A brewing question for Putin’s opponents: Can Russia be changed without leaving prison?

Not long after Russia shocked the world by attacking Ukraine in February. On January 24, Ilya V. Yashin, a member of the local city council and a prominent opposition figure, decided it was time to see a dentist.

The Kremlin was in the process of criminalizing criticism of the war, and Mr. Yashin, a very vocal critic, decided to stay in his homeland and continue to oppose President Vladimir Putin. After all, he reasoned, it was likely that he would go to jail.

“I am sincerely afraid of dentists,” Yashin said in a recent interview on YouTube, “but I pulled myself together and did it because I realized that if I ended up in prison, there would be no dentists.”

Two weeks after the interview was published, M. Yashin, 39, was indeed detained. He is now in a pre-trial detention center in Moscow on charges of “spreading false information” about the war. He faces a sentence of up to 10 years.

mr. Yashin’s arrest is indicative of the rapidly narrowing scope for dissent within Russia. Putin cracks down on any deviation from the official version of the invasion. In addition, there has been renewed debate among the Russian opposition about how leaders such as Mr. Yashin can best serve to undermine Mr. Putin: do they want reform outside the country, or inside the colony?

mr. Yashin is still convinced that he made the right choice. “What crime have I committed?” he asked rhetorically in a handwritten letter from prison to The New York Times. “On my YouTube channel, I criticized the special operation in Ukraine and openly called what is happening a war.”

But some oppositionists disagree, saying that staying and fighting may seem like a bold move, but prison is an ineffective platform to push for reform.

“Yashin is fearless – he is a fighter, he is brave,” said Dmitry Gudkov, a Russian opposition leader who left Russia last year. “I’m sure he won’t back down,” he continued. “But I’m just sad that he will waste his life. It’s not clear.”

mr. Gudkov went into exile after what he called “real threats” that a criminal case against him would result in a prison sentence. He said that he encouraged G. Yashin, an old friend, to also go into exile.

Evgenia Mikhailovna Albats, journalist and friend of Mr. Yashin, who also decided to staywas of the opposite opinion, saying that it was impossible to seriously engage in politics from abroad.

“You can’t be a Russian politician in New York, in Manhattan,” she said. Albats said this in a telephone interview from Moscow. “DYou cannot call yourself a Russian politician and be in London.” However, she acknowledged: “The risks are very high and they are getting higher.“.

mr. Yashin acknowledged this in a YouTube interview published shortly before his arrest with Russian journalist Yuri Dud. “I understand that every day can be my last as a free man,” he said.

He later wrote on social media that he believed it was his explicit refusal to leave, expressed in that interview, that led to his arrest.

In his letter to The Times, which was scanned and sent last week, Mr. Yashin wrote that Russia’s “prisons are rapidly filling with political prisoners” because Mr. Putin feels threatened.

“These brutal repressions,” Mr. Yashin said, “indirectly confirm that the current military campaign is devoid of legitimacy.”

mr. Yashin knew that his outspokenness and his platform would make him a target, and friends agreed that it was only a matter of time before he was detained. He was repeatedly fined for “discrediting” the Russian military, mostly for talking about other wars. In April, he shared a famous photo women who protested the Vietnam War in 1969, saying that the hypocrisy behind the “bombing for peace” rationale for war persists today.

He was also fined in May for condemning Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Andrey Sakharovthe first Russian to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the famous words of the Soviet bard who raised the alarm about the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

After the invasion began in February, he continued to call on Mr. Putin’s government, hosting regular live broadcasts on his YouTube channel criticizing the power of the security services in Russia. He also documented a visit to a penal colony that held Russia’s most prominent opposition leader. Alexey A. Navalnyand referred to a BBC report on Russian atrocities in Bucha, which became the basis for his accusation of spreading false information.

The only choice open today to opposition politicians from Russia is “emigration or prison,” said Lyubov Sobol, who was forced to emigrate after her boss, Mr S. Navalny, survived an attempted poisoning, returned to Russia and was immediately arrested. Navalny’s advice is that Mr. Yashin went to the dentist.

mr. Navalny retained influence in prison. The large team he assembled before his arrest was re-created abroad. Observers say it takes a big apparatus like Mr. Black to maintain such a public profile from jail. Navalny; mr. So far, Yashin has been able to forward messages later posted on social media.

Mrs. Lawyer Sobol said that she could not criticize a colleague while he was in prison. But she said that no one in Russia can replace Mr. Yashin, on YouTube or in the political arena.

“He had a huge YouTube channel, a large audience that trusted him, Yashin, who has 1.3 million subscribers. “I know a lot of people who send their videos to grandparents. And they changed their minds about Russian propaganda, because he spoke in a very simple, bright and good language.”

According to her, there are no “other people” in Russia right now.

mr. Yashin became active in politics when he was 17, just as Mr. Putin came to power and quickly became head of the Moscow branch of the youth wing of the liberal Yabloko party. When Yabloko reprinted the Russian translation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Mr. Yashin wrote a foreword warning that “the era of Big Brother” had begun in Russia.

He eventually became close to opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead in Moscow in 2015 by assassins allegedly associated with Ramzan Kadyrov, a strong man who has led the Russian region of Chechnya since 2007. Nemtsov was compiling a report on the participation of Russian soldiers in the war that began in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Yashin completed and issued a reportand became one of the few politicians willing to openly criticize leader of Chechnya.

In 2017, Yashin and other opposition candidates won seven out of 10 seats in the local council of Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district.

As head of the council, Mr. Yashin turned to everyday concerns: playgrounds, parking lots, gentrification. He converted his company car and driver into a free taxi for the area’s handicapped. On YouTube, he regularly reported on the achievements and challenges of the council. He called the corruption of state bodies and subcontractors.

Under constant scrutiny by the prosecutor’s office, Mr. Yashin stepped down as head of the council in 2021, said Yelena Kotenochkina, who took over the council’s leadership.

According to her, the prosecutors “constantly checked what we were doing.” mr. Yashin’s reprofiling of his official car was the reason for the investigation of abuse of power.

In March, another council member, Aleksey A. Gorinov, suggested that the district not hold a children’s party commemorating the victory of the Soviet Union in World War II while children were dying in Ukraine. Mrs. Kitty agreed. In late April, both were charged under the “false information” law. Mrs. Kotyonochkina managed to escape to Lithuania; mr. Gorinov was sentenced to seven years in a strict regime colony.

Mrs. Kotenochkina stated that the case against her and Mr. Gorinov was a “hint” to Mr. Yashin that he must leave the country or face prison.

And one late June evening, Mr. Yashin was detained when he was walking in the park with his girlfriend, independent journalist Irina Babloyan. He was accused of disobeying police orders—a false accusation, Ms. insisted. Babloyan – and sentenced to 15 days of arrest. As soon as he was released, he was again arrested on charges of false information, and now he is awaiting trial. Last week, Russian authorities called him a “foreign agent.” government label is tantamount to an enemy of the state.

“Now people see: we are not running anywhere, we stand our ground and share the fate of our country,” he wrote.

“This makes our words more valuable and our arguments stronger. But most importantly, it leaves us a chance to regain our homeland. After all, it’s not the one who is stronger now who wins, but the one who is ready to go to the end.”

Alina Lobzina made a report.