Russians are still trying to understand exactly what happened over the weekend, when thousands of people — many of them teenagers — turned out for anti-government rallies in dozens of cities across the country.
Sunday’s rallies were the biggest public demonstration of discontent with the Kremlin since a wave of protests five winters ago that failed to stop the re-election of Vladimir Putin for an unprecedented third term as president. Two years later, the Kremlin’s military intervention in Ukraine effectively rallied the country around a common cause — and split what was left of the diffuse protest movement.
What brought people out into the streets again this time was a viral YouTube video by Putin challenger Alexei Navalny, 40, who accused Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of having amassed a real estate empire.
To everyone’s surprise, kids who shun Facebook and swap memes via messaging services turned out en masse. Some of them brought rubber ducks, a reference to Navalny’s allegation that Medvedev keeps a house for raising ducks at one of his estates.
Russian journalist Kirill Martynov calls the young demonstrators “nobody’s people” who have nothing to lose by protesting. “The experience of today’s 11th grader is never-ending Putin and Medvedev, enmity with the whole world, crazy propaganda and grown-ups who lie,” he wrote.
A video of Gleb Takmakov, a fifth-grader in the Siberian city of Tomsk, is emblematic of this new generation of protester. Dressed in a wool cap and a Converse sweatshirt, the boy takes to the microphone at a rally, explaining that it’s not about Putin or Navalny but about changing the entire system.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reacted to the outburst of youthful rebellion skeptically, claiming that minors participating at the demonstration in Moscow had been promised monetary rewards if they were arrested.
Navalny, who was among hundreds arrested on Sunday, provides continuity with Russia’s last mass demonstrations. He set those off in December 2011, when he was a relatively unknown anti-corruption blogger, after calling Muscovites to a rally following reports of vote-rigging in parliamentary elections.
Then, as now, he was thrown in jail for two weeks for not obeying the police.
But if Navalny was just one of many opposition figures during the rallies in the winter of 2011-2012, Sunday’s protests have established him as today’s undisputed leader. Many of the organizers five years ago had already passed their political zenith, including Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who was assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015.
Back then, Navalny emerged as a forceful, charismatic speaker who wasn’t afraid to talk about storming the Kremlin if need be. Undaunted by fraud cases launched by the authorities against him and his brother, Navalny pursued a political career and won 27 percent of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race.
In February, two months after announcing his bid to run for president next year, he was convicted of embezzlement in a fraud case, casting doubt on his campaign.
Navalny has insisted on his right to be a candidate and began traveling around Russia opening campaign offices. By breaking out of the Moscow bubble, he reached out to disillusioned youth in provincial towns — who returned the favor by coming to Sunday’s rallies.
That may prove key to his political future. One of the reasons the last wave of protests petered out was the disconnect between Moscow activists such as Navalny and grass-roots organizers in the regions, says Mischa Gabowitsch, author of the book Protest in Putin’s Russia.
“The most surprising thing about Sunday’s protest is that Navalny has managed to wed enough of that grass-roots energy to his anti-corruption agenda,” said Gabowitsch. “The obvious explanation is the intervening economic downturn.”
Navalny’s popularity creates a dilemma for Russia’s leaders: if they jail him on his corruption conviction, they create a martyr. But by letting him walk free, they run the risk of even more protests.
The desire to strike a balance between overreaction and intimidation was on full display at last weekend’s Moscow rally. The police had orders to go soft on demonstrators, but by the end of the day Sunday, rights activists said up to 1,000 people had been detained, some in rough conditions.
Medvedev, who in 2008 served one term as president because the constitution barred Putin from holding office for three consecutive terms, is coming under increasing pressure.
He reaped ridicule by posting on Instagram that he was skiing on Sunday. Moscow journalists then speculated why he wasn’t present at a Kremlin ceremony held in honor of the National Guard Monday night — but his wife, Svetlana, was.
On Tuesday, a report was published claiming the prime minister is paying the equivalent of 70 cents per year to lease a 10,000-acre plot of land northeast of Moscow.
More eye-catching to the younger generation, perhaps, is the appearance of an online game in which the object is to guide Medvedev — wearing skis and held up by three riot policemen — past huge rubber ducks on a city street.