As an appeal to a basic sense of justice that transcended ideology, Navalny’s video struck a chord.
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 more than 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 the lavish lifestyle of a billionaire while the rest of the country continued to slide into poverty.
Produced and narrated by Alexei Navalny, an opposition figure who has made a career of researching and publicizing the pervasive corruption of Putin’s regime, the video 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 nonprofits 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 shrink, 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, most Russians appeared to buy this propaganda, as poll after poll showed Putin’s high approval ratings. In this struggle between the television and the refrigerator, as it was called by impish Russian liberals, the television appeared to be winning.