On Valentine’s Day, February 14, in below-freezing temperatures and under grey and white skies, supporters of jailed anti-corruption leader Alexei Navalny left their homes armed with candles and flashlights and gathered across dozens of Russian cities at 8:00 p.m. This wasn’t an angry mob wielding bludgeons and torches. They were not striking out to storm the jail and free the man who has become the face of a growing anti-corruption movement throughout Russia. Rather, they were grouping together to rally, and for the first time since these rallies, protests, and demonstrations began this year, there were no mass arrests.

Russian people went out into the courtyards and streets, lit flashlights, and posted photos on social networks with the tag #loveisstronger. The tag quickly reached the top of Russian Twitter: about 20 thousand publications. On Instagram, the number of posts with this tag was about 8,000. According to OVD-Info, only 12 people were detained in Moscow, Novosibirsk, and Kazan.

On the eve of this flashlight vigil in support of Navalny, the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, or Roskomnadzor, began sending demands out to publications to remove materials about the rally. The notifications, in particular, were received by the editorial offices of the Tomsk edition of TV-2, the Saratov edition of Svobodnye Novosti, and Open Media. Later, it became known that Roskomnadzor blocked the website of the Spektr publication because of the mention of the rally seeing in it “calls for participation in mass events held in violation of the established order.”

Even before the rallies started, “Chains of Solidarity” had been lined up in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with people forming human chains. In Moscow, close to 300 people came to Arbat to demonstrate solidarity with Yulia Navalnaya, female political prisoners, and everyone who “spend their days in courts, police buses, and special detention centers.” In St. Petersburg — where the rally was called “The Feminist Chain of Solidarity” — about 70 people lined up on the Voskresenskaya embankment of the Neva in a show of support for political prisoners. They read Anna Akhmatova’s poem Requiem and laid flowers at the monument to the victims of political repression. No arrests were reported. 

In the center of Kazan, a rally was held “against detentions and repressions and changes in electoral legislation.” Local authorities had approved a rally of up to 200 people (about 100 more people did not get into the rally and stood behind a police fence). The rally itself took place without incidents, but after its completion, the police detained nine activists without explanation. 

The authorities responded to these flashlight rallies with their own flashlight gathering for a veteran who, according to the prosecution, Navalny had slandered. Participants of the action posted a photo of veteran Ignat Artemenko with the caption “I / We Ignat” and the tags #protectveterans and #yamyignatartemenko. Such posts, in particular, were actively published by pro-government politicians and activists, state publications, regional administrations, and budgetary institutions. 

Russian Protests
Russian police secure a square during a unauthorized rally in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow. (Kammersant)

The Power or Futility of Protests?

“When arbitrariness and lawlessness have put on your uniforms and pretend to be the law, it is the duty of every honest person not to obey you and fight you with all his might.”

–Alexei Navalny, in a speech made at the Moscow City Court, February 21, 2021