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An empty portrait frame on a bare wall is all that is now left inside the regional headquarters of Alexei Navalny’s opposition office in the southern city of Krasnodar.
Its supporters are no strangers to Kremlin pressure, but on Monday the government imposed its most sweeping crackdown to date – declaring the entire Navalny movement an “extremist” network in the same vein as al Qaeda.
Mr Navalny’s activists have now closed all their offices this week – otherwise they would risk jail like the politician himself, who is already serving a three-year prison sentence imposed in February.
“Everyone who went to work for Navalny knew how it could end: you would be very much in trouble if you openly oppose the government,” Sofia Pilukova, 23, a political science student who served ten days in January for organizing a pro-Navalny rally, told The Telegraph.
“Working here has been an important part of my life. I felt like I was part of something bigger.
The vast regional network of supporters of Mr. Navalny officially withdrew from the opening of the court hearings to designate the Navalny movement as an extremist organization. Anyone associated with it can now face up to ten years in prison.
Mr Navalny’s allies see the crackdown as a calculated attack ahead of the parliamentary elections in September. The most recent survey by the Levada Center pollster showed that the ruling United Russia party polls just 27%, a minimum of eight years, as the brand of Mr Putin’s party marred by corruption scandals recurring, becomes more and more toxic.
While Mr. Navalny has become the only opposition figure with an appeal outside of Moscow’s urban elite, his sprawling network of regional militant offices has become a thorn alongside the Kremlin.
In recent years, activists have gained a presence in the most remote areas of Russia, training election observers, investigating corrupt local officials and supporting opposition candidates.
On Monday, Ms Pilukova and four other staff members rushed to their office in an indescribable block in downtown Krasnodar and wiped it out of their presence, fearing that a police raid would take all of their leaflets and remove them from them. portraits of Mr. Navalny. Hoping to hang them again one day, the activists hid them in an undisclosed location.
They had been used to being followed and watched for a long time. When Ms Pilulkova, a tall young woman with straight hair reaching her waist, was dragged to a police station just before the large pro-Navalny rally in January, an officer told her: “Sofia, you are finally here!”
The Navalny movement has undermined President Vladimir Putin’s popularity for years, exposing his regime as hopelessly corrupt and selfish. But it wasn’t until Mr Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning with a nerve agent last summer and his return to Russia in January that the Kremlin began seeking to eradicate his movement completely.
Ivan Pavlov, a prominent lawyer who has sought to combat the extremist designation of the Navalny movement, was himself arrested for questioning on Friday.
Mr Navalny’s network in 42 cities employed around 180 people, as well as thousands of unpaid volunteers. In parts of Russia, like the Siberian city of Tomsk, activists are taking seats in the local legislature and are trying to find out how they can now continue.
In several regions, heads of local Navalny offices have already taken to the ground, fearing criminal prosecution. A regional coordinator declined to be interviewed by The Telegraph, concerned about the legal repercussions. Another was recently abducted by strangers and threatened with physical harm.
Leonid Volkov, the driving force behind Mr. Navalny’s regional network, described the designation of extremism as a “punch in the gut”, with activists unsure of how to react.
“There are those who want to quit, those who want to continue working and those who are not sure,” he told The Telegraph. “We have no idea how legal practice will play out, what kind of crackdown orders authorities in the region will receive (from the Kremlin).”
Anastasia Panchenko, who headed the Krasnodar office until Monday, said that in recent months many local politicians have started avoiding contact with Navalny activists, or even mentioning her name.
On Thursday, she left town with another Navalny activist to pick up a fellow prisoner who had served ten days for posting a TikTok video announcing a pro-Navalny protest.
Alipat Sultanbekova, 29, a small bone woman with black curly hair, beamed as she stepped out of the painted metal door of the detention center. She only became politically active last year after the nerve agent attack on Mr Navalny, widely blamed on Russian intelligence.
“When a person who is ready to make a difference emerges in your country and they are attacked like this, you have to do something so that their sacrifice is not wasted,” she said.
Mr Volkov, who prides himself on having encouraged a new generation of political activists across Russia, hopes that activist groups in some 30 cities will continue their work independently of the Navalny movement.
Ms Panchenko, who will pack her bags next month to join the election campaign of a former Navalny staff member in St. Petersburg, admits local activists will find it difficult to raise funds or canvass if they can no longer use the Navalny brand.
But she believes that the Kremlin’s persecution would only anger die-hard activists like her even more.
“The regional sections of Navalny were not about office premises but about people,” she said. “People are still there.”