The Putin government's expanding crackdown on political dissent has entangled one of Russia's most iconic and respected institutions: Moscow's famously ornate Metro system.
Over the last week, dozens — perhaps even hundreds — of train drivers, mechanics, ticket agents and other public transit workers have been hauled before management and told to either resign or be fired.
The reason appears to be that either they or a family member signed onto a website calling for President Vladimir Putin's arch-foe, Alexei Navalny, to be freed from prison.
Their names were supposed to be confidential, but somehow the information was obtained by Russia's security services.
"The thing we all have in common is that we all registered on the "Free Navalny" site," said Sergey Polyantsov, 37, who's been driving trains on the Metro for the past 17 years.
Polyantsov says he was informed late last week that he was going to be terminated and there was nothing he could do about it.
Prosecutors move to shut down Navalny's operation
Navalny, a 44-year-old opposition leader and lawyer, has spent years uncovering and revealing enormous kick-back and corruption schemes involving Putin and his top Kremlin lieutenants.
One video, entitled , which featured a huge mansion on the Black Sea reportedly owned by Russia's leader, has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube.
Navalny survived an assassination attempt last August that most Western nations believe was carried out by Russia's secret service, and he was taken to Germany for medical treatment.
When he defied the Kremlin and returned to Russia in January, he was quickly thrown in prison, and many of his top organizers were put under house arrest.
In recent weeks, prosecutors have moved to shut down Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), as well as dozens of political offices across Russia, declaring his network to be an extremist organization — on par with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State terrorist group.
"I have never seen anything like this and never thought this could happen at an organization like the Moscow Metro," Polyantsov told CBC News.
He said he earned an annual salary of roughly $25,000 Cdn, a decent middle-class income in Russia.
Metro a tourist attraction
Moscow's Metro is one of the world's busiest transit systems, carrying almost seven million passengers a day, but it may be best known for the ornate and artistic designs of many of its stations.
With colourful granite floors, mosaics and detailed painted ceilings, and statues of famous Russian cultural and military figures, the Metro is a tourist attraction in itself.
The system is also famously efficient, with wait times of two minutes or less between trains at most times of the day.
"It's hard to believe that at a workplace of this stature, they could take such unbelievable actions," said another dismissed worker, Alexander Ivanov, 38, who's been driving a train for four years.
The union for Metro employees says so far, 37 workers have officially filed complaints over their dismissals, and it knows of at least another 30 who have also lost their jobs.
Other employees who drive trams, buses or work on the light rail system have also been targeted. The union says it's likely that by the time the purge is over, several hundred people will have been terminated.
'I will sign up for whatever I want'
CBC News met several fired workers after a union meeting earlier this week in Moscow. Many appeared to be in shock over the sudden turn of events, while others expressed outrage at the conduct of Russian authorities.
"This is political discrimination and nothing else," Ivanov said.
"This should not happen in a civilized world. And the people who did this crime should be punished."
He said he's been stunned by how fast Russian authorities have pivoted from imposing a form of mild authoritarianism on the population to outright repression.
"If someone told me just three days ago that this would happen, I would've said, 'Yes, things here are bad, but not that bad.' But right now we just have no answers."
Still, as he pondered how he would find another job, Sergey Polyantsov said he had no regrets about signing the Navalny petition.
"Today, they don't like that I signed up on the 'Free Navalny' site, tomorrow they won't like that I subscribe to PornHub or something else. And they will fire me again. I will sign up for whatever I want," he said defiantly.
Reinstatement of workers remote
A spokesperson for the union representing transit workers told the Reuters news agency that the dismissals were the result of "fake charges" and would be appealed to a Moscow court.
But the chance of a judge agreeing to reinstate the workers is remote.
Russian prosecutors and courts have repeatedly fallen into line behind the Kremlin's orders and imposed stiff penalties on Navalny and his associates, as well as on any activities to do with his anti-corruption work.
Russia's labour movement also appears ready to acquiesce to the Kremlin's will.
In a news release, the Moscow Metro State Unitary Enterprise, the union representing Metro workers, said that while it will try to support the fired employees financially, it also "considers it inexpedient to excessively politicize this issue."
One of Russia's top labour officials, Boris Kravchenko, head of the Confederation of Labour of Russia, refused to make a statement when contacted by CBC News.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was quoted by the Tass news agency on Tuesday as saying any worker who feels wrongly treated has the right to appeal through the justice system.
"If there is a violation of the Labour Code, and citizens believe that these violations take place, then they are free to apply to the prosecutor's office."
Discontent as economy stagnates
Ora John Reuter, an associate professor in Russian domestic politics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, calls it a "precarious moment" for Putin and his government, which may explain its turn toward more repressive measures.
"This is not three or four years ago, when Putin's popularity was 75 to 80 percent. Now it's hovering around its historic lows," Reuter said in an interview with CBC News.
"So even if they aren't facing an opposition that is organized and united, the Kremlin is clearly concerned about generalized discontent, especially as the economy continues to stagnate."
However, Reuter said, cracking down on ordinary people as opposed to political activists comes with risks.
"Time and time again in autocracy after autocracy, we've seen how that creates a backlash."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.
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