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Commemoration vigil honouring Alexei Navalny

Hundreds gather to remember the Russian opposition leader.

On Sunday March 17, hundreds of Montrealers gathered at the Christ Church Cathedral located on St. Catherine West in honour of Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and the leader of the Russian opposition party. 

Navalny, 47, died while incarcerated in a remote Arctic penal colony, northeast of Moscow on Feb. 16. He was best known for publicly criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. Since 2011, Navalny has actively denounced corruption in Russian politics. 

Organized by the Russian Canadian Democratic Alliance (RCDA), a non-government organization whose mission is to provide a space for Russian Canadians to advocate for democracy back home, the vigil allowed Montrealers to mourn and pray for Navalny’s family. 

Individuals were also encouraged to visit the shrine of flowers and pictures made for Navalny behind the cathedral, which will remain there for a couple of weeks. 

“We are delighted to be able to provide this unifying and neutral space for the community as we gather to remember a man who died in mysterious circumstances,” said Reverend Bertrand Olivier at the vigil. Many in the community saw Navalny as a figure who encouraged Russians to fight for a world where people could freely express themselves, he added. 

Well-known Montreal musicians, including Guillaume Sutre, Yegor Dyachkov, Elizaveta Miller, Maria Sourjko, Maxim Shatalkin and Miriam Sekhon were also present to perform in the background, as individuals went up one by one to light candles in honour of Navalny’s memory.

For many, Navalny was an example of a man who stuck to his convictions regardless of the consequences he repeatedly faced, said deacon ordained minister Leonid Dzhalilov who reflected on Navalny’s life at the vigil.

In 2017, Navalny went almost fully blind in one eye from chemical burns after being thrown green liquid in his face by pro-Kremlin activists. 

Years later, in 2020, Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent, a chemical weapon initially developed in Russia. He and his supporters accused Putin of being behind the attack. Leaked recordings of two Russian spy agents admitting to there being a secret operation to kill Navalny, which was included in the award-winning documentary Navalny, further sparked worldwide outrage. 

After he recovered from the attempt on his life, he returned to Russia knowing he would face arrest. He was convicted of numerous charges in the following years. At the time of his death, Navalny was facing a 30-year prison sentence.  

“He was a very brave and honest man and his honesty was one of the reasons he returned to Russia,” Dzhalilov said.  “He encouraged people to vote for him, to follow him—he encouraged them not to be afraid.” 

Reverend Olivier also pointed out the significance of hosting the vigil on the same day when Putin was re-elected as Russia’s president for another six years. Western governments have since denounced the elections for being “rigged” and “undemocratic,” after the Kremlin announced Putin won 87 per cent of the votes. 

Putin’s reign will continue to impact Russian Canadians. Just on Monday, March 18, the RCDA received word that their organization was “considered a threat to Russia’s national security,” as stated in an Instagram post from the association. 

While the RCDA is consulting with lawyers about possible risks and consequences to committee members after this new status, their members continue to advocate against injustices in Russia, condemning the war in Ukraine and Putin’s colonial and imperial mentality, among many things.

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Mass protests in Russia: a battle against Putin’s regime and corruption

Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Putin’s alleged $1.7 billion palace spark outrage across the nation

Two-week demonstrations continue in Russia in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. With over 10,000 arrests since Jan. 23, the Russian nation is in the midst of a major battle against the Kremlin and its corruption.

Almost 40,000 protesters took to the streets of Moscow on Jan. 23 after Navalny got detained as soon as he returned to Russia earlier that week. He was arriving from Germany, where he had been recovering from serious poisoning which took place last year on Aug. 20 — an alleged assassination attempt from Vladimir Putin’s government.

From Siberia to St. Petersburg, Russians held mass protests across the entire country in solidarity with Navalny. The most recent pro-Navalny rally took place on Tuesday, when a Moscow court sentenced the opposition leader to over 2.5 years in prison for breaking parole conditions during his recovery in Berlin.

“I’ve offended [Putin] so deeply by the fact that I have survived,” said Navalny to the prosecutor. Since the Kremlin’s critic miraculously survived a chemical attack by a nerve agent (which was reportedly planted in his underwear), Navalny believes that Putin’s only choice was to push for his imprisonment.

The protesters calling for Navalny’s release have been met with brutal resistance from Russia’s specialist riot police over the past two weeks. Peaceful demonstrators suffered from electric shocks, were beaten with batons, kicked in the stomach, and dragged into crowded police buses.

Navalny’s wife and brother have already been arrested since the protests began. While there have been no casualties, the press also fell victim to police brutality with over 100 journalists either injured or detained since Jan. 23.

On behalf of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned Navalny’s imprisonment on Feb. 2, the day of his sentencing.

“We call for his immediate release, as well as the release of the peaceful protestors and journalists who have been detained in recent weeks. The justice system must never be abused for political purposes,” stated Trudeau on Twitter.

U.S. President Joe Biden also publicly denounced “the politically-motivated jailing of Alexei Navalny and Russian efforts to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

Navalny is perceived as the biggest political threat to Vladimir Putin and his presidential reign of almost 17 years. Putin first came into power in 2000, serving as the president of Russia for two terms until 2008, and then again from 2012 to this day.

As the Russian constitution does not allow one to be president for more than two consecutive terms, Putin served as the prime minister from 2008 until 2012. In reality, he still possessed the majority of political influence, with 60 per cent of Russians believing he “still held all the power in the country” in 2008 despite his lower-ranked position.

Unwilling to give up his power, Putin ordered constitutional changes last year which would allow him to be president until 2036. With the legal system working in his favour, Putin’s only major threat became Navalny himself.

In fact, Russians were not only outraged by the jailing of Putin’s most outspoken critic. These country-wide protests were also sparked by major corruption allegations spread by Navalny.

Upon his arrival to Russia, Navalny posted a two-hour video on his YouTube channel titled “Putin’s palace. History behind world’s largest bribe.” This sophisticated investigation by Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) was viewed over 110 million times on the platform in just three weeks.

The documentary revealed an Italian-style palace valued at $1.7 billion, which was allegedly built for Putin on the coast of the Black Sea in Southern Russia. The castle has a no-fly zone over its property and a private border checkpoint, and its staff are not allowed to bring cellphones with cameras onto the premises.

“It is the most secretive and well-guarded facility in Russia, without exaggeration,” said Navalny in the documentary. “This is not a residence. It’s an entire city, or rather a kingdom.”

The estate’s area is 39 times larger than the country of Monaco, according to the documents and 3D-models provided by a construction subcontractor. The palace consists of a casino, an underground hockey rink, a church, an amphitheatre, several vineyards, and a tunnel leading to the waterfront.

Beneath the luxurious 11-bedroom residence, the entire complex reportedly goes as deep as 16 floors underground. Currently being under construction, Navalny’s FBK states that this is the most expensive palace in the entire world.

Putin denied all allegations regarding his ownership of the estate. “Nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did,” stated the Russian president in a press conference.

As of now, opposition supporters have not been able to achieve Putin’s resignation and Navalny’s unconditional release. After protesters took a stand against corruption in the Kremlin and the lack of political freedom, Putin is still holding onto his power.

Going forward, Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov asked all of his supporters to avoid demonstrations in the coming weeks, as the main focus should be on the upcoming parliamentary elections set to take place in September 2021.

Volkov believes foreign leaders must play an important role in achieving justice in Russian politics. He is counting on EU leaders to seize all assets belonging to Putin and his close affiliates, thus pressuring his government to finally grant freedom to Navalny.

 

Collage by Lily Cowper

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