YEKATERINBURG, Russia — Last Halloween, the opposition here put together a daring demonstration, portraying Vladimir Putin as Count Dracula and President as Frankenstein. Lesser officials were turned into a collection of werewolves and mummies, and licking their lips they boiled and drank the people’s blood — in the form of cranberry juice.
“People laughed,” said Evgeny Legedin, one of the organizers. “That is the strongest weapon against a dictator. They can’t stand it.”
A year later, Yekaterinburg’s activists are paying for their fearlessness. Legedin is in England, seeking political asylum. Maxim Petlin, an outspoken city councilman, is in pretrial detention on bribery charges. Sergei Kuznetsov, a longtime dissident, has fled to Israel. Another activist made his way to Britain last week. A fifth critic, Igor Konygin, keeps up the fight, threatened with arrest at any time.
“The authorities believe people should all think the same way,” said Konygin, who has already endured one jail sentence. “So everyone who shows opposition is in jail. It’s a sign to everyone else.”
Legedin said the authorities in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, where the Bolsheviks murdered the last czarist family, became less tolerant than usual over the last year as this December’s parliamentary elections began to loom. The ruling United Russia party considers anything less than 60 percent of the vote unacceptable failure. In 2008, he said, a presidential envoy was sent from Moscow to clamp down.
If United Russia shows any vulnerability, the whole calculation of Russian politics changes. The party represents Prime Minister Putin’s grasp on the country. And, as he plans to return to the presidency after elections in March, he wants to look stronger than ever with the economy and social contract showing strain. That leaves little room for independent officeholders.
On Thursday, a liberal politician, Leonid Volkov, was disqualified from running for the regional legislature after a handwriting analyst ruled that 77 signatures on a petition were false — Volkov calculated it took 7.5 seconds to examine each one, given when the expert was called in. Eventually 154 were disqualified, some because the names had been signed at a faster speed than the dates next to them. Volkov is suing.
In February, Petlin, an activist member of the liberal Yabloko party, was accused of taking a bribe from a well-connected development company to drop his campaign against the construction of a shopping mall that would destroy a park and encroach on a cemetery.
When he was charged, a hundred people filled the courtroom, said Vyacheslav Bashkov, a member of a public commission that monitors human rights in the Sverdlosk region’s prison system, eager to prevent his detention while the investigation proceeded.
“It was almost a small revolution,” Bashkov said. “He was set free.”Petlin, now 38 and the only Yabloko member in the 28-seat city Duma, kept battling the shopping center. On Aug, 26, his freedom was revoked and he was taken to pretrial Detention Center No. 1, which is so overcrowded, Bashkov said, that each cell holds twice its capacity. People sleep on the floor, or take turns on the beds. Tuberculosis and hepatitis are rampant. “We are talking about innocent people who haven’t been tried,” he said.