Millions in Russia mourn the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny but few do so openly. In Russia, grieving is an act of political defiance.

A man pays tribute to Alexei Navalny

A man holds a poster reading “Freedom for Seva Korolev and all political prisoners” as he comes to pay tribute to Alexei Navalny at the monument, a large boulder from the Solovetsky Islands, where the first camp of the Gulag political prison system was established in St. Petersburg, Russia, on 21 February 2024. Russians across the vast country streamed to ad-hoc memorials with flowers and candles to pay tribute to Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s fiercest critic, who died in prison on 16 February 2024. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

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When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in his Arctic prison on 16 February, Facebook went dark as Russians at home and in exile blacked out their profile pictures in grief and protest.

Many of these Russians had done the same when their country invaded Ukraine in February 2022, in a silent show of resistance to Vladimir Putin.

But how many of these quietly dissenting Russians are there and what weight do they have in a society that is cowed or indifferent, if not actually loyal to the Kremlin leader?

Even inside Russia, it is hard to say; from outside it is nearly impossible.

I am now in Budapest, locked out of Russia where I worked for 30 years. Late in life, I find myself in the position I was in as a young correspondent for Reuters in Vienna, which back in the 1980s was a listening post for the mysterious Communist countries behind the Iron Curtain.

Return to secrecy and fear

Now Russia is largely closed and going back to Soviet ways. Few Western correspondents are on the ground there any longer and Russian opposition journalists have moved abroad.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has sat in a Russian prison for almost a year on charges of espionage and is facing a possible 20-year sentence. The Wall Street Journal says that what the Russian government calls espionage is simply a journalist doing his job.

Once again, I am using old techniques of reading between the lines of official propaganda, following what dissidents and exiles are saying and making educated guesses.

The internet makes a difference, of course, and for now, savvy and determined Russians inside Russia still have that and we can see them.

We see their protests, small and quickly crushed. We can also see those who disparage Navalny and support Putin, as in a vox pop by vlogger Daniil Orain.

Gauging support for Russia’s war on Ukraine

After Russia sent its tanks over the Ukrainian border, thousands came out onto the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities to protest.

The numbers laying flowers for Navalny were in their hundreds. Some 400 were arrested, including a priest who had been planning a memorial service. Navalny’s widow Yulia Navalnaya vowed to fight on. But fear kept many away.

The fear is real. In Russia, you can literally go to jail for a social media post or innocuous comment.

Moscow municipal councillor Alexei Gorinov is serving seven years simply for saying he did not think it appropriate to hold a children’s party when Ukrainian children were dying. Artist Sasha Skochilenko also got seven years for replacing supermarket price tags with stickers showing the death toll in Ukraine. An old woman in the supermarket saw her and reported her to the police.

Russians say the incidence of citizens reporting on each other is rising, which is reminiscent of the darkest days of denunciations under Stalin, Soviet leader from 1924 to 1953. Post-Stalin, terror in the USSR eased.

“We lived limited lives under (Leonid) Brezhnev,” said one Russian old enough to remember his rule from 1964 to1982, “but we did not live in fear. Now the fear is back; the fear of a knock on your door.”

Living in a closed society

With survival the main consideration, it is hardly surprising that Russians withhold their names, keep their true feelings to themselves and are less than honest with opinion pollsters, making such polls almost meaningless.

“When we see 86% saying they trust Putin,” said sociologist Lev Gudkov, in conversation with journalist Ksenia Larina, “this is declarative support in words but probably they have different private thoughts. When people lie to sociologists, it means we live in a hypocritical, cowardly and opportunistic society.”

For what it’s worth, the latest opinion poll from the Levada Center, of which Gudkov is director, tells us the number one question Russians would like to ask Putin, if they had a chance, is: “When will the special military operation (euphemism for war with Ukraine) end?”

Earlier, Levada polling showed the majority of those asked thought attacking Ukraine had been a mistake but at the same time, the majority thought Russia should press on to victory.

We can’t put percentage numbers on it but it’s clear a part of Russian society supports the war; some military bloggers even want Putin to pursue it more aggressively. Another part opposes the war, as indicated by the numbers who gave their signatures for alternative presidential candidate Boris Nadezhdin; in the end he was barred from standing. And in the middle is a mass with unformed and/or unknowable opinions.

What repression feeds on

The filmmaker Andrey Loshak gave a hint of what some of them might be thinking in his documentary Pentagon, about a large slum housing complex outside the city of Saratov.

Residents who were going off to war said they could earn much more as contract soldiers than they could in their civilian jobs and if they died, their families could receive life-changing sums in compensation.

Poverty, ignorance, susceptibility to propaganda and misplaced patriotism; justifiable fear of repression, fear that change will make matters worse, the desire to go on living their little lives — all of these are reasons why many Russians do not speak out against the war, and why they will again vote for Putin in presidential “elections” in March.

Exiled opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky is calling on Western governments not to recognise their legitimacy.

With Navalny dead, Ukraine losing more territory and Putin convinced of his own might and impunity, even darker days appear to lie ahead.

Who knows if and when I might set foot in Russia again, talk to Russians in person and do what every good journalist should really be doing — not speculating from a distance but reporting on the ground?

Three questions to consider:

  1. What likens the current state of Russia to the Soviet Union under Stalin?
  2. What happens to a society when there are no journalists who can report on the government?
  3. How much freedom do you and your family have to express dissatisfaction with your government?

From column writing, British-born Helen Womack went on to write a book about her experiences in Russia: “The Ice Walk – Surviving the Soviet Break-Up and the New Russia”. From 1985 to 2015, Womack reported from Moscow for the Reuters international news agency as well as The Independent, The Times and the Fairfax newspapers of Australia. Now based in Budapest, she covers the European Union’s relatively new eastern members. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, she has written for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, about how refugees are settling in Europe.

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HistoryLiving in a closed society