National Awakening Alexei Navalny Shakes Up a Slumbering Russia
A new generation in Russia is suddenly waking up and taking to the streets to protest corruption in the country. The movement's idol is Alexei Navalny, who could represent a threat to Vladimir Putin -- if he isn't locked away first.
"Mom, do you have any plans for the day? Could you perhaps pick me up at the police station?" Those were Misha Sein's words to his mother before heading out a week ago Sunday for the first demonstration he had ever participated in.
A 17-year-old who grew up in a Moscow suburb, Misha recently began his journalism studies. And he doesn't seem to be particularly politically minded. He's more the artistic type, with poetic tattoos on his arms and deep thoughts about God and the world in his head. He wasn't ultimately arrested at the march, in contrast to 1,030 other protesters in Moscow alone. Sitting in a café last week and reflecting on recent days, he said: "That was our generation's debut as a political force, and I am proud to have been a part of it!"
Russia has felt like a different country since then. A singular wave of protests hit 82 cities across the land on Sunday, March 26, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, as people took to the streets to protest corruption. Dramatic scenes accompanied many of the marches. When police in Moscow sought to take away the apprehended leader of the protests, Alexei Navalny, an angry crowd threw itself in front of a police bus. Men pushed parked cars in front of the vehicle while others rocked it back and forth as though they were trying to topple it over.
Each of these offenses can be punished by years in prison, such is the bitter lesson learned by Russia's opposition five years ago. At the time, a large march against Russian President Vladimir Putin was violently disbanded and some of those who took part remain behind bars even today. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of people took part in the demonstrations last week and many of them, like Misha, are quite young and are still in university or even high school.
Many in the country are now wondering what has got into young Russians. Is Putin perhaps not as popular as it seems? And who exactly is opposition leader Navalny, a man the popular talk show host Vladimir Solovyov viciously accused of "igniting innocent souls in the cauldron of his political ambitions?"
Navalny, 40, is actually a quite well-known figure in Russian politics. One of the leaders of the protests in 2011 and 2012, he is a lawyer who later went on to run for the position of Moscow mayor. A handsome man with bright blue eyes and an angular face, he has two children with his attractive wife. He is an activist against corruption and for the rule of law but is also in favor of expanded rights for Russians to own weapons and is opposed to immigration. One could say he is three-quarters liberal and one-quarter Trump.
He is also a gifted politician, something even his opponents acknowledge, and, as journalists joke among themselves, the best journalist in the country. His blog produces as much as the investigative teams of several newspapers put together. He reports on complicated bribery cases and describes them simply, briefly and with humor. Panama Papers, offshore structures, pipeline contracts: His blog describes it all in a light, colorful tone replete with juicy characters.
In Russia's pretend democracy, the opposition has become used to merely mimicking their role. Navalny, though, is a significant exception. He seems to be the only politician left in the country who still believes that he can win power by doggedly attempting to persuade his compatriots.
In hindsight, there were two indications that this man and Misha's generation would find their way to each other on the last Sunday in March. The first was the spectacular success of the film released by Navalny's anti-corruption fund at the beginning of March. More than 15 million people have watched the self-produced video on YouTube alone, despite its focus on Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, a man with all the charisma of a file-folder. He is the kind of political leader that no one expects much of, good or bad.
The Perfect Target
But Navalny claims that Medvedev has managed to obtain a number of luxury properties, registered under various charitable foundations -- from a 3,000 square-meter (32,300 square-foot) villa on posh Rublyovka Street in Moscow to a winery in Tuscany. Nawalny's team investigated for six months, watching as Medvedev ordered Nike sport shoes on the internet and looking at where he had them sent. They also evaluated his vacation photos posted to Instagram and had the properties filmed from overhead drones.
Misha, the 17-year-old protester from Moscow, has also seen the film. "Medvedev was always an absurd character for us," he says. "A guy who falls asleep at the Olympic Games, who dresses like a teenager and who maintains his own blog. And then it is revealed that this strange character has an empire worth 70 billion rubles (around 1.13 billion euros)."
The film's success led straight to the march. Navalny realized that Medvedev was the perfect target, a man who -- in contrast to Putin -- was neither respected nor feared. A seemingly normal guy who, for that reason, is a perfect symbol of the iniquity of the Putin system. As prime minister, he slashed the Russian budget and then dismissed taxpayer concerns with the insolent comment: "There's no money. Keep your chin up."
The second indication that Navalny might have the youth's ear is his regional campaign. Presidential elections in Russia are set for March 2018 and Navalny has already indicated that he intends to run. The Kremlin, however, has set up almost insurmountable hurdles for independent candidates. Those who aren't running on behalf of a party must collect 300,000 signatures, evenly dispersed among at least 40 regions.
Even though other candidates have yet to announce their intention to run, Navalny began traveling through the country in February to mobilize volunteers for the collection of the necessary signatures. It is a way for him to become more recognizable, even as television broadcasters studiously ignore him. No other politician in the country has a network like his, with registered volunteers in almost every region in the country. And wherever he appears, crowds of young people show up to see him.
Bombarded with Eggs
Such was the case in mid-March in Tomsk, a four-hour flight from Moscow. Tomsk is Siberia's oldest university town, a place with decaying wooden buildings with dirty snow piled up in front of them. In Navalny's local campaign office, the beanbag chairs hadn't even been unpacked yet. And the day had not begun well for the two office managers, Alyona and Xenia, aged 21 and 25, respectively. Their apartment doors had been stuck shut with insulation foam and their car tires slashed. Navalny himself was bombarded with eggs by enraged Putin supporters upon arrival at the airport.
That evening, at a meeting with volunteers in a rented event hall, the mood is much better. Around 200 young people, most of them men, are packed into the space and Navalny greets each one of them with a handshake. "Tomsk is the Russian Berkeley," he says flatteringly. "There should be one startup after the other popping up, the streets should be full of cool people wandering around with coffee in to-go cups! Why isn't that happening?"
This regime, Navalny says, has no arguments left, aside from insulation foam. His speech is an attempt to encourage them, to keep them going for the next couple of months before he has a chance to return. He talks like he writes: in simple words and with a fair portion of humor. He repeatedly poses questions to his audience that are to be answered in unison.
Halfway through his speech, a policeman walks into the hall saying they had received a bomb threat and that the building had to be evacuated immediately. Derisive laughter fills the room, but Navalny has to complete his speech in the snow outside, illuminated by the blue light of a fire department vehicle. It is impossible to hear him anymore, but in compensation, more passersby can see him.
Navalny has learned how to turn attacks to his advantage. Like in Barnaul, where someone sprayed green antiseptic liquid into his face. Because it wasn't easy to just wash it off, Navalny spread it around and appeared with a green visage, as though he were the animated film character Shrek. The images were a huge hit on the internet.
- Part 1: Alexei Navalny Shakes Up a Slumbering Russia
- Part 2: One Foot in Prison