Alexey Navalny, one of the leaders of the Russian opposition, made a rare trip outside Moscow on Sunday, June 7, arriving in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where Russia's “democratic coalition” will hold primaries next weekend. Navalny's new political alliance has organized voting in Novosibirsk and several other cities this month to select candidates for regional and district elections in September.
Navalny has faced tight travel restrictions in recent years while fighting an onslaught of legal cases brought against him following his rise to political prominence during mass protests more than three years ago. Fellow opposition leader Ilya Yashin joined Navalny in Novosibirsk at a public discussion about the coalition's politics. Yashin, a party leader of RPR-Parnas, which is a founding member of the coalition, kicked off the event by asserting the need for political change through elections, saying Russia needs a “true parliament that represents the interests of all citizens, not just a small group of bureaucrats and oligarchs.”
A Freewheeling Discussion
Stepping onstage before a crowd of several hundred people, Navalny opened with a joke about the stifling heat of the summer afternoon in Siberia. “I told my wife that when it was all over, we would go somewhere warm—and here we are. Yulia, are you happy?” Navalny then delivered what Americans would recognize as a “stump speech.” Pounding away at familiar themes, Navalny decried government corruption and argued for greater decentralization, less focus on the military, and more social spending, saying the state needs to be more responsive to the interests of ordinary people.
Then Navalny began taking questions from the audience. One person asked about his views on economic policy and another asked what gives him the strength to fight on, even after all the harassment and the murder of his colleague Boris Nemtsov. Answering the latter question, Navalny said, “I believe in what Leo Tolstoy said, that a lie does not cease to be a lie, even if it is repeated a thousand times.” Navalny continued, “My brother wrote me from prison: ‘Do not stop, they jailed me so that you would stop, but keep on going.'” Most of the questions posed by audience members, however, were decidedly hostile.
Sporting military fatigues and a “Novorossiya” arm patch celebrating Russia's claim on lands in eastern Ukraine, a man from the crowd said, “I would like to remind everyone here who it was who went to the American embassy,” criticizing Navalny's relationship with US state officials. “Remember how Russia was betrayed in the 1990s?” he continued. “Does he want to do the same?”
A local woman then approached the microphone and accused Russia's democrats of tearing apart the country, saying this reflected poorly on Navalny. Next, a self-described economics expert questioned Navalny's decentralization and taxation policies, saying he expects the country would break apart if the regions stopped sending taxes to Moscow. Finally, a teenager from the crowd asked how he could be sure everything Navalny said wasn't simply “empty words,” before questioning if Navalny actually rides the metro (a contrast to Russia's ruling politicians that Navalny has highlighted).
Navalny listened to the criticism, and responded to each audience member, countering the attacks on his patriotism by framing himself and his anti-corruption agenda as truly patriotic in contrast to Russia's current rulers. “I am going to unite around the development of the Novosibirsk region's gas infrastructure, not around [state energy giant] Gazprom,” Navalny argued.
In addition to the unfriendly reception by those picketing the public rally, Navalny and his colleagues were also attacked in Novosibirsk with eggs on their way to a morning press conference. Predictably, pro-Kremlin media outlet Life News focused on these hecklers in its coverage of Navalny's trip.
During the trip, Navalny also made time to meet local celebrity and performance artist Artyom Loskutov, known across Russia as the organizer of Novosibirsk's annual celebration of absurdity called Monstration, who showed up at the afternoon event. True to form, Loskutov shared a curious remark on Twitter:
— артём лоскутов (@kissmyba) June 7, 2015
I stole the president's wife [Yulia Navalnaya], and carried [her] off under the #ЛоскутовоОдеяло [#LoskutovBlanket]