MOSCOW – Vitaly Mansky, a filmmaker, posed in front of the headquarters of the Russian domestic intelligence agency brandishing a pair of blue checkered boxers. He was immediately arrested by the police.
It was a protest by a man in response to mounting evidence of a crime that, even in a country used for government abuses, surprised many Russians. Opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny says the state tried to murder him by planting a deadly chemical in his underwear.
But Mansky, who was released a few hours after his arrest on Tuesday, later expressed disappointment with his countrymen. Despite all the online rage and underwear-related memes generated in recent days by Navalny’s revelations about his poisoning – not all verified independently – hardly anyone protested on the streets.
Navalny’s evidence of a state-organized assassination attempt “should have changed everything in this country,” Mansky told Echo of Moscow, a popular liberal radio station, on his Wednesday morning show. “I was disappointed to be there alone. I think that even 100,000 people would be very few. But no one came. “
Russians are living through one of the most turbulent times in recent history, yet most of the time, between holidays and the pandemic, they are ducking their heads. Many are afraid to express any indignation, fearing that they have much to lose. Others may not believe that Mr. Navalny was poisoned by his government.
Only a third of Russians believe Navalny was poisoned, an independent researcher, the Levada Institute, found in September, before Navalny’s most recent revelations, and only a third believed that the government was involved.
“He is very small,” said Valentin Leontyev, an 81-year-old retired oil engineer in Moscow, dismissing the idea that Navalny was poisoned. “What would be the point?”
Navalny continues to recover in Germany and promises to return to Russia. While in Germany, he worked with Bellingcat, an open source investigative group, to produce a report and video showing how leaked phone records establish that Russian agents tried to poison him. On Monday, he released a new video showing him disguising himself as a Russian officer and extracting a telephone confession from a man Navalny says is part of the murder squad.
In the video, the man can be heard saying that the poison was planted in Mr. Navalny’s underwear and that he survived because he received prompt medical attention. Navalny says the man was Konstantin Kudryavtsev, a chemical warfare specialist at the Federal Security Service, known as FSB, a successor to the KGB
There was no independent confirmation that Mr Navalny had actually spoken to Mr Kudryavtsev. The FSB said Navalny’s video was a forgery, enabled by Western intelligence.
The question for Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin is whether Navalny’s poisoning will have long-term consequences, further discrediting the government in the public eye – or increasing the fear of those who would otherwise speak.
“This goes to the stock piggy bank that the state has taken against us,” said Anastasia Nikolskaya, a psychologist who leads regular discussion groups across the country, describing the reaction of many to the Navalny case. “At some point it will explode.”
The Kremlin appears to be bracing itself for tensions: this week, Parliament rushed to pass bills imposing new restrictions on protests and free speech and giving the government new powers to block foreign social media sites like Facebook and YouTube. On Wednesday, a Moscow court handed a 2-year suspended prison sentence to Yuliya Galyamina, a Moscow district councilor, for violating public assembly rules in her campaign against Putin’s constitutional amendments earlier this year.
Although few Russians took to the streets to protest Navalny’s poisoning, his assassination attempt has already become a notable event. The two videos of the opposition leader exposing his case have been viewed a total of 38 million times on YouTube. Yandex, Russia’s leading search engine and internet company, described his poisoning as one of the most wanted news events.
“The patient is suffering from a clearly pronounced persecution mania,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told reporters this week in his latest effort to dismiss Navalny’s claims. “It is also possible to definitively identify certain elements of an illusion of greatness – they are saying that he is even comparing himself to Jesus.”
The Kremlin says it is not clear whether Navalny was poisoned and that, if he was, it could have been a ploy by Western intelligence agencies to undermine Putin. Navalny passed out on a domestic flight in August in Siberia, fell into a coma and was later taken to Germany for treatment. A German military laboratory determined that he had been poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent developed in Russia.
In a Moscow food court called Central Market, which serves oysters and truffle-covered hamburgers, most people interviewed said they watched Navalny’s videos hours after his release. They said they believed the politician had been poisoned, but did not know what to do about it – and universally refused to provide their surnames, for fear of the consequences.
Lena, a 37-year-old woman who works in marketing at a fitness center, said she respects Navalny, although she has little interest in politics. Her recent videos confirmed the dominance of the police and intelligence agencies in Russian society, she said, adding, “I am simply afraid.”
“You have to survive in these conditions,” she said. “At least the water is clean.”
Some Russians demonstrated. Some local politicians across the country signed letters calling for a criminal investigation.
“Let’s be honest: killing people is not good,” said Vadim Alekseyev, a district councilor in the southern Russian city of Samara. . “We need to draw attention to this in every possible way.”
But the new laws that repress freedom of expression appear to be aimed at heightening the fear of people like Lena, although the government says they are necessary to combat Western interference in Russian domestic politics. The national election for the Duma, the lower house of parliament, is due to take place next fall.
A new law passed by the Duma on Wednesday criminalizes traffic blocking. Another gives the government the power to block social media sites under certain conditions. A third party makes online defamation punishable by up to five years in prison.
Dmitri Vyatkin, the legislator behind the new defamation law, said, according to the Interfax news agency: “The very threat of such punishment can sober up some people.”
Oleg Matsnev and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed to the report.