30 March 2017

Russia's YouTube generation

Screenshots from Navalny's video.
At the beginning of this month, Alexei Navalny -- lawyer, nationalist politician, and anti-corruption activist -- released a video summarizing his organization's research into the alleged corruption of his country's prime minister. He also announced a Web site devoted to the documentation behind the video.

(In this NYT article, Ivan Nechepurenko summarizes the case made by the video, which itself has professionally translated English subtitles.)

The mainstream media greeted these developments with collective indifference, and government responses dismissed them as publicity ploys from a discredited politician, not worth looking into.

The story might have ended there, but for the fact that the video was published on YouTube and soon became viral. On Navalny's own channel, its view count is over 15.7 million, and it has been crossposted by other YouTube users as well -- and by users on Dailymotion and Vkontakte and no doubt other sites. Young Russians tell us frequently that they no longer watch television; they prefer YouTube and similar sites, as well as streaming and torrent-based services for entertainment, and Internet-based news sites.

In response to the apparent lack of any interest in investigating his charges, Navalny called for a day of protest against corruption in 100 cities. He and his colleagues attempted to obtain permission from those cities' authorities for legal demonstrations, often to no avail. But as events unfolded on that day -- last Sunday, March 26 -- it became clear that, in most of those cities, with or without permission, people responded. In some places, just a few dozen, or a few hundred; in Moscow and St. Petersburg, thousands. Police in Moscow estimated 7-8,000, while activists claimed higher numbers. Demonstrations took place even in places with no prior history of this kind of opposition activism.

As evidence of how unexpected the scale of these demonstrations were, I can cite communications from our own U.S. embassy. Normally, we citizens are warned well in advance when demonstrations of any kind (pro- or anti-government or simply patriotic gatherings) are scheduled for Moscow, and we are advised to make a wide detour. On Sunday, we got two very skimpy bulletins at the end of the afternoon, the first at 4:31 p.m., when the demonstrations were already winding down. By then, hundreds of participants had already been arrested.

A couple of days later, I talked with some of our students about Sunday. They were well aware of what had happened, but they were, as a group, mostly skeptical about Navalny's campaign. They were aware of the charge made by the president's press secretary that young people who were arrested had been assured that they would be paid compensation, which students equated with being paid to protest (a popular charge back in the anti-Kremlin demonstrations of 2011-12). In reality, the president's spokesperson was referring to Navalny's pledge to seek compensation from the European Court of Human Rights for unjust detentions, but our students agreed that probably money had changed hands to increase attendance. ("Sure, I would have gone to a demonstration for money," said one. I asked, "How would your parents have reacted?" She replied, "They'd say 'Good for you, you're earning money.'")

Another group of students reacted negatively to the news videos (mostly from independent network Dozhd, "the optimistic channel"), showing the party-like atmosphere in some of the meetings and even in the back of one of the paddy wagons, as just-arrested high school students were on their way to the police station. "These kids aren't serious. They don't realize the consequences."

The general reaction of our students, according to my tiny and very informal survey, was that these kinds of protests are pretty much useless. As for me, I was walking a very fine line: In view of the unexpectedly lively events of just a day or two earlier, I didn't mind asking for opinions and trying to learn more about the context of the opinions they held, but it was certainly not my job to argue on behalf of Navalny or anyone else. Should I try to cross that line, my interventions could feel gratifying to me, but I'm relatively secure from the awkward consequences that students or colleagues might face.

I'm acutely aware that, for most Russians, stability has a far higher priority than imported ideals about good government. The resulting passivity in the face of corruption and repression can be incredibly frustrating, but humility also has its place: First, all the intellectual resources for reform, as well as incredible capacity for debate, are already present in Russia -- nobody needs my modest input! Second, Russian history shows that the people's patience, while enormous, does have its limits. Honestly, I'm not sure I want to be around when those limits are reached.

I'm also aware that the instigator of all this excitement, Alexei Navalny, is often popular in the West, where there's a market for heroes who can embarrass the Kremlin -- still considered a worthwhile goal by many Westerners for whom Russian politics is only a spectator sport. Some Russians I know are worried by nationalist and authoritarian tendencies they claim to detect in Navalny. Others lose patience with this thinking ("If we wait for a perfect politician, we will never make progress") but, by and large, most people I know continue to conclude, "politics is a dirty business; it's not for me."

So: I observe but I don't provoke or agitate. Even so -- despite all my caution and commitment to even-handedness -- I confess a kind of admiration for the young people, cheering and being cheered through the grilled windows of the paddy wagons. Yes, their choice was risky and their assumptions might have been naive, but passivity has long-term risks of its own, and cynicism is spiritual poison.

Additional information and background from The Moscow Times:

Selected videos. (And hear no evil, see no evil, report no evil.)

Are Russian teens really about to storm the Kremlin?

Liberalism is freedom for subhumans.

Vladimir Putin's take.

From the Levada Center, a survey on corruption (Russian) whose results include an interesting statistic: 2/3 of respondents consider Putin responsible completely (25%) or to a significant degree (42%) for Russia's level of corruption. At the same time, his approval rating remains around 80%. If all this seems puzzling, then in the words of our friends, "Welcome to Russia."

Friday PS: This video has been widely circulated here -- a fifth-grader at the anti-corruption meeting in Tomsk.

And, finally, from the Guardian, Russians' attitudes toward Putin. This sampling by and large matches my own experiences.

Sarah Ruden explores beauty in the Bible.

A critical look at the term "religious left."

Chuck Berry didn't just invent rock and roll....

Another good version of this song. (We include this song in our Institute lesson on "how spirituals became civil rights songs.")

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