The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Russia’s messaging battle, the opposition lights up social media. Putin’s allies plod along on state TV.

Officers with special police units clash with protesters in Moscow on Saturday during demonstrations in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. (Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MOSCOW — Vasily Surov's first protest rally lasted 10 minutes.

Riot police dragged away the 21-year-old student shortly after he arrived at last Saturday's rally in Moscow in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Now Surov faces charges for attending a banned protest.

A surge of young protesters calling for Navalny’s release from custody — many who have never been to a demonstration before — could be a worrying sign for President Vladimir Putin, whose popularity is falling sharply among younger Russians.

It also points to another divide playing out in Russia: As social media sites such as TikTok and Instagram help energize young Russians against Putin, the Kremlin’s attempts at counter­messaging seem stuck in another age.

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Russian authorities are clearly spooked by recent pro-Navalny marches across the country. Another wave of demonstrations is planned for Sunday, with TikTok videos from last weekend’s protests acting as an engine driving more youths to the movement.

The protest videos have their unofficial anthems. “Labyrinth,” by Russian rapper Ivan Dryomin, known as Face, includes the lyric: “Being against power doesn’t mean being against your motherland.” Another protest-adopted song, “Cockroaches” by PALC, is about “my everyday life of a cockroach.”

The response from state-backed Russian media is more akin to a grumpy uncle.

State media has accused the opposition of dragging “children” into politics. State TV anchor Dmitry Kiselyov called Navalny’s network “political pedophiles,” while Irada Zeynalova on pro-Kremlin NTV said the opposition was using “pliable, persuadable” children who wanted “to be on a fashionable wave.”

Navalny returned to Russia on Jan. 17 from Berlin, where he had recovered from a poisoning by a Novichok-group nerve agent in August during a trip to Siberia. He blames Putin’s security forces for the attack. Russian officials deny any link.

Navalny was immediately locked up and lost an appeal Thursday seeking release. He could face years in jail, with several pending cases.

Surov said he joined the protest because “I don’t like the fact that we have political prisoners in this country, no matter who they are.”

Hashtag blitz

Before the protests, TikTok, the most popular iPhone app in Russia in 2020, was flooded with messages urging people to come out. A social media influencer with the handle @neurolena went viral with her humorous take on how to pretend to be American if arrested at the protest. (“I left my passport at the hotel,” she said in a reasonable American accent.)

Students posted videos of themselves taking down Putin’s portrait from school walls and pinning up Navalny’s photograph. Some young people posted videos of themselves clad in police uniforms, tearing off epaulets.

After pro-Navalny hashtags were used more than 200 million times, Russia’s communications authority, Roskomnadzor, demanded that TikTok, Instagram and YouTube take down videos calling on young people to protest. There was no immediate response from the companies to requests for comment.

Even from prison, Navalny is the most potent political threat Putin has ever faced

Navalny’s style is not directed exclusively at young people. It is aimed generally at exposing alleged corruption and seeking to back candidates seen as best bets to unseat Putin allies in parliament and regional elections.

But his biting use of humor punctures state media’s portrayals of Putin as a venerable leader with Russia’s best interests at heart and embodying traditional values.

“We see that Putin desperately tries to meet young people, but he doesn’t look very convincing, because it’s always top-down,” said Denis Volkov, deputy director of the Levada Center polling agency. “It’s always like, ‘I’m your grandfather, and I will teach you how to live.’ ”

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team released a two-hour video investigation on Jan. 19 that looks at what they call “Putin’s palace.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Navalny, a master of the catchphrase, dubs Putin “grandpa in his bunker,” portraying him as hypocritical and corrupt.

His viral video “Putin’s Palace: History of the World’s Largest Bribe,” viewed more than 100 million times, alleges that a vast palace was built for Putin, with its own casino, an underground ice hockey rink and a hookah room with a pole-dancing stage. Putin denies owning the Black Sea palace, although Navalny claims that an opaque complex of companies conceals the fact it was built for Putin.

The video sparked a flood of memes, mainly depictions of pole-dancing Russian oligarchs and politicians.

What to know about Navalny’s protest movement in Russia — and why it unnerves Putin

'Not afraid'

“We were shocked by the police violence, because we weren’t expecting such violence,” recounted Moscow protester Maria Isayeva, 24, who said riot police hit her several times on the head, requiring six stitches. “The main thing that keeps our protests smaller than they could be is that people are afraid of violence.”

But she said she would take part in a planned protest Sunday.

“It’s important not just to me, to prove to myself that I am not afraid, but also for them to see that people are not afraid of violence anymore,” she said. “Staying at home feels safer, but it’s not safer, because you’re still without any human rights.”

She took part in her first protest in 2017 after her shock at another viral video project by Navalny’s team in 2017, alleging that then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev funneled more than $1 billion in bribes to support a luxurious lifestyle with yachts, vineyards and a palatial country estate. The Kremlin denied the claims.

“I think we scare the Kremlin,” said Isayeva, a member of the small opposition Libertarian Party of Russia, which is not yet registered.

That is because Navalny’s allegations of corruption could erode Putin’s support among older voters, too, she said.

The Post was with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on the plane taking him to Moscow from Berlin on Jan. 17, five months after a near-fatal poisoning. (Video: The Washington Post)

An informal survey of about 400 people at last Saturday’s Moscow protest by sociologist Alexandra Arkhipova and economist Alexei Zakharov found that 29 percent of protesters were younger than 26 and two-thirds were under 36. More important, 42 percent had never protested before, while an additional 7.5 percent protested for the first time in 2019, when demonstrations took place in Moscow after some opposition candidates were blocked from municipal ballots.

“The most fundamental thing about Russian politics is that young people don’t watch TV,” said Zakharov, associate economics professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

He said youths were “much less trusting of the government and much less loyal” because they were not seeing state television’s portrayals of Russia as a strong, self-reliant power with great leadership but surrounded by enemies.

“The biggest challenge for the government is a generational shift in news sources, and this is why they’re so afraid,” he added.

Navalny was once a mere annoyance to the Kremlin. His poisoning shows how much that has changed.

Polling by the Levada Center in December found that 39 percent of Russians would vote for Putin if elections were held. But the percentage of people age 18 to 24 willing to vote for him fell from 36 percent to 20 percent over the previous year.

“It seems to me the government doesn’t know what to do about this,” Levada’s Volkov said, adding, “They don’t have a strategy.”

Independent political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said the Kremlin was banking on the fact that few young people bothered to vote, but its efforts to stop young protesters through force might only energize many of them. Intimidation might deter some of them but will not win over their hearts and minds, he said.

“Now it’s trendy to be in the opposition,” Gallyamov said. “Several years ago, those in opposition were hopeless marginals. Now, supporting the authorities is becoming marginal.”

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