Navalny protests: Something is shifting in Russia – and Putin is facing a huge internal challenge he hates

This last day of January deserves a mark in the history of Putin’s Russia.

More people were detained this Sunday in the latest round of anti-Putin protests – in excess of 5,000 at the time of writing – than at any other point in Vladimir Putin‘s 21 year rule.

It is a measure both of the Russian president’s power and his paranoia that he cannot allow peaceful protest in the name of his arch-nemesis, Alexei Navalny, and that his police will use batons, brute force and stun guns against entirely peaceful protesters.

Our first interviewee was detained as he was talking to us.

He’d just finished explaining why it was important to come out despite the threat.

“Alexei Navalny is the only guy who can do something for our people and I’m sad that not more people appreciate that,” he said.

I asked him why he thought they didn’t.

“I think the main reason is fear. But if we don’t come out now it will only get worse.”

Then he was snatched away. Only a handful of people were standing around. The rally was not due to start for another hour.

Waiting to speak to us was a man I recognised from the demonstrations the week before.

Valery Zhukov had been filming us then on a tiny camera and he was back.

He wanted to tell me how Russia under Putin was a paragon of freedom. He said that Navalny had been “resting” in Germany, rather than lying in a novichok-induced coma.

He claimed the man I’d just spoken to was a liability because he was carrying a Russian flag.

“He could have burned it,” he said.

“Or waved it,” I replied.

Whether he was a paid, pro-Kremlin blogger or just a convinced Putin loyalist, that short exchange highlights a long-standing and much discussed national divide.

For all those fired up by Navalny’s outrage at the corruption of the elites, there are many if not far more who believe what they see on state TV and who prefer stability to any change of the status quo.

The question is whether that dynamic is shifting and how marginal the difference made.

Never have I seen so many police on Moscow’s streets. Nor the centre of the city completely blocked to pedestrian traffic.

Police seemed to vastly outnumber protesters, perhaps because crowds could never gather in one place before being dispersed.

Stun guns were entirely unnecessary but they were used. Journalists were targeted too. Russia’s police force have not quite adopted the Belarusian modus operandi of snatch-squads on the streets and torture in the police stations but they’re heading there.

“Release these people, this is ridiculous!” a man yelled at a row of police vans where detainees stood in lines being frisked.

“Police power is not forever.”

Nor is Putin’s power.

This is a huge internal challenge, just the kind he hates. It will hardly unseat him. But despite the leeway of the law at his disposal, something is shifting – accelerated by the internet quicksands – which repression may not be able to control.

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