On Aug. 15, thousands of protesters took to Moscow’s streets for the “March of the Mothers,” armed with stuffed animals, seeking the release of teens who were jailed in March. The parents allege that Russian officials entrapped their children, detaining them on false charges of plotting to overthrow the government. What’s going on?
1. Russia has been cracking down on what it calls extremists since 2002
When in 2002 Russia’s Duma first passed anti-extremism laws that banned stopping any religious group from asserting it was superior to any other, the purported goal was to combat terrorism in the North Caucasus. However, internal opposition groups and international human rights groups criticized those laws for being so broad that they could be used to silence political opposition. Nonetheless, the Duma steadily expanded the laws’ scope over the years: in 2014 to track “extremist” bloggers, and in 2015 to include “liking” social media posts the government considers extremist. This chilled what was left of independent media in Russia, along with the average Russian citizen’s ability to express any form of opposition, no matter how minor.
The Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot was famously convicted under the 2012 law for offending religious sensibilities with its anti-Putin performance in an Orthodox cathedral. Others convicted include Ruslan Sokolovsky, a 22-year-old Pokémon Go YouTuber who posted a video of himself playing the game in an Orthodox church.
2. Russian youths have taken on a growing role in opposition protests
When opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted YouTube videos inviting Russians to protest en masse in 2017, young Russians turned out in large numbers — and the authorities have targeted them particularly. Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opposition figure, 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 live-streams news on several channels, and uploads investigative reports critical of the Putin regime.
Because Putin has effectively held power since 2000, Russian youth have never known a Russia without Putin in command. Many have watched Navalny’s investigative videos exposing corruption at the highest levels of government.
On March 2, 2017, Navalny posted one of his most incendiary videos on YouTube: an exposé alleging that Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev funnels public money through his charity organizations for his own use and uses those charities to hide funds and property. Among the memorable allegations was that Medvedev even has luxury accommodations for his ducks.
There hasn’t been much evidence that these tactics worked. More recent protests in May saw more than 1,600 people arrested in 27 cities, including 158 children.
3. Young people accused of anti-government plots are in jail
Now we come to what triggered the “March of the Mothers.” Ten protesters have been held since March and charged with using social media for “involvement in a terrorist community.” They’re part of a group called Novoe Velichie or New Greatness. Two are young women: Anna Pavlikova was 17 at the time of her arrest, and Maria Dubovik was 19.
The teens argue that they were not interested in overthrowing the government. While they acknowledge they posted comments critical of the government, they argue that they were merely venting, not plotting. On Aug. 16, in response to pressure from the protests, a Moscow court released them on house arrest.
Authorities may have been particularly irritated because the young women were using the chat application Telegram to vent. Telegram is a media app popular because it encrypts messages so that only the sender and receiver can read them. The Russian government has tried to shut down Telegram recently, because whistleblowers have used the platform to send tips to journalists or to Navalny. But Russians have protested the government’s attempts to block the platform.
4. Were Russian security services actually the ones doing the plotting?
The teens’ lawyer insists that the charges are false. According to an investigation by OVD-Info, an organization that monitors politically motivated arrests inside Russia, a Federal Security Service (FSB) agent actually founded New Greatness, fully funded the group, stirred up the members’ emotions, gave youths meeting space and trained selected members on the use of explosive devices.
Because Telegram doesn’t allow children to create their own account, Anna had to use her mother’s account. This gives her mother, Yulia Pavlikova, full access to the records.
Pavlikova describes the entrapment as a step-by-step process. First, the organizer Ruslan D. began by building trust with the youths. Then, she says, after encouraging complaints about the government, he pushed them to move beyond talking, organized a meeting at a McDonald’s, and bought them a printer. Soon they were making fliers and passing them out. None of it would have happened, Pavlikova claims, if this FSB agent had not organized and provoked them.
5. The noose continues to tighten around civil society in Russia
None of this bodes well for the future of civil society. Government repression has proceeded from attacking the free press to politically opposing average citizens’ ability to express discontent with their government — including, now, that of teenagers.
Will this generation, which has grown up under Putin, be subdued by these authoritarian tactics? Or will they react against them, as the Kremlin apparently fears?
In the Arab Spring, Egyptian young people organized via Twitter to overthrow their government. It’s possible some young Russians might try do the same. But even if they try, success seems unlikely, considering Putin’s large base of support.
Nicolè Ford, PhD, teaches courses on comparative politics at the University of Tampa.