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Russians protest Putin’s rule in long noon lines at polling stations

MOSCOW — On the final day of a presidential election with only one possible result, Russians protested Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian hold on power by forming long lines to vote against him at noon Sunday — answering the call of opposition leader Alexei Navalny who had urged the midday action before dying suddenly in prison last month.

The “Noon Against Putin” protest, with voters forming queues outside polling stations in major cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, was a striking — if futile — display of solidarity and dissent designed to counteract the Kremlin’s main message — that Putin is a legitimate president commanding massive support.

Many polling stations in Moscow were deathly quiet on Sunday morning, but long lines appeared at exactly 12 p.m. — despite authorities sending mass text messages warning people against participating in “extremist” actions and in the face of severe repression of dissent since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which has resulted in hundreds of arrests.

Navalny, who had long crusaded for free and fair elections in Russia and was blocked from running for president in 2018, had urged Russians to vote against Putin at noon Sunday. It turned out to be Navalny’s final political act before his death. His widow, Yulia Navalnaya, has accused Putin of ordering his killing, and many Western leaders have said they hold Putin responsible. The Kremlin rejects the allegations.

Many voters also posted photographs of their spoiled ballots with protest slogans such as “Navalny is my president,” “No to war, no to Putin,” and “Putin is a murderer.”

Voting took place over three days, beginning Friday, which some critics said would allow greater opportunity for ballot manipulation and other fraud. Voting was also taking place in areas of Ukraine occupied by the Russian military, with reports of electoral teams accompanied by soldiers forcing people to vote at gunpoint. In 27 Russian regions and two in occupied Ukraine, voters can also use a widely criticized opaque online voting system, with no way to verify votes or guard against tampering.

But the three days of balloting also gave voters ample opportunity to visit polling stations at a time of their choice, making it all the more obvious that the sudden crowds at midday Sunday had not materialized by accident.

In addition to Putin, three other candidates were on the ballot, all essentially Kremlin-friendly figures with low profiles, in a highly managed election designed to offer a veneer of legitimacy without posing any serious threat. Two antiwar candidates, Boris Nadezhdin and Yekaterina Duntsova, who might have become flash points for antiwar sentiment, were barred from running.

At one polling station next to Polyanka metro station in central Moscow, a queue of dozens extended around the block by 12:30 p.m., mainly Muscovites in their 20s and 30s. A police van and two patrol cars hovered nearby, and the entrance to the polling station was guarded by several police officers and security agents.

“We came here to vote against Putin,” said Elizaveta, 21. “We are going to put three crosses to show that we are for everyone but him. Literally anyone else is better than him.”

The Washington Post is not fully identifying her or other voters interviewed for this article because of the risk of serious repercussions by the Russian authorities including criminal prosecution.

Elizaveta’s mother, Marina, added: “He has been in the same place for too long.”

In Belgorod, Russian city hit hardest by war, Putin is still running strong

The Noon Against Putin demonstration is the third recent sign of significant Russian protest or political dissent through long queues.

In January, citizens formed long lines to sign petitions required for Nadezhdin, the antiwar candidate, to secure a place on the ballot. He was later barred by authorities, citing irregularities with the signatures.

This month, thousands waited in huge queues to attend Navalny’s funeral and for days afterward to lay flowers and leave letters at his grave.

In Russia’s climate of political fear, protests are largely symbolic, with authorities expected to maintain tight control in the months ahead, amid a war exacting massive Russian casualties.

Still, the signs of public anger are unmistakable. Some frustrated Russians did not even wait for the Sunday protest and instead expressed their anger as soon as voting started on Friday, by setting fire to polling stations or ballots or dumping liquid into ballot boxes.

The Noon Against Putin protest was designed not only to denounce an election widely condemned as neither free nor fair, but also to demonstrate support for the fragmented, often demoralized critics of Putin and the war, many of whom are now living in exile.

Navalny’s team broadcast a live stream, narrating the day of protest, on his YouTube channel. One of the anchors was Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s longtime top political adviser, who was recently attacked by assailants with a hammer outside of his home in Vilnius, Lithuania. Volkov appeared on the broadcast with his arm in a sling.

Two friends, Arina, 17, and Marina, 19, arrived at the Polyanka polling station together, both planning to vote against Putin.

Arina said the protest offered hope that a “civilized and democratic Russia is possible.”

“We came here so as to not feel alone,” Arina said. “I wanted to show my position in a safe and legal way because there are barely any opportunities to do this anymore.” She added, “I think this action has been successful because it gives people a feeling of strength and power. People will at least see the queues and hear about it, and that means something.”

Marina said: “We wanted to do a peaceful protest of the current power, to show that we don’t support it and we won’t support it.”

Nikolai, 28, who was at the same polling station, said he was surprised by the big turnout, though some other protesters said they had hoped for even larger crowds.

“I came here today to express my position and do my part to show that there is still a political life in the country and that there are different opinions,” Nikolai said. “It’s important to show that people are not alone and that there is still support for this kind of action.”

For Putin’s election in occupied Ukraine, voting is forced at gunpoint

It is difficult to stage any form of protest in wartime Russia. Authorities swiftly disperse even small street gatherings and have cracked down mercilessly on activist and opposition groups. Citizens have been arrested for laying flowers at memorials for Navalny, and some have been detained for standing alone holding up blank sheets of paper.

Russian courts, one of the regime’s major tools of control, have imposed long prison sentences on people for trivial actions, such as social media reposts or replacing price tags in supermarkets with information about the war.

The Noon Against Putin protest was particularly striking at Russian embassies in nations with significant populations of Russians who fled after the invasion of Ukraine. They included those in Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Germany, China, Portugal, Britain and others.

It was impossible to estimate how many people participated in Russia and around the world, but photos and videos showed lines of hundreds of people at many polling stations

Navalnaya and other prominent opposition leaders appeared at the protest outside the embassy in Berlin, where hundreds of people stood in the line waiting for well over an hour to vote.

“People in the Kremlin don’t understand how absurd and stupid they look,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos Oil tycoon who was imprisoned in Russia for 10 years and now lives in exile, told the crowd in Berlin. “We, who are against Putin, we are not marginal, we are the majority. Freedom for Ukraine! Freedom for Russia!”

In between speeches, people chanted “Russia without Putin,” and some members of the Russian opposition staged a concert in front of the embassy.

Stanislav Andreyshuk, co-chairman of Golos, an independent election watchdog which was declared a foreign agent by Russian authorities, said that there had been many reports of apparent ballot stuffing, with bundles of voting papers in the official boxes. He said signs of anomalies also were seen in the turnout date published by the Central Election Commission.

By mid-afternoon Sunday, Golos mapped more than 1,400 reports of potential violations of electoral. The group’s co-chairman, Grigory Melkonyants, is in detention awaiting trial.

In one report to Golos, a state employee in Chechnya, in southern Russia, complained that he and others were bused from one polling station to another to vote multiple times. The employee said he voted seven times in the first two days.

Since taking power on Dec. 31, 1999, Putin steadily destroyed Russia’s fledgling democracy, curbed rights and crushed dissent. His main political rivals have been jailed, killed or forced to flee the country, while protesters risk long prison terms for criticizing the war or Putin.

Why does Putin always win? What to know about Russia’s pseudo election.

Putin has repeatedly found ways to defy term limits to stay in power, starting in 2008 when he swapped jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev while remaining the country’s supreme political authority. Four years later, they swapped again. In 2020, Putin engineered constitutional changes that would allow him stay in power until 2036. The term he will claim to win this weekend runs through 2030.

Unlike in Ukraine, which has had five presidents elected during Putin’s time in power, the Russian election offers no democratic choice. The Kremlin blocks genuine opposition candidates from the ballot, controls media coverage and, critics allege, falsifies results.

Independent Russian media, such as Dozhd television, which was shuttered by Russian authorities and now operates from Amsterdam, described this week’s balloting as a “so-called election.”

Most civil servants and employees of state-owned enterprises were ordered by their managers to vote on Friday and were strongly discouraged from voting on Sunday, according to numerous reports in independent Russian-language media, including Faridaily, the Telegram Channel of journalist Farida Rustamova, who said she received hundreds of reports from state employees.

In Russia’s tightly controlled society, even just seeing fellow protesters attend the Noon Against Putin felt empowering, Arina said.

“I love the atmosphere here,” she said, “because I feel strong and I’m surrounded by like-minded people, and that’s so rare nowadays. Maybe I will even make new friends today, with people who think like me.”

Her friend Marina echoed that optimism but said she was also realistic about the slender hope for change.

“I think that today’s protest was a success in that it gave people a bit of a lift. It supports people mentally,” she said. “But of course it won’t affect the authorities in any way.”

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. Mary Ilyushina in Berlin and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga contributed to this report.

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