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Remote city is new focus of Kremlin-opposition standoff


"I've never seen so many people here. No one ever comes," exclaimed a local activist in the Russian city of Kirov as she distributed pamphlets in support of Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny.

Almost 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from Moscow, the previously unheralded regional capital of Kirov has suddenly become the epicentre of the conflict between Navalny and the authorities led by President Vladimir Putin.

Hundreds of journalists and Navalny supporters descended on the city for the first day of his trial for embezzlement, which is being held in Kirov because this is where he is accused of clinching an illegal timber deal.

If found guilty, he could face up to 10 years in jail, but Navalny insists the charges were dreamed up by the Kremlin as punishment for his daring to oppose Putin.

Planes were fully booked for flights into the city's airport and there was not a hotel bed to be had without an advance booking. The night train that Navalny took up from Moscow for the trial was also filled with media and supporters.

With Navalny emerging from the court to give one of his trademark rousing speeches from the steps of a nearby puppet theatre and activists handing out bumper stickers denouncing the authorities, the city of Kirov had never seen anything like it.

Navalny declared to supporters that "we will be victorious" and "we will prove our innocence", before inviting journalists to the headquarters his team has set up in Kirov for the duration of the trial, which may last months.

"This is the first time we are the subject of such interest," said Konstantin Zaitsev, the head of the Leninsky district court where the case is being heard, with a distinct look of unease.

Garry Pansufar, 47, said he had travelled from the Volga city of Kazan to be in Kirov as the trial started.

"I came because this whole affair was completely invented," he said, describing Navalny's accusation as political and saying that even more people should have gathered in Kirov to support him.

"This is explained by the simple fact that the people are scared. If the trial was taking place in Moscow, then there would be more people," he added.

Some opposition supporters say the authorities deliberately wanted the trial to be held away from Moscow in far-flung Kirov to limit the strength of courthouse protests.

"During the trial your city -- which to be honest we have not heard much of until now -- is going to be at the centre of the news in Russia," well-known detective novelist and opposition supporter Boris Akunin wrote on his blog.

"You are being subjected to this fate as the Kremlin wanted to try the most prominent of opposition figures far from wild Moscow," he added.

The city of Kirov likes to trace its history back almost a millennium to the founding of a settlement in the area in 1181 by merchants from the once great Russian fortified city of Novgorod.

But little of this past history is obvious today in the city dominated by the grey Soviet blocks all too typical of most urban centres that grew exponentially with the heavy industrialisation of the Stalin era.

It was formerly known as Vyatka after the river that flows through the city, but the name was changed in the mid-1930s to remember Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) Communist Party boss Sergei Kirov, who was murdered in 1934.

The local authorities are making the most of the unexpected chance to raise the profile of their city.

The local liberal-inclined governor Nikita Belykh, for whom Navalny was working as an advisor when he made the timber deal, has even drawn up a list of tourist sites that visitors should not miss.

"I feel that I am responsible for how visitors see our city," he said.