President Joe Biden pledged Sunday to tell Russian leader Vladimir Putin at their June summit that Washington will not let Moscow “abuse” human rights.
The face-to-face meeting with the Kremlin leader comes amid levels of tension not seen for years, with Washington now dialing back its ambitions to little more than establishing a relationship in which both sides understand each other and can work together in specific areas.
“I’ll be meeting with President Putin in a couple of weeks in Geneva, making it clear that we will not — we will not stand by and let him abuse those rights,” Biden said in a speech on the summit, which is set for June 16.
Since taking office, Biden has imposed new sanctions against Moscow over what US authorities say was the Russian role in the massive SolarWinds cyber attack and repeated meddling in the 2020 presidential election.
In addition, Washington has harshly criticized Moscow for the near-death poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of one of the last open opponents to Putin, Alexei Navalny.
Tensions are also high over Ukraine, where Russia already controls swaths of territory and recently massed troops on the border in a new show of force.
Yet another focus is on Russian-dominated Belarus, which caused an uproar this week after authorities forced an airliner passing overhead to land, then arrested an opponent to President Alexander Lukashenko who had been aboard.
Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia, the world’s largest country by land mass, is “too big for some”, Putin said.
He did not name Russia’s adversaries explicitly, but said it was important to keep developing the armed forces to protect the country.
The 68-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, is known not to mince words during public meetings.
In 1999, he famously promised to strike at separatists even in the “outhouse” which heralded the adoption of tougher tactics by the authorities against Chechen militants.
Tensions between Moscow and the West are high over a litany of issues, including Russia’s troop buildup on Ukraine’s border, interference in US elections and other perceived hostile activities.
But signs of a possible détente have recently been growing, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging dialogue during a face-to-face meeting in Reykjavik on Wednesday.
Nine students and staff killed by a teenage gunman at a Russian school were laid to rest Wednesday as officials called for tighter controls on guns and the internet.
After Tuesday’s attack left seven students and two staff dead at the school in the central city of Kazan, President Vladimir Putin called on lawmakers to toughen gun control laws and senior officials demanded stricter regulation of the internet.
Flags were flaying at half-mast throughout Kazan, the capital of the majority Muslim Russian region of Tatarstan.
All nine victims were buried Wednesday, a spokesperson for Tatarstan leader Rustam Minnikhanov said.
Family members wearing black and students of Elvira Ignatieva — a 26-year-old English teacher who reportedly died while shielding pupils from the gunman — laid flowers and read the Koran at her grave during a funeral ceremony.
“My niece was like a shining star: she took off, lit up and faded away,” her aunt Anna Ignatieva told AFP, crying and wearing a black scarf.
The lone gunman opened fire on Tuesday at Kazan’s School No. 175, armed with a shotgun and at least one improvised explosive device.
Dozens of mourners carrying flowers and soft toys also congregated outside the school to commemorate the dead.
“This is a huge and unexpected loss,” Irina Krasnikova told AFP.
“We live in such a nice city. It’s hard to believe this happened to us,” she added.
“It didn’t happen to my children, but it is so painful, it’s hard to speak.”
The gunman was identified as 19-year-old Ilnaz Galyaviev, a former student at the school who was recently dismissed from a local technical college for poor grades.
Svetlana Petrenko, a spokeswoman for the Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said Wednesday that Galyaviev suffered from a brain disorder and had repeatedly sought medical attention for severe headaches.
“His family has also noticed aggression and a quick temper in his behaviour since the beginning of this year,” she said.
Panic spread throughout the building, with some students jumping from windows to escape, and the gunman was detained within about an hour.
Galyaviev was shown in interrogation footage leaked online claiming he was God and that he had “a monster” inside him.
He was due to make a first court appearance on Wednesday, and prosecutors were expected to formally charge him with murder.
All the children killed were in Ignatieva’s eighth-grade class and believed to be aged 13 and 14. The second staff member killed was a teaching assistant for younger students.
Twenty children including some who sustained injuries while attempting to escape the school building were hospitalised, regional authorities said on Wednesday. Three adults were also hospitalised.
Eight students were being treated for gunshot wounds and two were in critical condition.
After the attack, Putin offered condolences to the families of the victims and urged lawmakers to make the process of legally obtaining a firearm more strict.
Calls for internet controls
The shooting also prompted calls among pro-Kremlin lawmakers for even tighter regulation on the internet, which opposition figures in Russia say authorities use to suppress political dissent.
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, called on lawmakers to discuss the possibility of removing internet anonymity, requiring users to identify themselves to be allowed online.
Authorities have claimed that young Russians are being increasingly exposed to negative influences online, especially from the West.
The Russia-born founder of encrypted messenger Telegram, Pavel Durov, said Wednesday that his team had “acted quickly” to block the gunman’s account, one hour after receiving initial complaints about his channel.
Russia has relatively few school shootings due to normally tight security in education facilities.
Buying firearms legally is also not easy, although it is possible to register hunting rifles.
Officials noted that Galyaviev had undergone security and psychological tests to gain a license for the weapon.
Though public shootings are rare in Russia, Tuesday’s attack follows similar incidents in recent years.
In November 2019, a 19-year-old student in the far eastern town of Blagoveshchensk opened fire at his college, killing one classmate and injuring three other people before shooting and killing himself.
In October 2018, another teenage gunman — reportedly using the same type of weapon as Galyaviev — killed 20 people at the Kerch technical college in Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
At least seven people were killed Tuesday, most of them children, in a shooting at a high school in the central Russian city of Kazan, officials and news agency reports said.
Officials said at least one gunman had been involved and detained, though there were unconfirmed reports of two attackers including one who had been killed.
A police spokesman said officers were dispatched to School No. 175 in Kazan, the capital of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, after reports of shots being fired.
Amateur footage on social media, apparently filmed from a nearby building, showed people escaping from the school by jumping from second- and third-floor windows, with sounds of gunshots echoing in the schoolyard.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said seven children had been killed and 16 people wounded.
The mayor of Kazan said eight people had been killed, while Russian news agencies, citing official sources, said 11 people had died.
There were initial reports of two shooters, with one reportedly barricaded on the fourth floor of the building and killed, but officials later said a lone attacker had been responsible.
The Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes in Russia, said a local resident born in 2001 had been detained in connection with the attack.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a review of gun control laws after the shooting, while the authorities declared a day of mourning for Wednesday.
– ‘Major tragedy’ –
Tatarstan regional leader Rustam Minnikhanov arrived at the scene and entered the school after it had been declared secure by law enforcement.
“We are deeply saddened that this has happened,” Minnikhanov said in televised remarks. “It’s a major tragedy for our republic.”
He said earlier that four boys and three girls were among those killed.
“Sixteen more people are in hospital,” Minnikhanov said, including 12 children and four adults.
He described the detained assailant as a “terrorist” and said the 19-year-old shooter had a licence to carry a firearm.
Images broadcast on state television showed dozens of people outside the school with fire services and police vehicles lining nearby streets.
“I was in class, I first heard an explosion, then gunshots,” news agency TASS quoted a student as saying.
Elena, a Kazan resident who said she was outside the school, told the Echo of Moscow radio station that law enforcement was removing people from outside the premises.
“Parents are crying, medics are giving out medicine. People are hysterical,” she told the radio station.
Putin expressed his “deep condolences” to the victims and ordered a review of gun control legislation, the Kremlin said.
“The president gave an order to urgently work out a new provision concerning the types of weapons that can be in civilian hands, taking into account the weapon” used in the attack, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
– Tight school security –
Russia has relatively few school shootings due to normally tight security in education facilities and the difficulty of buying firearms legally, although it is possible to register hunting rifles.
In November 2019, a 19-year-old student in the far eastern town of Blagoveshchensk opened fire in his college, killing one classmate and injuring three other people before shooting himself dead.
In October 2018, a teenage gunman killed 20 people at the Kerch technical college in Crimea, the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The 18-year-old attacker, who also set off explosives in one of the school’s buildings, shot himself dead at the site.
He was shown in camera footage wearing a similar T-shirt to Eric Harris, one of the killers in the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in the US, which left 13 people dead.
Putin at the time blamed the attack on “globalisation” and online communities dedicated to American school shootings which promoted “fake heroes”.
The Crimea shooter, Vladislav Roslyakov, was able to legally obtain a gun licence after undergoing marksmanship training and being examined by a psychiatrist.
The shooting led to calls for tighter gun control in Russia.
The country’s FSB security service says it has prevented dozens of armed attacks on schools in recent years.
In February last year the FSB said it had detained two teenagers on suspicion of plotting an attack on a school in the city of Saratov with weapons and homemade explosives.
Russian prosecutors on Monday suspended the activities of Alexei Navalny’s regional offices, in a move his team said would essentially shut down the jailed opposition figure’s movement.
The move comes after Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critic, ended a hunger strike last week that he had launched to demand proper medical treatment in prison.
A court in Moscow on Monday began proceedings into designating Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and its regional offices “extremist” after prosecutors requested they be added to a list run by Russia’s Anti-Terrorism Committee.
“The activities of Navalny’s offices and FBK were immediately suspended,” FBK’s director Ivan Zhdanov wrote on Twitter, attaching screenshots of a prosecutor’s decision.
The Moscow City Court confirmed that the activities of the group’s regional network were suspended, but clarified that prosecutors had the power to make the decision and said a final decision designating the group as extremist was due.
Navalny’s office in Moscow said in a statement the group will already “no longer be able to work” as usual.
“It would be too dangerous for our employees and for our supporters,” it said.
The team promised to continue fighting corruption, the ruling United Russia party and President Vladimir Putin “in a personal capacity”.
“It will not be easy to fight, but we will win absolutely, because there are many of us and we are strong.”
Germany condemned the order, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert saying that “using the instruments of fighting terror against politically undesirable opinions is in no way compatible with the principles of the rule of law”.
Prosecutors on Friday said they had requested the extremism label for FBK and its regional offices because they are actively “creating conditions for the destabilisation of the social and socio-political situation.”
– Upcoming elections –
It also accused them of working to alter “the foundations of the constitutional order”.
There are currently 33 organisations on Russia’s extremism list, including the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda.
The groups are banned from operating in Russia and participating in their activities can result in lengthy prison terms.
FBK’s members had already faced routine police searches and arrests for their activism, with the pressure ballooning since Navalny returned to Russia in January from Germany where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack.
The 44-year-old was arrested on his return and is now serving two-and-a-half years in a penal colony for violating parole terms on old fraud charges he says are politically motivated.
Most of his top allies have since been placed under house arrest or left the country, with several announcing publicly their were quitting FBK after prosecutors requested the extremism tag.
Earlier this month, a Russian court jailed FBK cameraman Pavel Zelensky for two years on charges of inciting extremism online. It cited two tweets saying that he hated Putin, among other officials, adding they did not deserve to be alive.
FBK routinely releases investigations into alleged graft by officials at all levels of government that are accompanied by YouTube videos that often go viral.
The group published its most notable probe after Navalny was arrested, accusing Putin of being gifted a luxurious property on the Black Sea coast.
The report helped spur mass anti-government protests over the winter, supported by FBK’s nationwide network of regional offices.
Those offices also help organise Navalny’s Smart Voting elections strategy, which calls for voters to cast their ballots for the candidate most likely to defeat Kremlin-linked opponents.
Navalny had staked out September’s parliamentary poll as his next target.
The Czech Republic on Tuesday threatened to expel all Russian diplomats from Prague, accusing Moscow of orchestrating an “unprecedented terror attack” on Czech territory in 2014.
“I am ready for everything. Even to build relationships from scratch. Which means we would send them all home,” Foreign and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek said on Facebook.
Czech lawmakers endorsed the move later Tuesday, calling on the government to “reset relationships with the Russian Federation and significantly cut diplomat numbers at the Russian embassy in line with the principle of reciprocity”.
Hamacek had earlier told reporters he would summon the Russian ambassador Wednesday to disclose further steps after the expulsion this weekend of 18 Russian diplomats believed by Prague to be secret agents, and of 20 Czechs from Moscow in retaliation.
“We are calling for collective action of EU and NATO countries aimed at solidarity expulsions,” Hamacek said.
The call comes after Prague accused Russian secret services of being behind an explosion at an ammunition depot near the eastern village of Vrbetice in 2014 that killed two people.
Czech police are seeking two men in connection with the blast, along with a second non-fatal explosion in the Czech Republic in 2014. The men have also been identified as suspects in the 2018 poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis called the 2014 explosion “an unprecedented terror attack on our territory which is unacceptable”.
He apologised for having remarked a day earlier that the explosion did not appear to be an act of state terrorism, as it targeted goods owned by a Bulgarian arms dealer.
The Russian diplomats who were expelled left their posts at the sprawling Russian embassy in Prague on Monday, as did the staff ordered to leave the much smaller Czech representation in Moscow.
“We have expelled 18 officers of the (secret services) SVR and GRU and we are able to prove that every single one of them was just that,” Hamacek said.
He said he had summoned Russian Ambassador Alexander Zmeyevsky to protest against what Prague views as a disproportionate response in expelling 20 Czech diplomats from Moscow.
“It is only logical that if the Czech Republic takes further action, the Russian ambassador must be the first to hear it,” Hamacek said.
A NATO official told AFP the Czech ambassador to the alliance briefed his counterparts on the expulsions, adding “allies will consult on the situation with the Czech foreign minister later this week”.
As the row escalated, the Czech government announced that Russia’s atomic energy agency Rosatom would be excluded from a tender to build a new multi-billion-euro unit at a Czech nuclear plant.
Hamacek also said that Prague would no longer consider buying Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19.
Citing an intelligence report, the Czech government has said Russia’s military secret service GRU orchestrated the two explosions in 2014, both of which struck ammunition depots.
Babis said that the ammunition targeted belonged to a Bulgarian arms dealer who probably sold arms to entities fighting against Russia, although he did not say where.
The attacks happened the same year that Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and a conflict broke out between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels in the east of the country.
The Czech weekly Respekt, working together with other media outlets including investigative website Bellingcat, said six GRU agents including the head of the agency’s 29155 unit, which carries out foreign operations, were involved in the explosions.
“At the moment we only know about two events involving (unit chief Andrei) Averyanov outside Russia, and given his high position in the GRU, this suggests they must have been important for the Russian government,” Respekt wrote.
The weekly identified the Czech operation as one of these two events. Bellingcat said Averyanov had travelled on one other mission — in 2015 and under a false identity — but did not give further details.
AFP was not able to verify the information independently.
Babis said Monday that the fatal attack was “fumbled”, as the military material was probably meant to explode on its way to Bulgaria and not on Czech territory.
The Bulgarian arms dealer — the Emco company owned by Emilian Gebrev — has denied any deals involving the depot at that time.
Gebrev himself was the victim of an attempted poisoning in 2015 in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, and an investigation for his attempted murder is ongoing.
Russia’s penitentiary service on Monday said it was transferring ailing Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to prison hospital, as the EU warned it would hold Moscow “responsible” for the state of his health.
The United States on Sunday threatened Russia with “consequences” if President Vladimir Putin’s major domestic opponent — who is on hunger strike — dies in jail after Navalny’s private doctors warned at the weekend he could pass away at “any minute”.
Russia’s prison authorities — which have barred Navalny’s own medical team from visiting him — said its doctors had decided to move him to a medical facility on the premises of another penal colony outside Moscow.
But the authorities insisted the jailed anti-corruption campaigner’s condition was “satisfactory”, and said he was taking vitamin supplements as part of medical treatment.
Fears over Navalny’s fate have added more fuel to soaring tensions between Moscow and the West over a buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine and a spiraling diplomatic row with EU member state the Czech Republic.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc held the Russian authorities “responsible for the health situation of Mr. Navalny” as foreign ministers from its 27 nations held virtual talks.
Borrell called his condition “very worrisome” and repeated demands that Moscow allows Navalny’s chosen team of doctors to inspect him.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis pushed further, saying the bloc should prepare “a humanitarian mission” to fly him out of Russia for treatment.
“If the international community does not respond, the regime’s opposition leader will be sent silently to his death,” Landsbergis said.
Navalny, 44, was arrested in Russia in January after returning from a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning he says was carried out by Moscow — accusations denied by Putin’s administration.
Sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for embezzlement, he began a hunger strike on March 31 demanding medical treatment for back pain and numbness to his hands and legs.
The EU in October sanctioned six Russian officials over the Novichok nerve agent attempt and in February sanctioned another four individuals over Navalny’s arrest and sentencing.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday those sanctions could be expanded.
Navalny’s supporters have called for a major protest across Russia on Wednesday to demand his release, hours after a state-of-the-nation address by Putin.
The fraught ties with Russia were set to dominate the agenda as EU foreign ministers hold their regular monthly meetings.
The top diplomats were also holding talks with Kiev’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba over the major military buildup by Russia along Ukraine’s borders and surge in clashes with Russian-backed separatists.
Borrell described the situation on Ukraine’s frontiers as “very dangerous” and called on Moscow to withdraw its troops.
Kiev has been battling Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and fighting intensified early this year, effectively shredding a ceasefire agreed last July.
Faced with the largest deployment of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders since 2014, President Volodymyr Zelensky has requested more help from the West.
Lithuania’s Landsbergis insisted the bloc should show it is willing to impose sanctions if Moscow covers any more “red lines”.
European diplomats say that Poland is pushing for a green light to prepare a new round of sanctions targeting officials in the annexed Crimea peninsula over rights abuses.
EU foreign ministers are also set to be briefed on spiralling tensions between the Czech Republic and Russia.
Moscow on Sunday ordered out 20 Czech diplomats, a day after Prague announced it was expelling 18 Russian diplomats identified as secret agents of the SVR and GRU security services.
Czech authorities accused them of involvement in a deadly 2014 explosion on its soil at a military ammunition warehouse that killed two people.
Czech police said they were seeking two Russians in connection with the explosion and that the pair carried passports used by suspects in the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018.
Russia on Friday banned top officials from US President Joe Biden’s administration from entering the country as it announced a wave of tit-for-tat sanctions and expulsions of diplomats, as tensions soar between the rivals.
Moscow nonetheless said it viewed the prospect of a summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin “positively.”
On Thursday, Washington had announced sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats in retaliation for what it says is interference by the Kremlin in US elections, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity.
Moscow issued a forceful response Friday, announcing that top US officials including Attorney General Merrick Garland, Biden’s chief Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice, and FBI chief Christopher Wray would be banned from entering Russia.
Earlier Friday Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Russia was responding to US sanctions in “a tit-for-tat manner” by asking ten US diplomats in Russia to leave the country while also expelling five Polish diplomats in response to a similar move by Warsaw.
Lavrov also said that Putin’s top foreign policy aide, Yury Ushakov, had recommended that US envoy John Sullivan leave for Washington to conduct “serious consultations.”
But Russia’s foreign ministry insisted that it viewed Biden’s proposal to hold a summit with Putin “positively”, adding that it was “currently under consideration”.
Biden’s offer earlier this week of a summit had amounted to a peace offering, as tensions between Russia and the West have escalated over the conflict in Ukraine and the new penalties levied by Washington.
The US penalties widened restrictions on US banks trading in Russian government debt and sanctioned 32 individuals accused of meddling in the 2020 US presidential vote.
Biden had on Thursday described the new US sanctions against Russia as a “measured and proportionate” response.
In March, Russia recalled its ambassador to the United States back to Moscow for consultations on the future of US-Russia ties.
The rare move came after Biden said Putin would “pay a price” for alleged election-meddling and agreed with the assessment that Putin is a “killer”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday said Putin had long talked about the importance of normalising relations between Moscow and Washington.
“It is indeed good that the points of view of the two heads of state coincide on this,” he said.
But Peskov also blasted the new round of penalties imposed by Washington, saying America’s “addiction to sanctions remains unacceptable.”
The Kremlin spokesman noted that Putin had last month had suggested that he and Biden hold virtual talks, which did not materialise as Washington did not respond.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on Friday offered his country as a venue for a possible Biden-Putin meeting.
Earlier this week Niinisto said he and Putin had spoken and the two discussed “the planned meeting” with Biden.
In recent weeks, Russia’s massing of troops on Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, and on the Crimean peninsula it annexed seven years ago, have contributed to the sharp escalation in tensions.
US forces in Europe have raised their alert status in response, while NATO has issued warnings to Moscow.
Analysts say that even though the US sanctions against Russia were the toughest in several years, they do not pose a threat to the Kremlin.
“The Russian market felt some relief,” the Renaissance Capital investment bank said in an analyst note Friday, because the sanctions were “moderate”.
Sanctions as a tool for punishing Moscow have become routine since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fighting erupted between Kiev’s forces and pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Relations have plunged further more recently, with Washington accusing Moscow of interfering in its presidential elections in 2016 and 2020.
This year even before the recent alarm over the Ukraine conflict, tensions had ratcheted up sharply after the US slapped sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Ties then hit rock bottom last month after Biden, who promised to take a firmer line on Moscow than his predecessor Donald Trump, agreed with a description of Putin as a “killer”.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto has offered Finland as a host country for a possible meeting between US president Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Niinisto’s office said on Friday.
“When it comes to this possible meeting, the readiness of Finland to organise it has been presented to both Washington and Moscow,” a spokesman for the Finnish President’s Office told AFP by email.
Finland previously hosted Putin and President Trump in Helsinki for the 2018 summit between the two leaders.
Yet the decision to host the meeting came under criticism at the time from some in Finland who said it gave the impression that the Nordic country was neutral, rather than a Western power belonging to the EU.
The Finnish president has been a strong advocate of upholding a dialogue with the Kremlin and most recently had a phone call with president Putin on Tuesday, expressing “serious concern” over Russia’s troop movements along the border with Ukraine.
Biden proposed a meeting with his Russian counterpart during a call on Tuesday, in order to discuss rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
“They are still not allowing a doctor to see him,” it said.
The 44-year-old opposition politician now weighed 77 kilograms (169 pounds), it said, down from 85 kilograms (187 pounds) when he started the hunger strike on March 31.
Navalny, who barely survived a poisoning with nerve agent Novichok last August, began refusing food in protest at what he said was a lack of proper medical treatment in prison for severe back pain and numbness in his legs.
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s best-known opponent, was arrested in mid-January when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been treated for the poisoning, and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on old embezzlement charges in February.
Members of his defence team, who visited him in his penal colony in the town of Pokrov 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Moscow last week, said he was also losing sensation in his hands.
Navalny’s lawyers and allies are demanding that he be transferred to a regular hospital. The Kremlin has said that Navalny is not entitled to any special treatment.
Russia on Monday celebrated the 60th anniversary of the legendary flight that made Yuri Gagarin the first man in space, a major source of national pride for millions of his countrymen.
Russia’s space industry has struggled in recent years and been hit by a series of mishaps, but the sending of the first human into space on April 12, 1961 remains a crowning achievement of the Soviet space programme.
President Vladimir Putin was to travel Monday to the southern city of Engels on the banks of the Volga River, to the site of the cosmonaut’s landing where a memorial stands to honour the historic flight.
He was to be accompanied by Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet cosmonaut and the first woman in space.
The day of Gagarin’s flight is celebrated every year in Russia as Cosmonautics Day, and this year authorities are pulling out all the stops to mark the 60th anniversary, with round-the-clock television coverage, murals on high-rises and laser projections of Gagarin’s portrait.
For Moscow commuters, the morning started with a broadcast on the Metro of the original report by state news agency TASS about the launch, followed by Gagarin’s legendary words — “Poekhali!” (Let’s go) — as his Vostok spacecraft lifted off.
In a message from the International Space Station, the four Russians on board saluted “all earthlings” and hailed Gagarin’s accomplishment.
“Gagarin’s legendary 108-minute flight became an example of heroism for his successors, including us,” said cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky.
Vostok took off carrying the 27-year-old son of a carpenter and a dairy farmer from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union.
The flight lasted just 108 minutes, the time it took to complete one loop around the Earth.
Gagarin landed in a potato field in front of a five-year-old girl, Rita Nurskanova, and her grandmother.
In an interview with newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets for the anniversary, Nurskanova said that after seeing a flash of light and a spacesuit, her grandmother started to pray and wanted to run.
Gagarin calmed them down, saying he was human and “came from the sky,” she said. Then her grandmother helped him unfasten his helmet.
‘Name that everyone knows’
Gagarin’s now-rusty Vostok capsule is on display at Moscow’s Museum of Cosmonautics where a new exhibition dedicated to his achievement is set to open on Tuesday.
Visitors will be shown documents, photos and personal belongings, some dating back to Gagarin’s childhood and school years.
“This is probably the only surname that everyone knows, from four-year-old children to people over 80,” Vyacheslav Klimentov, a historian and the museum’s deputy director of research, told AFP.
Gagarin’s flight remains a symbol of the country’s dominance in space during the Soviet era. Four years before Gagarin, the USSR had become the first country to send a satellite into orbit, called Sputnik.
But the anniversary also comes at a difficult time for Russia’s space industry, which has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, from corruption scandals to lost spacecraft to an aborted take-off during a manned mission in 2018.
Russia’s ageing Soyuz rockets are reliable and allow Moscow to remain relevant in the modern space industry, but the country is struggling to innovate and keep up with other key players.
In a major blow, Russia last year lost its monopoly for manned ISS launches after reusable rockets from Elon Musk’s Space X, carrying NASA astronauts, successfully docked at the space station.
In a video message on Monday, the head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, stressed that the USSR sent a man into space despite having lost “colossal resources” during World War II.
Rogozin has set a series of ambitious goals for Roscosmos in recent years despite funding cuts to the space programme.
He said that Russia was “on the cusp of very important changes” that will see next-generation spacecraft and lunar missions.
“We believe in our space, in Russian space,” he said.
The health of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is deteriorating as he keeps up his hunger strike in prison, with a new numbness in his hands, his lawyers said Wednesday.
Last Wednesday President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, who is serving two and a half years on embezzlement charges, launched a hunger strike to demand proper medical treatment for severe back pain and numbness in his legs.
Members of Navalny’s defence team, who visited him in his penal colony in the town of Pokrov 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Moscow on Wednesday, said he is still refusing food and was coughing.
“He looks bad, he’s not feeling well,” lawyer Olga Mikhailova told AFP, adding Navalny now weighs “around 80” kilogrammes (176 pounds).
Navalny, who is 189 centimetres (six feet two inches) tall, weighed 93 kilogrammes (205 pounds) when he arrived in his penal colony last month.
“No one is going to treat him,” Mikhailova added.
Navalny’s lawyers and allies are demanding that he be transferred to a “normal” hospital but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that Navalny is not entitled to any special treatment.
Another member of the opposition politician’s team, Vadim Kobzev, said that 44-year-old Navalny was losing a kilogramme a day.
Taking to Twitter, Kobzev said Navalny felt pain when he walked and was now also feeling a numbness in his hands in addition to back pain and a loss of sensation in his legs.
“It’s clear that his illness is getting worse,” Kobzev wrote.
Earlier this week, Navalny said he had a cough and fever and that three members of his prison unit had been hospitalised with tuberculosis.
Navalny was arrested in January after returning from Germany, where he spent months recovering from a poisoning attack with Novichok nerve agent he blames on the Kremlin.
He is serving a two-and-a-half year sentence for breaching the parole terms of a suspended sentence on old fraud charges.
Rights campaigners say the Pokrov penal colony is known for its especially harsh conditions, and Navalny himself has called it a “concentration camp.”