Updated: Jul 13
(A version of this blog post appeared in The Washington Post's The Monkey Cage.)
On August 15th, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Moscow for the “March of the Mothers”, armed with stuffed animals, seeking the release children who were jailed in March of this year. The parents allege Russian officials “entrapped the teens”, detaining them on false charges of plotting to “overthrow the government.”
Here are five facts to get you up to speed.
1) Crack downs on extremist activity in Russia have been going on since 2002.
Anti-extremist laws initially sought to stymie the notion that any one religion had “superiority” over any other, as a way of confronting terrorism in the North Caucasus. However, they were widely criticized for being too broad and having the potential to be used against political opposition. Nonetheless, they were expanded in 2012 to include offending religious sensitivities, in 2014 to track ‘extremist’ bloggers, and in 2015 to include ‘liking’ social media posts. This had the net effect of negatively impacting what was left of independent media in Russia, as well as average Russian citizens.
The Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot were famously convicted under these laws for their anti-Putin performance in an Orthodox cathedral for offending religious sensibilities under the 2012 law and served prison terms. A variety of others have also been convicted including Ruslan Sokolovsky, a 22 year old Pokémon Go blogger who played the game in an Orthodox church and posted it on his blog.
2) Russian youth have taken on a growing role in opposition protests.
Young Russians have become a target for political persecution since they began turning out in large numbers for opposition leader Navalny’s protests in 2017. Navalny is Putin’s most prominent opposition who was barred from running in the last Presidential election. A young attorney, Navalny has a large social media presence on VK (Russian Facebook), Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube; he has multiple channels where he streams live news, and where he uploads investigative reports critical of the Putin regime.
Because Putin has effectively held power since 2000, these kids have never known a time when he was not in command of Russia. Anxious for change, many were swayed by Navalny’s persuasive videos, which exposed corruption at the highest levels of government.
On March 2nd he posted one of his most incendiary videos on YouTube: an exposé of Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev alleging vast corruption funneled though his charity organizations in which "Dimon" (the diminutive for Dimitry) allegedly hides properties and money.
It is alleged on one of his main estates, he even has luxury accommodations for his ducks.
Organized protests erupted across 90 cities in Russia after the video was aired; people took to the streets, many of them youths, with yellow rubber duckies mimicking the ducks on Dimon’s palatial estate.
After their participation in these demonstrations the government began a series of crack downs through arrests, which included children as young as 12, charging parents with “neglect of parental duties”, even having students watch videos in school criticizing Navlany.
There hasn’t been much evidence these tactics worked; recent protest in May saw over 1600 arrested, including 158 children spanning 27 cities.
3) Youth jailed are accused of anti-government plots.
The ten protestors whose detainment triggered the “March of the Mothers” have been held since March 2018 charged with using social media for “involvement in a terrorist community.” Two members of the group called “Novoe Velichie” or (New Greatness) were young women: Anna Pavlikova (17 at the time of her arrest) and Maria Dubovik (19).
They argue they were not interested in overthrowing the government, however they admit they were being critical and were merely using the chat system Telegram to vent. On August 16, thanks to pressure from the protests, they were released on house arrest.
Telegram is an end-to-end social media app that’s popular because it turns your message into code, which means only you and the receiver can read it. Telegram has come under fire recently because whistleblowers have used the platform to send tips to journalists or to Navalny. The government has attempted to block the platform, which was met by protests.
4) The conflict: accusations of FSB entrapment.
A lawyer for the girls has asserted the charges are false. According to an OVD-Info investigation, an organization which monitors politically motivated arrests inside Russia, a Federal Secret Service (FSB) agent was the founding member of New Greatness. Further alleged, the FSB fully funded the group, inside agents stirred up emotion, gave kids meeting space, and trained selected members on the use of explosive devices.
Because Telegram doesn’t allow underage children to create their own account, Anna had to use her mother’s account. This gives her mother full access to the records.
Anna’s mother describes a step-by-step process. First, the organizer Ruslan D. begins by building trust with the kids then prods them. She alleges he pushed them to move beyond and got them a meeting space, then purchased them printer. Next they were making flyers and passing them out. None of it would have happened, she claims, if this FSB agent was not organizing them, provoking them.
5) The noose continues to tighten around civil society in Russia.
None of this bodes well for the future of civil society. Since 2002, the crack-down has been relentless from decimation of the free press, to the political opposition, and increasingly on average citizens ability to openly express discontent with their government. This has now extended to youth.
With a generation who has grown up only knowing life under Putin, the question remains: will these authoritarian-styled entrenching tactics work to subdue them? Or could they potentially backfire?
If lessons from recent history can garner any clues, they also play on Putin’s greatest fears: something like the Arab Spring, when Tunisian & Egyptian youth organized via Twitter to overthrow their own government, might be coming for him.
The bubbling discontent of angry youth and a tempest of internet social networks could just collide to poke the Great Bear in his den.
However, because Putin still has a large base of support, the likelihood of success of such a venture seems out of grasp.
Nicolè Ford, Ph.D. teaches courses on Comparative Politics at The University of Tampa.