Russians risk their jobs for supporting Navalny

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Physics teacher Alexei Alexeyev still can't believe he was fired on the spot after taking part in a rally in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

"It will be very difficult to find work in the public sector," Alexeyev tells AFP by phone from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

The 38-year-old teacher says his school's management accused him of encouraging students to join anti-government protests that broke out following Navalny's January 17 arrest at a Moscow airport.

Vladimir Putin's most vocal critic was last week sentenced to two years and eight months in prison after he survived a poisoning attack he blames on the Russian president -- a claim the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.

More than 11,000 people were reported detained nationwide during pro-Navalny demonstrations that took place on two straight weekends in January and many now face jail terms and criminal charges.

But Alexeyev says he does not talk to students about politics and knows that he has to be "very careful".

"When they asked me if I supported Navalny, I told them that they need to think for themselves," he says.

According to Alexeyev's dismissal note, seen by AFP, he was sacked because of "repeated and unjustified breaches of his professional obligations."

The regional branch of the education ministry did not respond to AFP's requests for comment on the reason behind Alexeyev's dismissal.

The teacher says he posted a photo of himself at a protest rally on the VKontakte social network -- Russia's equivalent of Facebook -- and also shared contact details for an organisation that provides free legal aid to detained protesters.

Alexeyev believes these posts were reported to the school management, with whom he was already in a dispute over the school's lack of resources.

"They want to scare teachers so that they no longer share their opinions, even on social media," he said.

- 'Stick to my principles' -

On the other end of the country, in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Alexander Ryabchuk said he was forced to resign from a state school where he had taught history for seven years.

The 31-year-old told AFP that his superiors ordered him to delete posts on Instagram in support of the opposition, but that he refused.

"I preferred to stick to my principles rather than save my career," he said. "I talk about democracy in my lessons on ancient Greece. I believe in the idea of a citizen's duty."

"And I want to apply what I teach," he added.

The teacher's work record states he left on his own initiative. But Ryabchuk says he was actually forced to quit his job after being pressured by the police, who searched his home and then jailed him for five days for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration.

The regional education ministry did not reply to AFP's request for comment.

Social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube have increasingly become havens of free speech in Russia, particularly for young people who do not get their news from state-controlled media.

Russian authorities have responded in recent weeks, ramping up the pressure on the platforms by threatening them with fines and lawsuits if they do not remove protest-related content.

The authorities have also, according to Apologiya Protesta, a project run by the Agora rights group, put pressure on companies owned by Navalny supporters.

The project this week reported on its Telegram channel that at least four Moscow businessmen, who were detained at protest rallies, faced unexpected checks on their companies.

"The investigators demanded a large array of documents on their current activities," Apologiya Protesta, which has launched a hotline for businessmen, wrote.