February 24th, 1848, Paris: King Louis-Philippe is overthrown, and the Second French Republic is proclaimed. Within one-month protest spread across the continent due to the contagious effect of the revolution. Today, faster communication means that protest, or at least the news of protest, spreads even faster. The gilets jaunes demonstrations were born on and relayed through Facebook, with the viral “hunt against drivers” video gathering 5.4 million views in a few days.
Unlike France, where revolutionary cooperation has a strong tradition, Russia does not have a history of being united by protest. It is a large and extremely culturally diverse country: 20% of the population are members of more than 180 nationalities. Historically, informal opposition has been weakened by differences between the centre and the periphery, between the working and middle classes and between the different cultures and ethnicities. These differences are getting erased by the spread of the internet and technology, enabling an unprecedented extent of cooperation between factions.
Historically, informal opposition has been weakened by differences between the centre and the periphery, between the working and middle classes and between the different cultures and ethnicities.
To understand how technology is transforming the Russian opposition it is necessary to gauge who and what it is. Make no mistake, there is no formal opposition in Russia. Parties such as the Communist Party, the Liberal-Democratic party and the centrist Yabloko party have supported the unconstitutional elections of 2008, rubber-stamp Putin’s authoritarian decisions on daily basis and do not even pretend to advocate antagonistic policies.
The Russian opposition cannot be found in parliament, which is made up of politicians whose participation in the elections has been pre-approved by the Kremlin. It cannot be found on the TV either, as state channels abide by “blacklists” handed down by the government. The real opposition in Russia is heavily persecuted by the police, the courts and the media. Its leaders are censored, attacked, illegally detained and tortured. Nevertheless, it can increasingly be found on YouTube, Telegram and Twitter. Through these media, opposition leaders have been able to mobilise remarkable support across the country and get an unprecedented number of people to cooperate in opposing the regime.
Alexey Navalny’s campaigns are arguably the most recognisable manifestation of the use of technology to unite people in opposition to the government. Back in March 2017, 60,000 people across 80 Russian towns and cities made it to the streets to support his call to challenge government corruption in the largest demonstrations modern Russia had ever seen. The authorities were so taken back by the protests, orchestrated entirely through social media, exploding in cities from east to west of the country every couple of hours on the same day, that they failed to mount an effective response. The people, however, were brought closer than ever: the seven-hour time difference between the two sides of the country meant that by the time people went out on the streets in Moscow, they were protesting against the illegal detentions of their counterparts in Vladivostok as well as corruption.
Like all of the following demonstrations, breaking out on monthly basis ever since, the March protests were streamed on social media. Thousands of Russians declaring their discontent only to be beaten up and arrested, watched live by millions of their fellow citizens through phones and computers, was the most powerful and the most transformative phenomenon the country had ever seen. The opposition and the people have been united by the digital space to such an extent that the distinctions and differences between them began to get blurred.
Two years later, on the 10th of February 2019, this change unambiguously manifested itself: hundreds of women across Russia went out to the streets holding hands in what became known as the Mothers’ Anger March. It was held in response to the death of a detained activist’s daughter. The girl died in the hospital without being able to see her mom, who was recently arrested for being a member of an opposition movement.
What is so powerful about the Mothers’ Anger March is that the women and children taking part are neither members of the opposition nor have any prior concern for politics. Ten, even five years ago arrests of activists were met with apathy. Today, the digital connection pushes ordinary people into politics and into cooperation with the opposition. Svetlana Pchelintseva, one of the women interviewed at the protests, told a newspaper called Novaya Gazeta “I feel like I am at war. And other mothers feel the same way.” Her son Dmitrii has been detained and tortured by the authorities.
Today, the digital connection pushes ordinary people into politics and into cooperation with the opposition.
For the government, these developments are a vicious cycle: the more ordinary Russians cooperate with the opposition, the more will the illegal and cruel repressions affect the masses. Inevitably, this makes more people speak out in anger and disgust. The name Anna Pavlikova has come to ring a woeful bell with many people across the country; the girl, like many other teenagers was arrested and imprisoned at the age of 17 for fabricated extremism charges. When her health reached a critical stage due to the abominable prison conditions, women across Russia went out to the streets holding toys instead of posters to not give the police an excuse to arrest them. Hundreds of toys were left on the doors and the fences of the High Court of Russia: pictures of them were reposted on Twitter and Instagram a countless number of times. Anna was transferred to house arrest the next day and released within two months.
This cooperation, brought about by connections forged online through anti-establishment YouTube channels and Instagram pages, sows panic in the Kremlin. Unsurprisingly, the government responds in incompetent and even ridiculous ways: paying singers to release propaganda content, getting hackers to make and circulate memes that scorn the opposition and inviting beauty bloggers to speak in parliament. None of these gain current, the people see through the blatant attempts to regain control. A popular blogger known as Ded Edros laughed in an interview, “These people know as much about the internet as my grandmother”. Despite the censorship and the fear-mongering, despite the abhorrent arrests of kids for Facebook reposts, the internet remains a forum for cooperation and will continue uniting people against the hateful and appalling human rights abuses by the government.