Symposium introduction: On Sunday, March 26, the unexpected happened in Russia. Across the country, coordinated anti-corruption protests drew tens of thousands of people. Ostensibly these were directed not at President Vladimir Putin (although, as you’ll see below, opinions differ.) Rather, opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for the protests in a video released online accusing Prime Minister (and ex-president) Dmitry Medvedev of a spectacular, and corrupt, accumulation of wealth, demanding an investigation. Protests struck dozens of cities, widely dispersed, led not just by pensioners but also young people.
To understand these surprising protests, I asked a series of experts on Russian politics from PONARS Eurasia to join an online symposium, answering:
Do the protests that took place across 99 cities in Russia last Sunday signify a meaningful change in Russian politics is likely? Why or why not?
The recent protests in Russia represent a significant shift in the nature and scope of mobilization against the Putin regime.
Alexei Navalny’s strategy of mobilizing large numbers of people was highly effective. Protests rallied around the issue of corruption, which was made poignant in the video that Navalny and his associates produced about the empire of real estate that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has amassed. In particular, clever use of drone technology and geo-locator tracking allowed Navalny’s colleagues to not only link Medvedev to the properties, but also prove that the pictures he took and placed on his social media were located precisely in those territories.
The humor — and ridicule — in Navalny’s revelations about corruption, in turn, facilitated the rallying of Russia’s youths.
Indeed, a key shift in the dynamics of popular mobilization in Russia is the demographic aspect of participation: Many commentators witnessing the rallies noted the youthfulness of the protesters. Many were school-age children, who lampooned the regime’s attempts to brainwash the next generation with the help of regime-compliant teachers and textbooks presenting a particular version of Russian history that facilitates the reproduction of the current regime in power.
The peculiarities of the protesters’ demographic makeup, in turn, raises questions about the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s strategy of socializing the new generation around regime-reinforcing symbols and ideology.
The protest events also highlight the limits of the technologies that the Kremlin employs to manipulate public opinion. The younger protesters are avid users of social media and apps that facilitate construction of groups of the like-minded. They should be distinguished from the core of regime supporters who tend to obtain news from Kremlin-controlled television channels. The demographic shift in the protester base warrants scrutiny of the notion of a brainwashed “lost generation” applied to those raised and born in Putin’s Russia.