March 26 was the seventeenth anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s election to the Presidency of Russia. The day did not turn out as Putin had probably hoped. In over ninety cities across Russia, tens of thousands of people protested against the corruption of top government officials. They had been galvanized by a YouTube video depicting Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s prime minister and the head of the United Russia party, as a corrupt apparatchik enjoying a lavish lifestyle of a billionaire while the rest of the country continued to slide into poverty.
Produced and narrated by Alexei Navalny, an iconic opposition figure who has made a career of researching and publicizing the pervasive corruption of Putin’s regime, the film is a masterful exposé. It combines expert sleuthing, striking visuals, and a good dose of humor to present Medvedev as both a criminal who hides his enormous assets in a network of fake non-profits and a hypocrite who tells impoverished old people, “There is no money. Hang in there.”
Corruption is hardly news in Russia, where offering a bribe to a traffic cop or a low-level bureaucrat is a daily occurrence. So why did Navalny’s video and his call for Russian citizens to take to the streets resonate so much? Moreover, why were so many of the protesters young? And, finally, how much can this protest mean as a political spectacle, given its (non)-coverage by Russian mainstream media?
Russia hasn’t seen this sort of mass protest since the spring of 2012, when thousands poured into the streets and squares of Moscow to express their indignation at Putin’s election to his third presidential term. Many participants in these protests were persecuted with a vengeance, without much public outcry. Increased control over the media as well as attacks on independent journalists have enabled the Putin regime to dominate mainstream information channels and muzzle the opposition. The Sochi Olympics of 2014, Putin’s pet project, furnished a spectacle of Russian greatness under the guidance of its strong leader. Then, just weeks later, followed the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-aided separatist takeover in Eastern Ukraine.
In response, the United States and the European Union imposed economic sanctions, and, to make things worse for Russia’s resource extraction economy, the price of oil plummeted. The oil-fueled budget surplus that raised everyone’s living standard in the first decade of Putin’s rule began to dry up quickly, and the acquisition of Crimea and the undeclared war on Ukraine further strained the already precarious economy. To quiet the population, the government reached into the bag of propaganda tricks it inherited from the Soviet era, blaming the West and a liberal “fifth column” for all of the country’s problems. Surprisingly, the population was buying this propaganda, as poll after poll showed Putin’s high approval ratings. In this struggle between the TV set and the refrigerator, as it was called by impish Russian liberals, the TV set appeared to be winning.
Then came the election of Trump with whom Putin vowed to make the world great again, but, alas, the sanctions remained in place. Navalny’s video against Medvedev, released in early March, undid the collective illusion precisely at the moment when hopes of economic recovery could no longer be sustained by promises of future stability. The refrigerator was empty, and the TV set continued to play Soviet era movies and vacuous talk shows. This was a perfect rhetorical situation to air the spectacle of shameless criminal corruption at the highest level of government and to convey the message “enough is enough.” And, as an appeal to a basic sense of justice that transcended ideology, it struck a chord.
In the days following the events of March 26, many commentators have dubbed these nation-wide demonstrations “the children’s crusade” and pondered the motivations of those who showed up. Some skeptics have dismissed these young people as Navalny’s gullible puppets; others accused Navalny of exploiting “the children” to propel his own presidential campaign.
Both of these patronizing explanations underestimate the political savvy of young Russians. Navalny appealed to a predominantly young audience that neither relied on TV nor cared about Soviet nostalgia. Born and raised after the end of the Soviet Union, they came of age under Putin but they are not the demographic that can be easily bamboozled by the Kremlin propaganda of Russia’s greatness. Their media diet consists of YouTube, twitter, and V Kontakte (the Russian version of Facebook). Sociologists who recently studied this so-called “generation Z” concluded that young Russians between ages fourteen and twenty-two are not unlike their contemporaries in the West: They believe that happiness and social recognition, not “prestige” or “career,” constitute “success”; they believe in finding “their own path”; they tend to be friends with their parents and expect to be treated as equals by adults; in general, they don’t trust conventional authority figures and insist that their trust must be earned. They are immune to the old Soviet logic “I am the boss, and you are the idiot.” Though largely apolitical, they believe in fairness and human decency.
Even if participants in these peaceful protests were apolitical before, the reaction of the state’s repressive and ideological apparatuses is likely to radicalize them. In many cities, including Moscow, people showed up without official permission to exercise their right to free assembly guaranteed by the Russian Constitution. By many witness accounts, the atmosphere was more giddy and carnival-like than belligerent. Photographs circulating on Twitter showed smiling faces. Many protesters carried creative signs such as this one from a rally in St. Petersburg, in which Medvedev’s image says “answer me!”
This is what the protesters asked for: to be acknowledged by the powers that be. Instead, as the day progressed, they were assaulted and thrown into jail by police and special units in riot gear, and television networks—all of them under Kremlin’s control—kept silent about the unfolding events. For audiences of the “zombie box,” as the Russian television is now called, the events of March 26 simply did not occur.
Meanwhile, in Moscow alone 1,030 people, including many minors, were arrested, and Twitter was awash in images of young men and women—few of them showing any signs of resistance—being carried off to paddy wagons.
Such draconian measures and the absence of television coverage suggest that the authorities were taken by surprise. Instead of letting the protest run its course peacefully—the way it started—the state revealed that it is threatened by even peaceful displays of dissent. And the TV silence on the matter indicated that the media found it difficult to spin the coverage in the Kremlin’s favor.
Thanks to social media, the Sunday protests turned into spontaneous spectacles of peaceful disobedience whose symbolism—Russia’s youth versus the paranoid and vengeful regime—is likely to grow only stronger in the coming months. Whether or not the March 26 protests will bolster Navalny’s prospects of becoming a serious opponent of Putin in the next year’s presidential elections, they will become iconic of the beginning of the end of Putin’s regime, the regime built on oil, fear, and lies.
Anahata Lovegood (a pseudonym) is a Russian-born scholar teaching in the United States.