Young Russians risk futures to support Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin's nemesis

He can't get air time on state TV and is banned from Russia's March election. But opposition politician Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and lawyer, is still attracting attention from young Russians through social media.

Intimidation, assaults confront young supporters of Alexei Navalny

Egor Cherniuk is just 19, but has one of the toughest political jobs in the Russian city of Kaliningrad: Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny's campaign manager. (Pascal Dumont)

Shards of glass scattered all over Egor Cherniuk's pillow and landed just short of his head the night a brick crashed through his bedroom window. 

"I was really scared," he told CBC News during a visit to his apartment in the Russian city of Kaliningrad.

"There was a big hole in the window and glass all over the room," he said, pointing to where the attack occurred. 

"The brick (landed) about 40 centimetres from the bed." 

Although just 19 years old, Cherniuk holds one of the most controversial and perhaps dangerous jobs in the city.

He's managing the local political campaign for opposition figure Alexei Navalny, whose crusade to uncover corruption in government has made him arguably Russian President Vladimir Putin's biggest nemesis.

Navalny was once described by the Wall Street Journal as 'the man Vladimir Putin fears most.' (Reuters)

Navalny leads the Progress Party and founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation.  Legions of young supporters have been won over to his cause by Navalny's savvy use of the internet and social media to spread his message. 

It has also made him a loathed figure in the Kremlin and turned some of his supporters into targets.

Cherniuk admits speaking out publicly about the harassment could draw even more unwanted attention. But he says he won't be intimidated.

"They wrote offensive comments next to my apartment, like 'Navalny is a fascist. Egor is a fascist.' And they drew obscene things. So I am very certain it is only because I am working there."

A brick recently shattered Cherniuk's bedroom window; the exterior of his apartment was shot up with a paint gun. He attributes the attack to anti-Navalny foes. (Human Rights Watch)

Cherniack says a division of the local police that specializes in rooting out so-called "extremism" has raided the campaign office at least six times. He says a co-worker was even expelled from university for supporting Navalny.

As part of the pattern of harassment, Cherniuk says the same police turned up at his father's rental property that he runs like a B&B and threatened to seize it for not meeting building standards. Local camera crews filmed it and put it on the news, noting that coincidentally his son runs the Navalny headquarters in Kaliningrad.

Unwavering support

Despite the scare tactics, Cherniuk's support for Navalny has not wavered.

"The negative emotions subside and the things that matter, like the very reason I became the head of Navalny's campaign, is that I want to make change."

Cherniuk hopes to get accepted at a U.S. university and support U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in a bid to become U.S. president one day, before returning to Russia. (Pascal Dumont)

Navalny, a 41-year-old Moscow-area lawyer, has never been elected to public office in Russia. But his campaign to embarrass Putin by uncovering allegedly corrupt practices involving his top officials strikes a chord with many younger Russians who follow him on social media.

His most popular YouTube video, focusing on the accumulated riches of Russia's prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has been watched more than 25 million times.

At a recent Navalny campaign meeting in Kaliningrad that a CBC News crew attended, practically everyone in the room was under the age of 25.

A meeting of Navalny volunteers in Kaliningrad. Most are under the age of 25. (Pascal Dumont)

"To make sure this candidate will be a great president, you have to look and see how he behaves with his supporters," Cherniuk said.

"The way I see this campaign: I think Navalny will be a good president and Russia will have the same traits."

Election ban

But Navalny won't get a chance to run for Russia's presidency anytime soon. The country's electoral commission has banned him from challenging Putin in the upcoming vote in March 2018, citing a fraud conviction that supporters say is bogus.

Exactly how popular Navalny and his message is with Russians is difficult to tell. His campaign claims to have 84 offices throughout the country. Thousands of people have attended his rallies during the last six months.

The Kremlin disputes Navalny's appeal.

Government officials routinely cite opinion polls that put his support at less than five per cent nationally.   

That is no doubt aided by the fact that Russia's omnipresent state TV stations and Kremlin-friendly broadcasters usually ignore Navalny's rallies and statements.

Putin himself even refuses to say Navalny's name in public. When the Russian president was asked directly to comment on Navalny during his 2017 yearend news conference, he replied obliquely, referring to "that person who you mentioned."

Revolution candidate?

A TV program by Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov berated young people for not understanding their history and suggested Navalny wants another "Maidan" — a reference to the 2014 street protests in Ukraine that led to the overthrow of that country's pro-Russian president.

Navalny speaks to the media after submitting his documents to be registered as a presidential candidate on Dec. 24, 2017. He was later banned from running. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Still, even though he won't be on the ballot for the March 18 vote, Navalny's young followers continue to flock to his campaign, even if for some, it has to be in secret.

One 18-year-old woman in Kaliningrad named Ally said her parents have forbidden her from going to the meetings. She goes anyway.

"My father is really against it. So is my grandfather. They think we [young people] don't understand, that we didn't learn our history."

She told CBC News her father accepts the Kremlin view that supporting Navalny is akin to supporting a coup — but she does not.

"All my life, it's been Vladimir Putin," she said. "This kind of thing should change from time to time. Like all the other countries."

She continues: "Even though the [state] TV says we've been growing and Putin has done great things and I understand we've lived in worse conditions, but these are still not the best conditions.

"We deserve more."

Protest day

Navalny is now calling on Russians to boycott the election to drive down voter turnout and deny Putin a strong mandate.

He's called for a Russia-wide day of protest on Jan. 28, encouraging people to take to the streets and show their opposition to what Navalny claims is an election stage-managed by the Kremlin.

In the leadup, CBC News spent time with volunteers holding one-person pickets near Kaliningrad's Victory Square to draw attention to the event.

Among those who stopped to criticize the protest and Navalny was ardent Putin supporter Dimitry Milanin.

"If you elect someone else, you really don't know what you'll get," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to win the March 2018 election by a wide margin. (Kremlin)

"Maybe we'll lose our pay or something and then what will we do? He [Putin] used to work in the KGB; he's a military man,  so he knows exactly how to run a country." 

Putin is expected to be easily re-elected by a wide margin. Some polls suggest his support will be in the 70 per cent range.

Positive future

Cherniuk says after Russia's election, he hopes to get accepted into a U.S. university and work on a presidential campaign for his political hero, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

Like Navalny, Sanders attracted large numbers of young voters with his anti-establishment message.

"The U.S. system is the most influential one in the world," Cherniuk said. "By changing it you make a positive impact on the world in general."

Then he says, he will return to Russia.

"I'm pretty hopeful," he says about the future of his country.

"If I wasn't I wouldn't be working here."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.