What is the Significance of the Russia Day Protests?

On June 12, heavily armed riot police arrested at least 1,720 people across Russia in the second nationwide anti-corruption protest since March. Although Moscow authorities had granted opposition leader Alexei Navalny permission to demonstrate on Sakharov Prospect, Navalny, citing issues with sound and stage contractors, unexpectedly directed supporters to Tverskaya Square, where over 200,000 were already expected for Russia Day celebrations that included multiple family-friendly historical reenactments and concerts. Similarly, Navalny abruptly switched his previously planned location in St. Petersburg to the Field of Mars, the center of St. Petersburg’s festivities.

The protests come as Russia enters the 2018 election cycle. Navalny, who hopes to challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency, came to prominence as a political blogger on LiveJournal. He used his position as a minority shareholder in the state-owned Transneft to obtain, then publish on his blog, documents implicating the company in multi-billion dollar fraud. He described all the ensuing bureaucratic annoyances in detail, identified everyone by name, and encouraged other bloggers, especially minority shareholders, to follow suit. He has since gone after other large state corporations and individual politicians.

Navalny crystallized his reputation as an opposition leader in December 2011, when he was among 300 arrested during the Duma election fraud protests. His charismatic, often humorous speeches appealed to both liberals and nationalists in attendance. He was also able to successfully leverage his substantial online presence to popularize his ideas and self-report on his arrests.

The first of Navalny’s independently organized anti-corruption protests erupted in March 2017 and saw, according to protest organizers, a total of 150,000 Russians take to the streets over 80 locations across the nation. While Navalny’s supporters claim 60,000 in Moscow alone, city police insist that only about 8,000 were in attendance and that others on the street were simply Muscovites going about their daily lives. Many analysts pointed not to the size but to the spread of the protests, bringing mostly young Russians out across Russia’s great expanse, as being the major accomplishment.

The protests were sparked, in part, when Navalny released the YouTube video He Is Not Dimon to You, an investigative film that accuses Dmitry Medvedev of embezzling $1.2 billion and sinking it into castles, estates, vineyards, and yachts. While the Kremlin and Russia’s state-owned media outlets have largely ignored the film, Medvedev only mentioned that a report produced by Navalny, a convicted criminal, doesn’t merit discussion.

The film also implicated Russian business tycoon Alisher Usmanov, who filed a libel lawsuit that heightened the film’s notoriety. Usmanov followed the lawsuit with a YouTube video of his own in which he calls Navalny a “loser” and a “failed businessman.” Although Navalny lost the lawsuit, he vowed to appeal the court’s decision and forecasted that the verdict would mobilize more demonstrations. He’s also refused to take down the film as the court demanded.

Despite the added Internet sensation, far fewer people indicated interest in the Russia Day protests than had for the previous round in March. Critics of Navalny state that this was the real reason for his sudden change of venue, especially after people posted photos and video of Sakharov Prospect showing the stage and sound equipment, which Navalny claimed he was denied, as assembled and functional well before Navalny’s approved event was to have commenced.

On Tverskaya, riot police struggled to contain the protesters amid Russia Day festivities. They indiscriminately dragged and detained hundreds of Go-Pro and smartphone wielding youths, sometimes hitting them with batons before tossing them into paddy wagons. Many of the young protestors have known nothing but Russia under Putin, who has effectively ruled the country for 17 years. One protester, Nikita Orlov, 18, told the New York Times, “I came here because we have no democracy, our Parliament is not real, our politicians are not real and our mass media is not real.”

The change of venue also makes it hard to determine the size of the demonstration from photos and videos. While police estimate that about 5,000 protesters participated, others have generally reserved their estimates to “thousands.” Because the rally coincided with Russia Day celebrations, for which city authorities welcomed some 200,000 to Tverskaya Street, most images show a densely-packed street and considerable chaos.

Although some commentators celebrate that Navalny brought the demonstration to the city center, effectively associating the protests with society at large, others speculate that he designed the last-minute switch to offset low turnout and augment the number of protesters represented in the media.

Most critics have emphasized the large number of families and children on Tverskaya that could have been affected. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin called the demonstration a “vile and dangerous confrontation,” stating “we all are lucky that there was no bloodshed.” Even dedicated Navalny supporter Kevin Rothrock tweeted, “by sending protesters to a family-friendly festival in downtown Moscow…Navalny surely invites more criticisms that he endangers children.”

Police detained Navalny before the protests even began. Later that evening, a Moscow court sentenced him to 30 days in jail for organizing an unsanctioned rally. In the eyes of his followers, the arrest makes him a hero. To many others, including those who claim to have been accosted by protesters while working or participating in the surrounding events, the sentence is a slap on the wrist.

Polls released by the independent Levada Institute in April 2017 indicate that, should he be allowed to run (his criminal convictions for embezzlement should disqualify him), only between 1-2% of the population would vote for him as president, a number that’s fallen from about 6% when Navalny first rose to political prominence in 2011. About 55% of Russians report knowing who he is and that number is rising. About 40% currently say that they would not or are not likely to vote for him. That number is also rising.

Thus, while Navalny is proving himself adept at pulling together enough protesters to capture the attention of both the authorities and the world media, he’s not likely to pose a real threat during the elections.

Related Videos:

This videoblogger shows the protest from multiple angles and vantage points in a well-edited video lasting about 12.5 minutes.

 

You can find considerable images from the Times and Epochs festival held on Tverskaya here:

 

Navalny speaks on the results of the Russia-wide protests:

 

About the Author

Katheryn Weaver
Katheryn Weaver is a student of rhetoric and history at the University of Texas, Austin. Her primary areas of investigation include revolution and the rhetorical justification of violence against individuals, state, and society. She is currently studying Russian as a Second Language with SRAS's Home and Abroad Scholarship.
Josh Wilson
Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) and Communications Director for Alinga Consulting Group. In those capacities, he has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs.