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Alexei Navalny Supporters Gather For Valentine's Day Vigils

Young people dance shining their cellphone flashlights in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya near Red Square in Moscow on Sunday.
Young people dance shining their cellphone flashlights in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya near Red Square in Moscow on Sunday.

After a crackdown on protests in Russia, allies of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny encouraged supporters to participate in a more muted form of solidarity and defiance.

Supporters of Navalny gathered near their homes and in apartment courtyards for Valentine's Day vigils, an act dubbed "Love Is Stronger than Fear," for the detained opposition leader. They were encouraged to gather outside for 15 minutes and post their participation to social media.

Scenes from the day showed people displaying the lights on their phones and arranging candles into hearts. Navalny's Twitter account retweeted pictures of supporters gathering across Moscow.

Other images on social media showed vigils across Russia, from the Eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk, to Yekaterinburg near the Ural Mountains and Novosibirsk in Western Siberia, Reuters reports.

The vigils were small and sporadic compared to the massive recent protests. It's unclear also how many people participated.

In other actions Sunday, a few hundred women formed a human chain in Moscow in support of Navalny's wife, Yulia, and other women impacted by the crackdowns. Another 100 formed a chain in St. Petersburg, the Agence France-Presse reports.

Russian authorities attempted to extinguish the protests, with officials taking to Kremlin-backed TV networks accusing Navalny's allies on acting on NATO instructions. According to The Associated Press, state news agencies carried reports citing unnamed sources claiming that a terrorist group was training insurgents for possible attacks in Russian cities "at locations of mass rallies."

Previously, the Kremlin would avoid mentioning Navalny and the protests he led weren't covered on official media channels.

Navalny was arrested upon his return from Germany, where he recovered for months after narrowly surviving a poisoning. Navalny and investigative journalists reported that agents from Russia's federal security service were responsible.

On Feb. 2 he was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for violating the parole terms from a 2014 conviction. He also faces slander charges, which he has called politically motivated.

Protests over his detainment have carried on for weeks in the country, prompting a crackdown that has included more than 10,000 arrests.

Russia has insisted that public events that are "unsanctioned" by the state are illegal and could increase the spread of the coronavirus.

The protests and crackdowns have also added to friction for Russia on the international stage.

Russia recently expelled three European diplomats after alleging they participated in pro-Navalny demonstrations. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would cut ties with the European Union if the EU imposes economic sanctions over Navalny's imprisonment.

"We don't want to isolate ourselves from global life, but we have to be ready for that. If you want peace then prepare for war," Lavrov said in the interview which was posted to a YouTube channel run by Russia's foreign ministry.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.