Note: If the subtitles don’t play automatically, please click the “cc” at the bottom of the video.
Oligarchic regimes built on corruption and naked self-interest don’t typically exhibit much in the way of creativity when responding to crises of legitimacy. The most recent challenge to the oligarchic rule of Vladimir Putin, for example, after the attempted assassination and jailing of his rival, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, revealed “the regime’s utter lack of imagination and inability to plan ahead,” writes Masha Gessen at The New Yorker, and seems to promise an opening for a revolutionary movement.
Perhaps it’s safer to say, Joshua Yaffa writes, “that Russian politics are merely entering the beginning of a protracted new phase,” that will involve more large, coordinated mass protests against the “perceived impunity and lawlessness of Putin’s system,” such as happened all over the country in recent days: “In St. Petersburg, a sizable crowd blocked Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare. Several thousand gathered in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. Even in Yakutsk, a faraway regional capital, where the day’s temperatures reached minus fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, a number of people came out to the central square.”
Footage from the protests “shows activists pelting Russian riot police and vehicles with snowballs,” Dazed reports. Massive, in-real-life protests have been organized and supported by online activists on Tik Tok, YouTube, and other social media sites, where young people like viral teenager Neurolera share tips—such as pretending to be an indignant American—that might help protestors avoid arrest. In one video calling on young students to attend Saturday’s protests, a young woman holds a book, and captions “explain how she is reading about how citizens’ rights are guaranteed,” writes Brendan Cole at Newsweek. “But wait!” she says in one caption, “In Russia things happen differently.”
Russian citizens, and especially young activists, do not walk into protest situations unprepared for arrest and detention—particularly those who follow longtime trouble-makers Pussy Riot, famous for staging flamboyant anti-Putin protests and getting arrested. In the video at the top, the band/activist collective’s Nadya Tolokonnikova explains “how to behave when you’re arrested.” Detention “is an unpleasant experience,” she says, but it need not “end up being such a traumatic experience.” One must conquer fear with knowledge. During her first arrest, “I was scared because I felt that the police officers held an enormous power over me. That’s not true.”
The English translation seems inexact and many of the intricacies of Russian law will not translate to other national contexts. Woven throughout the video, however, are generally prudent tips—like not adding criminal charges by attacking police during arrest. Last year, the group distributed anti-surveillance make-up tips also useful to activists everywhere. The viral spread of videos like Pussy Riot’s and Neurolera’s tutorial show us a worldwide desire for youthful hope and determination in the face of brutal realities. Yaffa describes the “scenes of police employing brute force” that filled his Russian-language social media during the protests:
In one such video, from St. Petersburg, a woman confronts a column of riot policemen dragging a protester by his arms and asks, “Why are you arresting him?” One of the police officers kicks her in the chest, knocking her to the ground. Watching these scenes, I couldn’t help but think of Belarus, where months of street protests against the rule of Alexander Lukashenka have been marked by brutality and torture by the security forces, and a remarkable willingness from protesters to fight back against riot police, at times forcing them to retreat or abandon making an arrest.
These images do not spread so readily in English-language media, perhaps giving a superficial impression that the current anti-Putin, pro-Navalny movement is a new, young online phenomenon, rather than the continuation of a battle-hardened resistance to twenty years of misrule. “Throwing the book at Navalny could spark protests of undetermined strength and longevity,” Yaffa argues, from which mass movements around the world draw inspiration for years to come.