Putin Problems

12.30.14 6:55 PM ET

Russia’s Rebel In Chief Escapes House Arrest

Protests erupted in Moscow in support of Aleksei Navalny, a prominent Putin critic, who escaped his house arrest to join the crowds agitating against his jail sentence.

MOSCOW — On Tuesday night, over a thousand protesters gathered outside the Kremlin’s walls in support of Aleksei Navalny, a prominent critic of the Russian president Vladimir Putin. Navalny, who has been under house arrest since February and who was slapped earlier in the day with a suspended jail sentence for supposed fraud, is widely seen as a pawn in a larger crackdown on political opposition in the country.

The Moscow protest was not sanctioned, which meant every participant risked arrest. As people came to join the protests, dozens of cops and OMON special police units pushed them into a narrow corridor between the metal fences that line Moscow’s Duma. “Shame! Shame on you!” the crowd chanted every time the police detained another protester.

Earlier in the day, a Moscow court had found both Navalny and his younger brother, Oleg, guilty of stealing over $500,000 from a firm affiliated with the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. Navalny got a suspended sentence of 3.5 years in prison. He was told he could go back home to his house arrest to celebrate the New Year with his wife and their two children. Oleg, however—a private citizen who has not been particularly politically active—was thrown behind the bars of a metal cage right in the court room, sentenced to 3.5 years in jail in what many took to be retribution for his older brother’s activism. Aleksei Navalny reacted strongly to the news, yelling at the judge, “Such pig’s behavior! Why are you imprisoning my brother? By this, you punish me even harder.”

Once the verdict was announced, over 17,000 people joined a Facebook page calling for an unsanctioned protest in support of the Navalny brothers on Tuesday night. The only way to make changes in Russia was “to strike, to demonstrate that this power is a bunch of criminals right outside the Kremlin’s walls,” Navalny’s friend and opposition leader Ilya Yashin told people outside Zamoskvoretskiy Court on Tuesday morning. And so, on the night before New Year’s Eve, Russia’s biggest and favorite holiday, crowds of activists made plans to flock to Manezhnaya Square.

An hour before the protests, which had been scheduled for 7pm, Navalny tweeted from his house arrest: “I want to be together with you, so I am coming.” He then escaped from his detention and arrived on Tverskaya Avenue to join his supporters. He did not manage to make it the Manezhnaya Square, however; police detained Navalny along with over 100 other protesters. Some of them had round red ‘Navalny’ signs in their hands. “Now they will definitely lock Navalny in prison,” one of the women in the crowd said. (Later reports say that authorities claimed to be merely escorting him back to his house arrest.)

Meanwhile, the protests raged on. In a basement café, two women wearing the Ribbon of Saint George were discussing the protest they just witnessed. They came out to support Putin that night together with about 50 more anti-Navalny activists.

“I hate Navalny, he wants Kiev’s Maidan revolution in Russia, chaos and blood,” one of the women, Nadezhda, told me. She refused to give her last name. “We are 80 percent Putin supporters today and tomorrow Khodorkovsky or Navalny might come to power and I will be in trouble.”