explainer

History is taking place in Russia right now.

Right now in Russia protests on a history making scale are taking place across the country.

Tens of thousands of protesters have gathered, with a regime of intimidation and coercion no longer enough to bully Russian citizens into line. 

The growing frustration with the Vladimir Putin regime has come to a head after the alleged attempted assassination of the country's opposition leader. 

What happens next has the potential to change not just Russia, but the world.

First, let's start with some background.

Russia under Putin.

Vladimir Putin has been president of Russia for 20 years now.

Putin's tenure as president is not supposed to extend beyond 2024, but in 2020 he announced sweeping changes to the Russian constitution that were widely seen as an attempt to extend his power for as long as he wants.

Many experts believe he faked his 2018 re-election by disqualifying his legitimate opposition and hand-picking his rivals. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks with soldiers during his inauguration ceremony May 7, 2000 in the Kremlin in Moscow. Image: Laski Diffusion/Newsmakers/Getty.

Putin has created a regime in which opponents are murdered, political prisoners are sent to Siberia for decades, minority rights are suppressed, and support is given to some of the world's worst bloodshed like the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Social scientists have described the rule of Russia as a "hybrid regime" or a "fake democracy."

The country holds presidential elections and citizens are represented in Congress, but using free speech as an example - Politifact reports Russia ranks 180th out of 199 countries.

Some of the Draconian laws that exist in the country include jailing musicians whose expressive lyrics reflect poorly on Putin, expanding the country's Criminal Code definition of 'treason' to turn virtually any government critic into a traitor and criminalising "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations."

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What happened to Alexei Navalny?

On August 20, 2020, Russia's Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent and hospitalised in a serious condition.

Navalny is Putin's most outspoken critic, and it's believed by many that he was poisoned by the Kremlin as he was flying from Siberia back to Moscow. He drank some tea at the airport and began feeling unwell as his flight took off. 

Watch: Footage was taken on the plane as Navalny fell ill. Post continues after video.


Video via BBC.

Novichok is a fourth-generation chemical weapon that was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. It can exist as a powder or a liquid and it blocks messages from the nerves to the muscles, causing a collapse in bodily function. 

It's extremely deadly, and Navalny is very lucky to be alive. 

READ: Sergei and his daughter were found unconscious on a park bench. They'd been intentionally poisoned.

Navalny was medically evacuated to Germany and put into a coma, with doctors reporting that they were trying to save his life.

By September doctors were reporting great improvement in his condition, and in December Navalny released the recording of a phone call he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up. The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.

Despite the threat he faced returning home, Navalny said he never considered the possibility of staying abroad. 

"It doesn't seem right to me that Alexei Navalny calls for a revolution from Berlin," he explained in an interview, referring to himself in the third person.

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"If I'm doing something, I want to share the risks with people who work in my office."

So on January 17, 2021, he returned to Russia where he was immediately detained by authorities on accusations of violating terms of a suspended jail sentence.

Navalny has twice been convicted of criminal charges - embezzlement and later fraud, charges which he says were politically motivated and which have both been disputed by the European Court of Human Rights.

Frequently arrested, the 44-year-old has served multiple stints in prison, and the current charges relate to a 2014 conviction, which carried a probationary period that was due to expire in December 2020. 

While he was in Germany recovering, Russia's prison service put him on a wanted list, accusing him of not appearing for these probationary checks.

In January, Russia's Investigative Committee opened another criminal probe against him on fraud charges, alleging he embezzled donations to his Foundation for Fighting Corruption.

If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.

Navalny releases "biggest investigation yet" from prison.

On Tuesday 19th, while in prison, Navalny released what his team called their "biggest investigation yet."

Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) allege Putin owns "the most expensive palace in the world," estimated to be worth around $1.4 billion.


The report and an almost two-hour-long documentary film offer a comprehensive look inside the palace and the somewhat dubious financial schemes that went into building it.

He details staggeringly expensive furniture like a $56,000 table and a $27,000 sofa, with the estate reportedly 39 times the size of Monaco. 

The video finishes with a call for Russians to take a stand against the government.

Record breaking protests.

On Saturday 23rd, police detained more than 3,700 people in 90 cities and used force to break up rallies across Russia as tens of thousands of protesters marched, demanding Navalny's release.

Protesters were out on the streets in numerous cities where temperatures were as low as minus-50 C, highlighting how widespread Navalny's influence has grown.

Rallies were held across Russia in support of the country's Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny. Image: Mihail Tokmakov/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

In Moscow alone it's estimated that 15,000 people gathered, with demonstrators beaten with police batons and dragged off by officers. Navalny’s wife Yulia was among those arrested.

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"The situation is getting worse and worse, it’s total lawlessness," Andrei Gorkyov, a protester in Moscow told AAP. “And if we stay silent, it will go on forever.”

The United States, the EU and Britain all condemned the Russian security forces handling of the protests, and the foreign ministers of France and Italy on Sunday both expressed support for sanctions.

As the New York Times pointed out, there's one incident in particular that points to how significant the weekend's protests were. After police managed to break up the demonstrators in the main Moscow square, thousands regrouped about a kilometre away. Footage showed riot police looking lost and disorientated as the crowd threw snowballs at them. 

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"These acts of defiance and escalation — in the past, people have been convicted of throwing plastic cups and bottles in the general direction of police officers — underscored the depth of popular dissatisfaction with life under President Vladimir Putin," wrote Alexey Kovalev.

"To judge by the government’s response, it knows it has trouble on its hands. The crackdown is breaking records."

What happens now?

Navalny’s supporters have called for protests again this weekend, with authorities deeming any further demonstrations illegal.

A Russian court has rejected an appeal to release Navalny, which means he will stay in prison ahead of a February 2 trial.

Addressing the presiding judge by video link from jail before the ruling, Navalny demanded to be released and railed against what he said were absurd allegations that had been trumped up by Russia's authorities to sideline him for political reasons.

"We'll never allow... these people to seize and steal our country. Yes, brute force is on your side now. You can... put me in handcuffs. (But) that will not continue forever," he said.

After the ruling was handed down, Navalny said to the judge: "Everything was clear to me before the start of the court hearing, thank you."

A world distracted.

Russia is on the brink of a revolution, but unlike the Capitol Hill riots in Washington earlier this month, this story isn't being splashed across Australian media with quite as much ferocity. 

But this is a story we should all be sitting up and watching. 

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Vladmir Putin has ruled his country unchallenged for two decades. In 2021 his country is fighting back demanding a say in their future. 

Unrest has been bubbling away for years, but this time the pushback is at such a level that the Kremlin is struggling to control it. 

Russia is home to a population of more than 144 million people, and is the world's largest country. It's about 2.2 times bigger than Australia.

Putin has boasted at the fact he leads the world in terms of weaponry and in December the country announced their "hypersonic weapon was ready for war."

In 2015, US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford described Russia as presenting the "greatest threat to our national security" with fear of a US-Russian war voiced by many experts over the years.

Here in Australia, former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was forced to put on record in 2018 that she doesn't believe China or Russia pose any direct military threat to Australia despite America's recently published national defence strategy, which singled out the two superpowers as threats greater than terrorism.

Because what it comes down to is - if America goes to war, we as an ally also go to war. 

What's happening in Russia right now has the ability to reshape more than just the government of Russia. It could reshape tensions around the world. 

- With AAP

Feature image: Getty.