The face of the recent Russian anti-corruption protests is young, vocal and fed up with their country’s government.
On March 26, the police in Moscow arrested dozens of people who came out in protest of government corruption led by popular opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
But unlike demonstrations in the past based in Moscow, more than 90 similar protests took place all over the country in other large cities like St. Petersburg and smaller towns in Siberia and the Far East.
Navalny, who Russian courts sentenced to fifteen days in jail for organising the protests and resisting police orders, rallied people to come out against Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister that he alleges gathered wealth by hiding donations through a network of charities.
“Recent events showed that they [the establishment] have now stumbled against an unexpected phenomenon which is also very unpleasant for them — youngsters do not watch TV,” Nikolay Syrov, a journalist who has been covering the protests on the ground in Moscow, told Business Insider in an email.
Instead, Russia’s youth gets information from the internet, which is ‘still relatively free,” according to Syrov, who added that “young people can find the truth there.”
In a country where President Putin’s approval ratings have stayed consistently above 80 per cent over the last three years, the new series of protests stands out by its countrywide breadth, unexpected focus (Medvedev is widely considered to be a has-been politician with little actual power) and generational divide.
Navalny, who built a following from posting anti-Kremlin videos and blog entries on social media, has gained significant popularity with people who rely on the internet, rather than state TV, to get their news.
“For a country that is so rich in natural resources, we are too poor,” Andrei, 16, who protested in Moscow told The Atlantic.
Without providing evidence, a Kremlin spokesperson said that protesters were “promised financial rewards in the event of their detention by law enforcement agencies.” But Grigory Okhotin, an activist who has been coordinating legal assistance for those who were detained in the protests, said in an email that the protests represent years of frustration with the way the Russian government treats its people.
Some protesters also painted their faces green and brought out rubber ducks as a nod to Navalny’s allegation that Medvedev has a separate house for the ducks on his lavish 80 hectacre property which features nearly 20-foot walls.
Nina Khruscheva, a professor of international affairs at The New School and the great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, said that the protests and the Kremlin’s efforts to subdue them could intensify in advance of the 2018 presidential election, in which Navalny announced his plans to run in December 2016.
While the chance of the Kremlin allowing Navalny to even campaign is extremely slim, the recent protests — and the politician’s popularity with a younger, internet-savvy crowd — show that the young voice of dissent in Russia could gain considerable steam.
“From what I hear people at the protests were very ‘middle class’ so to speak, engineers, artists,” said Khruscheva. “Exactly the Navalny electorate.”