By Ola Cichowlas
MOSCOW — The scale of Russia’s nationwide protests this weekend took even their organizers by surprise.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of Russians took part in anti-corruption demonstrations across 82 cities — from Vladivostok on the Pacific to Kaliningrad on the European Union’s borders. In Moscow, the protest culminated in over 1,000 arrests, a record for the city under President Vladimir Putin’s rule. The man who brought the country out into the streets was able to revel in his achievement for only a few minutes. As soon as opposition leader Alexei Navalny appeared on Moscow’s central Tverskaya Street, he was immediately detained by police. (The next day, a Moscow court fined Navalny $350 for organizing banned protests and sentenced him to 15 days in jail.) But Navalny remained defiant. “The time will come when we will have them on trial (but honestly),” he tweeted before his sentencing.
Two weeks earlier, Navalny — Putin’s most prominent critic and the one most devoted to opposing him at the ballot box — had published an investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged corruption. His team released a video revealing that Medvedev had amassed a collection of palaces, yachts, and vineyards during his time in office. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation regularly publishes blogs and videos making public the ill-begotten riches of people within or close to the government. Past exposés have focused on the business empire belonging to the son of Russia’s general prosecutor and the millions allocated to a foundation run by Putin’s daughter. With the Medvedev video, however, Navalny struck a nerve like never before.
Russia, which is in its third year of a serious economic recession, has been living under Western sanctions since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The news of Medvedev’s secret fortunes, at a time of nationwide suffering, had the country furious. In a matter of days, millions of Russians had watched the video on YouTube.
The prime minister’s riches quickly became a symbol of all the injustices in Putin’s Russia, where corruption is part of daily life. According to Navalny, Medvedev used a web of charities run by his associates to conceal his fortunes; the prime minister owns a vineyard in Italy and an 18th-century palace in St. Petersburg. “Dimon [Medvedev] Will Answer” became the protest’s slogan. Russians carried banners of ducks, alluding to the expensive home Medvedev allegedly built for waterfowl on a pond at one of his estates, and sneakers around their necks, representing his collection of expensive shoes.
It wasn’t just the ostentatious wealth that had protesters so angry. Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012 before Putin returned to the presidency, has long been an unpopular figure in Russia. Unlike Putin, who never appears in a compromising light, Medvedev is the Kremlin official most prone to gaffes. He is famously tone deaf. On a trip to Russian-annexed Crimea last year, he told a group of angry pensioners, “There’s no money, but you hang in there!” The quote immediately went viral. (His reaction to the protests against him was true to form. An Instagram user asked the prime minister, on his page, how his day went. Medvedev replied, “Not bad, I went skiing!”) While Putin’s approval ratings have soared as a result of his efforts to play tough with the West and secure military victories abroad, Medvedev has taken the blame for falling living standards at home. For the past few years, the Russian public, and even some within Putin’s hard-line inner circle, have considered Medvedev both weak and dispensable.
And so, it was only a matter of time before Navalny, a savvy operator who recently announced plans to run for the presidency next year, saw an opening.
By focusing his protests on Medvedev, analysts say, Navalny managed to get turnout on a scale that he’d never before achieved. That’s in part because the framing appealed to two very different groups of protesters: the politically discontented in Russia’s biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and those living in Russia’s far-flung regions, where protest movements have traditionally had little appeal. Most Russians far from the cities would think twice before protesting against their president, but they care little for his clumsy prime minister. They also witness the painful effects of localized corruption on a daily basis. It was these regional protests that took Russian authorities most by surprise. Even before 2 p.m., when the protests were officially supposed to begin across Russia’s 11 time zones, an estimated 20,000 people had already taken part in protests in Siberia and the Urals.
“Protests took place not only in regional hubs, but in even smaller towns. This has never happened before,” said Russian political commentator Alexander Kynev. In some cases, there were protests in small provincial cities like Biysk, in Russia’s far east Altai Krai region, which hadn’t seen people protesting on the streets on a large scale since the 1990s. Even Dagestan’s Makhachkala, a city where Putin claims to have won 92.8 percent of the vote in 2011, held a protest (150 people turned up; 50 were detained).
Moscow-based politicians are usually viewed with skepticism and disdain in Russia’s isolated provinces. In Putin’s Russia, the important decisions are taken in Moscow. Regional authorities are mere executors, and standards of living in regional hubs are far lower than in the glossy capital. But Navalny has made some surprising inroads into far-flung places. This month, he began a tour around Siberia and the Volga region. He spoke at a protest against housing tax increases in Siberia’s Novosibirsk. The following week he was in Volgograd, where he promised to investigate the financing of mansions belonging to local officials. While he was there, an unknown man threw green ink on his face as part of a smear campaign. Navalny took the attack in stride, and on Sunday, some protesters painted their faces green in solidarity.
“He has very successfully exploited the incompetence of local officials in the regions,” says Konstantin Kostin, head of Moscow’s Civil Society Development Foundation. This unlikely success is unsettling for the Kremlin, which has tolerated Navalny’s mobilizing middle-class Muscovites, but may feel differently if he starts winning followers among Putin’s traditional electorate.
Choosing Medvedev as a target may have also helped Navalny boost turnout among another unlikely group: teenagers. This weekend’s protests saw few veterans of the 2011-2012 demonstrations known as the Bolotnaya protests, the last major wave of demonstrations to hit Russia. Back then, the protesters were largely urban middle-class workers. The Bolotnaya generation, as usual, made up the bulk of a march held in Moscow last month in memory of the assassinated opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, but this weekend’s protests looked very different.
The faces in the crowds were much younger. Many of the Russians protesting in Moscow and in the regions were born after the fall of the USSR in 1991, and some even after Putin came to power in 2000. When the protests ended, it turned out that a number of detainees were underage and had to be picked up by their parents from police stations across Russia.
The high number of Russian teens involved in the protests has raised questions about whether the generation coming of age in Putin’s Russia is prepared to live under the same rules as their parents. One incident pointing to a brewing rebellion of Russia’s teenagers was a video from a school in Bryansk, near the Belarusian border, which attracted attention after it was uploaded on YouTube last week. The video shows a schoolboy arguing with his teacher after his classmate was questioned by police for sharing a Navalny blog post on social media. The school director told him he should be grateful to the current leadership, because he does not remember the chaotic 1990s. Many expressed alarm at the level of indoctrination on display in the country’s education system.
Analysts say this generation of Russians does not watch television, the news source most dominated by Putin propaganda. Instead, they rely mostly on social media, over which the Kremlin exercises much less control.
“For a long time there have been signs that this generation sees what is happening around them with a dose of irony. They are mocking the system online,” said political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov. And Navalny’s glossy, high-production videos, combined with the anti-corruption, anti-Medvedev cause seems to have rallied this demographic in a way that demonstrations in memory of Nemtsov or against the war in Ukraine never could. “The majority of the under-25s in Russia think we have a genius foreign policy but a terrible domestic one,” the prominent journalist Mikhail Zygar wrote on his Facebook page on Monday. Many young people support Putin’s crusades abroad, but see Medvedev as a “human meme,” Zygar wrote, unable to sort out Russia’s dire social realities on the ground.
Come next year’s presidential election, many of the young people who took to the streets on Sunday will be of voting age. As members of the generation that knows nothing but Putin, the Kremlin was counting on their support. But “the Kremlin does not know how to deal with young people,” said sociologist Denis Volkov, from Moscow’s independent pollster Levada Centre. On Monday, reeling from having been caught off guard, it may have made a misstep that alienated young people still further. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, suggested that youths had been bribed into protesting.
Meanwhile, state-controlled television ignored the protests on Sunday, focusing instead on the standoff between Russia and Ukraine before this year’s Eurovision song contest. But online, thousands of videos of crowds across the country are making the rounds on Russian social media. “This is far from a political crisis,” Vinogradov said, “but it is a very inconvenient situation.”