Arson Attacks Cap Off A Grim Preelection Season For Russia's Opposition

By Polina Efimova

One evening in late August, as most residents of Rostov-on-Don were preparing for bed, a house on a sleepy, unpaved street on the outskirts of the southern Russian city erupted in flames.

The house belonged to Sergei Shalygin, a local opposition activist and blogger who had spent four years building and expanding the 100-square-meter property with his son. For Shalygin, the incident -- less than three weeks before Russia was due to hold nationwide legislative elections -- had clear motives.

"Local authorities in August ordered [a clampdown on] bloggers with a sizable following," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "The only reason I can see for the arson attack is my political activism."

The elections to Russia's lower house of parliament and legislative bodies throughout the country come amid a concerted, months-long crackdown on dissent that markedly accelerated after the return to Russia and subsequent jailing of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who blamed his August 2020 poisoning on the Kremlin and urged his supporters to take to the streets.

But the closer Russia has gotten to the important vote, the greater the pressure has grown on the opposition, according to activists affected by arson attacks.

Shalygin is known locally as an activist who cooperates with various political forces, including the liberal Yabloko party and the now-outlawed political network founded by Navalny. He said that the arson attack is still being probed; investigators are expected to announce a conclusion in October.

But Shalygin is far from alone. RFE/RL's Russian Service discovered evidence of a spate of arson attacks against opposition activists, and found that not a single one had led to a criminal conviction.

Overnight on July 27, a car parked in the courtyard of a home in the Far Eastern town of Dalnegorsk was set alight. The car belonged to Daniil Kulikov, the editor in chief of the local independent TV channel Dal-TV. But Kulikov had also registered to work as an election monitor in the upcoming vote and was involved in the political campaign of the party New People.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Kulikov cited unconfirmed video camera footage that allegedly shows a hoodie-clad figure who stops beside his car in the darkness and throws something at it before lighting a match to ignite the vehicle. Kulikov was out of town at the time, but his wife and young child were home.

On his TV channel, Kulikov had regularly covered cases of local corruption and incompetence, and he admitted that he had likely earned his fair share of enemies in Dalnegorsk. The attack, however, did not intimidate him.

"Obviously, my mom is worried for me, and so is my wife, but she knows that I'll keep pushing till the end, even though I understand that the pressure can grow, especially ahead of the elections," he said.

It's not just in Russia's hardscrabble provinces that such attacks are taking place. The geographic scale of the incidents indicates a concerted campaign of intimidation against independent activists.

On August 28, the day before Shalygin's home was engulfed in flames, a car belonging to feminist campaigner Alyona Popova was set alight in Moscow. Popova is running for a seat in Russia's State Duma, its lower house of parliament, and frequently criticizes the authorities.

"I got the news from an employee of a local warehouse. When I arrived, the security guard who witnessed the event had gone, and the head of security told me nothing," she said in an interview. "Who put out the flames, I also don't know. No one told me anything."

Popova suspects that the attack was either the work of her political opponents or of activists aligned with Male State, a chauvinistic, ultra-right movement that has sent her multiple death threats because of her advocacy on behalf of victims of domestic violence and her work to bring attention to the issue.

Incidents of the sort reported by activists involved in this year's election campaigns are not isolated to this campaign season -- they bear similarity to arson attacks that have accompanied every political cycle in Russia's modern history, analysts say.

"This is nothing new. Something like this happens during every national vote, and it was actually worse during [elections in] 2007 and 2011," said Moscow-based political analyst Aleksandr Kynev.

Vladimir Gelman, a political scientist at the European University in St. Petersburg, said such incidents are just one in an arsenal of measures the authorities may choose to use to scare their opponents. The organizers and perpetrators are rarely, if ever, found.

"The authorities have not yet exhausted their resources -- they will continue to ramp up the pressure," he said. "This is a selective tactic, where they choose [their targets] and punish them one by one. And it doubles up as a signal to other potential activists."