Moscow and Saint Petersburg witnessed Valentine Day’s flash mobs on Sunday in residential courtyards and public squares, with residents lighting their phone flashlights in support of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny.
Supporters of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic took to the streets in freezing temperatures following his team’s call to stage 15-minute rallies and post pictures of the gatherings on social media on Sunday evening.
The scale of the rallies could not be ascertained but small groups of up to several dozen people were seen staging pro-Navalny flash mobs across Russia’s two biggest cities.
Protester Alexander Kozhokar, one of around 50 people who lit their phone lights on Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin, said he feared that Russia was turning into a “dictatorship.”
“I am afraid of thinking what will come next,” the 28-year-old factory worker from the town of Mytishchi outside Moscow told AFP.
At a playground in southwestern Moscow around 30 people gathered — some with dogs, others with children — lighting flashlights and arranging Christmas lights in the shape of a heart on the snow-covered ground.
Protester Mikhail Orlov said he joined the playground flashmob to signal his unhappiness with Putin’s policies.
“The country is in decay, science is in decay,” the 29-year-old engineer told AFP. Orlov said he saw like-minded people lighting flashlights in their windows in a gesture of solidarity.
Orlov’s wife Maria said she was beginning to consider whether they needed to leave Russia. “I don’t feel protected here,” she said.
In an affluent neighbourhood in central Moscow, 28-year-old stand-up comedian Garik Oganisyan said he wanted to see political change.
“I don’t like what’s happening in this country, how people are being sent to jail over re-tweets in an open and brazen manner.”
In Saint Petersburg, pro-Navalny supporters also gathered in small groups, with some dancing and chanting “Russia will be free.”
Navalny’s team released pictures and videos of similar gatherings from cities across the country, with Russians lighting flashlights, sparklers and small lanterns.
“Love is stronger than fear,” said an electronic ticker tape on a residential high-rise in the Siberian city of Tomsk, according to one video.
The rallies came after authorities last week sentenced Navalny to nearly three years in prison and unleashed a crackdown on his supporters, detaining more than 10,000 people.
Navalny’s team then postponed mass demonstrations until the spring or summer, but urged supporters to use Valentine’s Day to try out new — and safer — forms of protest.
Officials had accused the opposition of acting on orders from NATO and warned that anyone violating the law on Sunday would be punished, but police did not interfere with the flashmobs.
Earlier Sunday, several hundred women formed human chains in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, using Valentine’s Day to express support for Navalny’s wife Yulia and female political prisoners.
Around 300 women gathered on Arbat Street in Moscow’s historic city centre.
“By forming a chain we want to show that we are for love and against violence,” Darya Obraztsova, a 22-year-old student, told AFP.
In Saint Petersburg, around 100 women formed a chain near a monument to victims of political repression.
Some clutched flowers, while others recited poems by Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s most beloved poets.
The new forms of opposition rallies in Russia are similar to human chains and decentralised protests staged by activists in neighbouring Belarus.
Navalny was arrested and jailed upon returning to Russia last month following months of treatment in Germany for a nerve agent poisoning.