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The burning train

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Anastasia Valeeva describes a bullish mood aboard the train carrying opposition leader Aleksey Navalny from Moscow to Kirov yesterday. Navalny and 'accomplice' Petr Ofitserov would in the morning be sentenced to 5 and 4 years imprisonment respectively — a harsh verdict likely to have profound political consequences for the country. 

Anastasia Valeeva
18 July 2013

Although there is still an hour till departure, the ‘Vyatka’ train is already standing at platform 3 and I am making my way past the carriages on the trail of something rather intriguing. For the moment it is still just an ordinary train that takes people from A to B. Children are sitting by the closed doors on large carrier-bags; nearby some men, their shirts open at the chest, are smoking, while the women chat amongst themselves, dressed in summer smocks – it’s a hot day, the train will be stifling. The passengers are waiting to board. At this moment the defendants Aleksei Navalny and Petr Ofitserov are contemplating a rather different type of board and lodging – for them this train could well be their last journey as free men. It is this same ‘Vyatka’ train that over the spring and summer has taken them from Moscow to the court sessions – and with them, as always, a crowd of journalists and supporters. The train has become known as ‘the burning train’, after the classic of Russian rock by the group Aquarium.

The platform gradually fills up with activists, TV crews trailing wires, cameras and microphones, photographers with folding step-ladders, their cameras poised at the ready; all of them lined up at the start of the platform looking intently towards the station. We’re waiting for ‘the one’. At that moment, almost unnoticed, Navalny’s so-called ‘accomplice’, the businessman Petr Ofitserov, makes his way down the platform, shaking hands with a couple of journalists he knows. All the others continue anxiously to scan the station building in anticipation.

‘Who are we seeing off then?’ – a young kid comes up, spits.
‘Navalny.’

His face signals recognition and he heads off. Just a year ago, he’d probably have followed up with ‘Nav-who?’ Now, though, according to recent a survey carried out by the Levada Center, around 40% of the population know about Navalny. Making him a politician of national significance.

The difficulty of accessing the opposition leader has grown in proportion to this surge in popularity. Despite the fact that all the relevant journalists are here, each of them carrying a ticket for the sacred train, nobody actually knows for sure that Navalny will be on it. Even his press-secretary, Anna Veduta, refused to confirm this information to the media. 

At last a shout goes up: He’s coming!

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Navalny with wife Julia. The five-year prison sentence handed down to him today is likely to increase recognition across the country. Photo: A. Astakhova/Vedomosti.

Another minute, the journalists all at the ready, and then here come Aleksei and his wife Yulia along the platform, surrounded by a tight circle of supporters. ‘Let’s take a bit of care, we don’t want anyone to fall over’, says Aleksei. He’s ostentatiously bullish and cheerful. He enters the carriage to get changed, and comes out in a T-shirt that reads ‘Navalny’s brother’. His brother, Oleg Navalny, is wearing exactly the same T-shirt. And their wives are also in matching T-shirts that read ‘Wife of Navalny’s brother’. They put their arms round each other’s shoulders and stand there. Hundreds of camera flashes. This, then, is how Aleksei, white teeth flashing as he jokes and smiles, already a star in the political firmament, boards the train that will take him to hear his verdict.

Petr Ofitserov is a couple of carriages further up with his wife Lidiya. He’s cordial, straightforward, affable. He lets me sit and talk with him, even offers me tea. He says that he doesn’t hold out any hope – he’s going to prison, his bag is packed. Had there been any hope, you might have asked whether it was just a question of doing something a bit different – dance a jig or something – in order to get off… But this illusion Petr Ofitserov dismissed immediately. The couple has left five children at home: the older ones were told what was happening, the younger were hugged a bit tighter. He’s fitted in an enormous amount over the past two weeks, Petr says. A trip to the Tretyakov with his daughter, planted ten trees. A last hurrah.

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Petr Ofitserov, Navalny's co-defendant — today sentenced to four years imprisonment. Photo: A. Astakhova/Vedomosti

The restaurant-car is packed, noisy and surprisingly jolly; the waitresses are only just managing to serve and clear. To the right, a tutorial: a youngish, skinny, bearded man named Andrei is explaining the ‘Navalny affair’ to Dmitri. This Dmitri, it seems, is the only person who isn’t there for our hero – his company have sent him on a business trip.

‘You see they’ve indicted him on a charge of stealing ten cubic metres of  timber, yet VLK have all the payment documents…’

‘The VLK?’

‘Vyatka Timber Company, whose executive director was Ofitserov, his supposed accomplice’, Andrei explains quietly. Since December 2011 Andrei’s life, like that of many Muscovites, has changed irrevocably. With his wife he now takes a very active part in the ‘Monitors HQ’ who train up new election monitors, participate in street protests and travel to various elections around the country. A few more glasses of beer, and the talk turns to life in general: what can be done to make life more normal.

Sitting sideways at a table is a socially awkward group of intellectuals – an ecologist called Yura, a historian, Mikhail, and Dmitri, a physicist. All of them are part of Navalny’s team. Yura has spent half his salary on tickets for the ‘burning train’ journeys. With burning intensity he says that the staff is made up of many like-minded people, and he’s going there because he wants to see Russia become a strong and free country…

As if responding to his words, the next table drinks ‘to freedom’. This table is a table of highly eminent visitors: Liubov Sobol, lawyer of the RosPil project, Dmitri Gudkov, State Duma deputy, Yevgeniya Markovna Albats, chief editor of The New Times, and Boris Nemtsov, the former politician.

‘Why is everyone in this carriage so happy?’, I ask Nemtsov.

‘Because we are optimists. Because we are right. And because we know that they must be feeling slimy and odious. They have played dirty - scheming up plans to isolate themselves from dangerous opposition leaders. What have we got to be unsure about? We are sure we are right. Navalny is sure that he didn't steal a dime. The whole country is sure about this now — well, the non-zombified part of our country, that is. When people feel they are right, they are bullish, they are energetic, and they are in good spirits. 

'But everyone understands that the verdict will be a guilty one, and that Navalny will no longer be a free man... '

'I'm not so sure about that. Not because I'm naive or anything, but because it would be a mad story: one day he's allowed to become a candidate for the mayor of Moscow; the next day, he's sent down. Let me tell you, I could be quite wrong but I have a feeling that tomorrow they won’t take Aleksei out of that courtroom in handcuffs. They just can’t. They have to let him take part in the election. They’ll say, we gave you every chance but you couldn’t get enough votes.’

Boris is called back to drink a toast. The entire carraige drinks 'for freedom'. 

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'Navalny's brothers' and 'Navalny's brothers' wives' pose to journalists in Moscow. Photo: A. Astakhova/Vedomosti

21:45. The train stops at Vladimir station for 23 minutes. Navalny campaigns on the platform, surrounded by a crowd of supporters, and tells some Ilich or other about his fall from grace.

‘How are you feeling on this journey?’, I ask

‘I’m feeling great’ – he says, trying to look cheerful. 'How else should I be feeling when I have a bunch of people supporting me, joing me on this train?'

The engine puffs. Everyone gets back in. ‘The burning train’ sets off for Kirov.

The following morning, Aleksei Navalny and Petr Ofitserov will be convicted for the ‘Kirov forest’ affair and sentenced to a staggering 5 and 4 years imprisonment in a general penal colony respectively. This is one year less than was requested by the prosecutor.

Friday Update: 

Yesterday evening saw a number of demonstrations being held in support of Alexei Navalny in a number of cities across Russia, including Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Kazan, Kaliningrad and Perm. The largest demonstrations were in St Petersburg and Moscow. In Moscow, the central Manezhnaya and Krasnaya squares were closed to the public, ostensibly for repair work. People congregated instead on the pavements alongside, chanting 'freedom!' and 'one for all and all for one!', and shouting 'shame' at riot police who were detaining participants of the demonstrations. According to OVD-Info, some 209 people were detained by police. At about 11pm, the demonstration largely dispersed, with only the most sturdy of activists remaining. 

The same day, information appeared about a request by the Prosecutor to release Navalny from custody. On Friday at 10am, the request was granted by the Court, with Aleksey Navalny and Petr Ofitserov freed under a written pledge not to leave the country. 

Their return train will arrive in Moscow's Yaroslavskaya station tomorrow, Saturday 20 July at 9:32am. 

* This article was amended on Friday 19 July

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