Navalny activist flees Russia as top aides report threatening letters

Violetta Grudina was barred from standing for election last year in the Arctic port city of Murmansk.

 Russian opposition activist Violetta Grudina poses for a photo in Murmansk, Russia, May 26, 2021 (photo credit: Courtesy of Violetta Grudina/Handout via REUTERS)
Russian opposition activist Violetta Grudina poses for a photo in Murmansk, Russia, May 26, 2021
(photo credit: Courtesy of Violetta Grudina/Handout via REUTERS)

An activist ally of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny told Reuters on Thursday she had fled Russia to avoid jail, while two of his top aides said they had received letters with threats to themselves and their families.

Violetta Grudina, 32, who was barred from standing for election last year in the Arctic port city of Murmansk, said she fled with her 11-year-old son and her dog in December. She declined to reveal her location and said only she was in Europe.

"In principle I was prepared to stay in Russia and go to jail... (But) I had to think of my son and to leave to ensure him a safe future," Grudina said by phone.

She declined to say exactly how she had managed to get out of Russia while being barred from leaving town, but said it was extremely uncomfortable, took several days, and involved transport by car, plane, bus and on foot.

With the nearby border closed to her because of coronavirus restrictions, she only had one road out of Murmansk towards St Petersburg when she left in the night and she really worried they would be stopped, she said.

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally in Moscow, Russia, February 29, 2020.  (credit: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/FILE PHOTO)Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally in Moscow, Russia, February 29, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/FILE PHOTO)

She joined numerous opposition figures in leaving Russia over the last year during a crackdown that intensified after Navalny was jailed after recovering from being poisoned with a nerve agent.

Navalny's nationwide political network has since been dismantled and banned as extremist. Navalny is in jail. He and some of his closest allies have been added to an official list of "terrorists and extremists."

Navalny's team said on Thursday that two of those aides now living outside Russia, Ivan Zhdanov and Leonid Volkov, had received anonymous letters saying: "We know where you live. We don't want you and your families to feel safe, we want you to remember this as you go about your work."

Volkov said on Instagram that the "letter from the Motherland" had been delivered to his home address.

"We received these letters at the same time that we were included in the 'list of extremists and terrorists', and this doesn't look like a coincidence: we know what methods Putin uses to fight those he considers 'terrorists', don't we? But we will not change anything in our work."

BARRED FROM BALLOT

Grudina planned to run for a seat on the Murmansk city council last September as the crackdown gathered steam.

But after being barred from the race, she said she had fallen foul of a spectacular intimidation campaign that saw her office shot at. At one point, she said she was put in a hospital for COVID-19 treatment she did not want or need.

The Kremlin has declined to comment on Grudina's allegations. It denies targeting opposition politicians and says people are only taken to court if they break the law.

The local city and governor's offices did not reply to requests for comment about Grudina's allegations at the time.