square on Jan. 23 during a day of nationwide protests against the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. On Feb. 2, a Russian court sentenced him to more than two years in prison.Photography by Nanna Heitmann/Magnum Photos/The Globe and Mail

Konstantin Bukovetsky went to last Sunday’s protest in Moscow knowing he’d be arrested. In fact, that’s why he went.

After several hours of walking through the centre of the Russian capital, listening to rock music on his earphones, Mr. Bukovetsky got what he expected. The 22-year-old actor and first-time protester encountered what’s known as “a serpent” – five policemen, holding each other by the shoulders – who grabbed him out of a crowd of thousands of opposition supporters and roughly shoved him into a prison van.

The massive protests in Moscow and other cities around Russia – which represent the biggest challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in almost a decade – were sparked by the Jan. 17 arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

But Mr. Bukovetsky says he didn’t go into the streets only to support Mr. Navalny. He says he joined the demonstrations because he saw it as his civic duty to be there and to “take his turn” being arrested and thus help clog up Russia’s court system and jails.

“I went to take my place in a police van. So that someone else would be free,” he said in an exchange of instant messages following his court hearing on Monday. Mr. Bukovetsky has himself since been set free – his lawyer told him there wasn’t any space in any of the detention centres in or around Moscow after more than 11,000 people have been arrested around the country during three large protests over the past two weeks.

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Konstantin Bukovetsky is awaiting trial after he was arrested at the protests.

While Mr. Navalny’s own detention has been a catalyst, many of the young protestors say the opposition leader’s calls to take to the streets are not the only reason they’ve decided to challenge the Kremlin.

Among five young first-time protesters who spoke to The Globe and Mail this week, only two professed anything like loyalty to Mr. Navalny.

But there were other points of convergence. All of them cited disgust with official corruption (that Mr. Navalny has helped shine a light on), as well as fatigue with the long rule of President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin has been prime minister or president since 1999 – the same year Mr. Bukovetsky was born.

Young Russians are increasingly critical of Mr. Putin’s reign. An opinion poll released Thursday by the independent Levada Centre found that 46 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds now say they disapprove of Mr. Putin, up from just 18 per cent three years ago.

Mr. Bukovetsky says there were 23 people on his prison bus, all of them between 20 and 30 years old. Together, they represented an interesting cross-section of Russian society: “A tattoo artist, a hockey player, a welder, a data analyst, someone in advertising.” None, he said, were supporters of Mr. Navalny.

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Protesters and police are shown at the Pushkin Square protest. Opinion polls by the independent Levada Centre found dissatisfaction with the Putin regime among 18- to 24-year-olds.

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Yury Tourovsky is 15, and said Jan. 23's demonstrations were the first he and his friends took part in.

Some, of course, have been protesting to express their sheer outrage over the treatment of Mr. Putin’s loudest critic. “I was protesting for Navalny. The way they treated him was completely corrupt, against every law in our country,” said Yury Tourovsky, a 15-year-old high school student. The teenager said he and his friends joined their first opposition protest, on Jan. 23 – and will continue protesting until “the fantastic Russia of the future is formed, and we live a happy European, democratic life.”

Mr. Navalny, who survived a summer poisoning attack that he accuses Mr. Putin of ordering, has galvanized Russia’s opposition by first surviving and then returning to Russia to challenge the Kremlin. But his image is more tarnished in Russia than it is in the West.

Some Russians remember his flirtation with “Russia for the Russians” nationalism early in his political career. Others, amid relentless Kremlin propaganda attacking Mr. Navalny since the August attempt on his life, admit that they question how he could have survived if he had indeed been poisoned with Novichok, a deadly class of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military.

The same Levada Centre poll found that just 5 per cent of Russians named Mr. Navalny as the political figure they trusted most. Mr. Putin topped the poll, with 29 per cent.

“To be honest, I cannot say that I am very sympathetic to the figure of Navalny,” said Alina Lyamzina, a 30-year-old Russian-language teacher. She nonetheless joined her first political protest on Jan. 23, marching for several hours through the centre of Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, shouting “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia will be free!” with a friend who was also protesting for the first time.

Ms. Lyamzina said it was her anger at the system Mr. Putin has built – “the social problems, the low salaries in the regions, corruption, the paid-off courts, the restrictions on freedom of speech” – that motivated her to take to the streets. “I did not go to the rally for Navalny, I went out against the existing regime.”

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Yuri Dmitriev, 27, says anti-government protests in Russia's neighbour Belarus 'greatly inspired' him to take action in his own country.

Another mobilizing factor has been the crisis in neighbouring Belarus, where opposition supporters have been protesting for six months against the country’s Kremlin-backed dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.

Those protests were sparked by Mr. Lukashenko’s refusal to concede an Aug. 9 presidential election that most Belarusians believe was won by the country’s opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

“The protest actions in Belarus greatly inspired me,” said Yuri Dmitriev, a 27-year-old musician who protested for the first time on Jan. 23. “From the very beginning, it was obvious that Lukashenko’s regime is very similar to Putin’s.”

Russia’s opposition has borrowed several tactics from their counterparts in Belarus, including the use of humour as a tool to dent the authority of the regime.

Russian protesters have taken to carrying underpants over their heads like a flag – a reference to a conversation Mr. Navalny recorded (while posing as a senior bureaucrat) with an alleged member of the country’s FSB security service, who acknowledged the attempt to kill him. The person told Mr. Navalny that agents had broken into his hotel room and applied the Novichok to his underwear.

Other protesters have carried toilet brushes aloft, a reference to a viral video investigation by Mr. Navalny and his team that alleged Mr. Putin was the beneficial owner of a US$1.35-billion palace on the Black Sea. The palace has its own hockey rink, helicopter pad and wine vineyards – and documents appear to show that even the palace’s Italian-made toilet brushes cost more than US$800 each.

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At left, a protester raises one of the toilet brushes that have become emblematic at the protests. At right, a police officer keeps watch at Pushkin Square.

But while anger at Mr. Putin’s regime is at its peak, so is police repression. Of the young protesters who spoke to The Globe and Mail, none said they had answered the call to take to the streets again late Tuesday night, after Mr. Navalny had been sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for violating the terms of his parole – on an old fraud conviction widely viewed as trumped-up – while he was in Germany recuperating from the Novichok attack.

Some admit that fear is setting in. “People are scared. They’re being intimidated,” said Mary Indlina, a 30-year-old corporate trainer who said she attended a protest for the first time on Jan. 23 but wouldn’t join again because of the panic she felt as police clashed with protesters. Others, she believes, will keep on fighting.

“The fact that the protests have been so massive despite [the fear] means that people are pushed to their limit and ready to make sacrifices in order to help change something. Which speaks volumes about how our authorities are not right. How the country is not right.”

With files from Gaya Garbaruk in Moscow

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At Jan. 23's protest, a officer fell while chasing a protester next to the street leading to the prison where Mr. Navalny was being held.

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Mary Indlina, 30, says she won't be going to more protests after the ones on Jan. 23, but she believes others will keep on fighting.

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