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In Russia, a new badge of honor for Putin critics: a jail term

The frequent arrests of one veteran anti-Kremlin activist, Sergei Udaltsov, have gained him a broader base of support among Russia's opposition than he could previously claim. 

By Correspondent / December 28, 2011

Russia's opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov (l.) leaves the court in Moscow, Russia, Sunday. In Russia, a prison stint can be a must on the resume of anyone who aspires to lead an anti-Kremlin protest movement.

Mikhail Metzel/AP

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Moscow

A prison stint in most countries is a disgrace to live down, but in Russia it can be a valuable asset, even a must, on the resume of anyone who aspires to lead an anti-Kremlin protest movement. 

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Russian security services have always been ready to oblige their worst opponents by tossing them into jail on almost any flimsy pretext, with little regard for legal niceties or human rights conventions. 

A century ago most Bolshevik leaders spent time in Czarist prisons, a rite-of-passage that burnished their revolutionary credentials. The Soviet Union attracted the outrage of the world for its treatment of dissidents such as Anatoly Sharansky, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Andrei Sakharov

Though the dissident movement was destroyed by KGB repression, most of its leaders forced to emigrate, Mr. Sakharov was ultimately released from his internal exile by reforming Communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Sakharov ended his days as a member of the first Soviet parliament and a celebrated symbol of national conscience. 

"This happens in repressive regimes, in which the government is seen as a force that's opposed to the people rather than a force that represents them," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "In today's Russia, Vladimir Putin's whole period of leadership has been about enforcing his dominance over society." 

As a new protest movement swells the streets, Russian authorities, true to form, have been boosting the street cred of several opponents by jailing them for taking part in "unsanctioned" meetings, including former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and radical blogger Alexei Navalny, who suggested Monday that he might be ready to challenge Vladimir Putin if there were fair elections. 

"When we get a chance to take part in elections, I am ready to fight for leading positions, including in the presidential vote," Mr. Navalny told journalists. 

But the most dramatic case may be that of Sergei Udaltsov, a veteran left-wing street activist who's been arrested more than 100 times in the past five years. He was preemptively jailed on Dec. 4 on a variety of pretexts that seem so outrageous he has begun to attract support far beyond his own small, radical left-wing constituency. 

Almost 2,000 people, including many liberals who've only recently learned Mr. Udaltsov's name, have signed a Facebook pledge to attend an unsanctioned rally Thursday in Moscow's downtown Pushkin Square to accuse the Russian authorities of holding Udaltsov as a political prisoner and demand that he be released. 

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