If You Post It, They Will Come

29 March 2017, 1310 EDT

I know most of you are busy watching the all-too-real reality horror show of the 45th administration, but there has been some interesting news coming  out of Russia (sorry, no meteorites or Putin’s nipples). On Sunday, somehow almost 90  thousand people went out on the streets in 87 cities all over Russia to protest against corruption. The unsanctioned demonstrations were met with brutal police crackdown with around 1000 protesters arrested in Moscow alone. To make matters worse, none of the TV channels reported the disturbances (apart from Russia Today, to be fair). Channel One spent about an hour on “news of the week”, castigating Ukraine, ISIS, discussing the London terrorist attack, Alaska sale to America and Rockefeller’s life among other things. Nothing to see here, move on.

What happened?

One of Russia’s leading oppositional figures and a possible presidential candidate in 2018 Alexey Navalny posted a video that documents the investigation of Prime-Minister Medvedev’s corruption schemes that has been watched on YouTube alone almost 15 million times (add Vkontakte views, shares and second-hand watching and that looks even more impressing). According to Navalny’s team investigation, Medvedev’s assets are quite impressive and include vineyards in Tuscany, numerous houses, yachts (not to mention a large sneaker collection). The video generated an outpouring of response even though none of the state TV channels reported the corruption allegations. There are also confirmed reports that Mevdedev rents a spectacular 4,000 ha of land for 39 rubles a year (almost 70 cents) until 2061. Coupled with some of Medvedev’s statements, such as ‘we don’t have the money, but you hang in there’ or ‘go to private sector if your teacher’s salary is not sufficient’ [Russian teachers get 15 thousand rubles a month, approx. $260] the opulence that Navalny uncovered was a trigger for a sizeable social movement all over Russia.

What was baffling to a lot of commentators, was the number of young people, high school seniors even, at the protests. What these analysts neglect is the fact that those younger Russians have different information consumption strategies. Despite the governmental attempts to regulate internet and troll army deployment, Russian youth use public pages in Vkontakte, watch YouTube and do not necessarily believe the stuff they hear on TV. Some of the protesters were 16-17 years old, which means they have never lived through the 90s and never knew a different man in power than Putin. They don’t have the 90s reference points of food shortages, skyrocketing prices and roaming gangs. They do remember the recent ruble decline and they might miss the French cheese. But most of all, they don’t want to be ashamed for not taking action.

The dutifully reported 89% support for Putin now looks a bit ephemeral. Kremlin’s spokesperson Peskov already alleged that the school kids “were promised money in case they get arrested”. The problem is, by whom? Hillary Clinton, who supposedly ‘organized’ the protests in 2011-2012 is not in a position of power, and President Trump is supposedly ‘ours’ even though the bromance is faltering ever so slightly. That creates a very uncomfortable situation for the Russian government: now they have to acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong in Russia and people go on the streets to protest despite the lack of cookies from the State Department. Will Putin be willing ditch Medvedev in an effort to cement his ‘good tsar, bad boyars’ reputation? Any significant anti-corruption measures? Donating the $3,200 tracksuit to the poor?

The protesters on Sunday exposed a gaping legitimacy wound that needs to be dressed before the 2018 elections. The Crimea bandage seems to have expired.