In a video conference with students this week, President Vladimir Putin made the startling claim that the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny was conspiring with foreign intelligence agencies to “brainwash” the Russian population.
Mr Putin said he had not had time to watch Mr Navalny’s sensational YouTube video — now viewed 99m times — alleging that the Russian president owned a palace overlooking the Black Sea. But he denied that he or his family had any ownership interest in the estate, ingeniously filmed by Mr Navalny’s team operating a flying drone from an inflatable boat.
This compelling mini-saga, mixing high-stakes politics and low farce, highlights how much the world has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how the technology of protest has been transformed.
The ability of a political activist to release a video, shape the national debate and ignite mass protests in 125 cities across Russia while sitting in a cell in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison reveals how the control of information has been turned upside down.
In the late 1980s, as a postgraduate student of Soviet politics, I used to read the samizdat produced by Russian dissidents, one of the most useful sources of news about the country. Samizdat, or self-published material, was then the only real means by which the dissidents could communicate and co-ordinate with each other and the outside world.
At that time, the Soviet Communist party controlled all the television and radio stations, newspapers and publishing houses. The KGB crushed all attempts to raise an independent voice.
As Peter Reddaway describes in The Dissidents, human rights activists would type out the transcripts of political trials, banned articles, poems and novels using carbon paper to share with friends and smuggle abroad.
Although highly influential among intellectuals, samizdat was read by few people. But the internet revolution has meant that we now live in a world of information ubiquity, rather than of scarcity. Everybody with a smartphone can be their own publishing house and video studio and post their own version of events. The challenge today is not to publish or suppress information, so much as to mobilise or manipulate it.
Gregory Asmolov, a lecturer at King’s College London and an expert on the Russian internet, says that Mr Navalny has always been highly innovative in his use of technology. After starting with a blog, Mr Navalny has crowdsourced ideas online, used open-source intelligence to investigate corruption, crunched electoral data to devise smart voting strategies and produced slickly entertaining videos.
He also speaks the insolent language of his social media followers. “It is the combination of innovation and humour that make him such a successful opposition figure,” says Mr Asmolov.
The intriguing question, which can perhaps never be fully answered, is why Mr Putin kept Russia’s internet open in the 2000s while China built its Great Firewall, enabling Beijing to exercise far more online control. But the Kremlin has since been steadily tightening its grip, in effect taking over VKontakte, Russia’s Facebook. It is also pushing for a far tougher law to assert digital sovereignty and restrain foreign platforms.
As has been shown by its interference in the US elections, the Kremlin knows how to play the online game, too. This has resulted in a constant cat-and-mouse chase with Mr Navalny’s digital supporters.
In the latest round, Mr Navalny’s supporters have switched to TikTok to share short videos and mobilise protests while mostly using the easily encrypted Telegram messaging service to communicate. Instagram has also become an important barometer of the political weather. Alla Pugacheva, Russia’s legendary pop singer, set the internet alight by following Mr Navalny on Instagram while unfollowing her pro-Kremlin ex-husband.
According to the Meduza news site, social media influencers have been offered R150,000 ($2,000) to post that Mr Navalny “isn’t a patriot”.
Internet scholars, such as Zeynep Tufekci, have argued that digital activists can often use social media to mobilise temporary protest but find it harder to build long-term organisational resilience. That is Mr Navalny’s challenge.
While he may exercise extraordinary sway over the younger, online generation, Mr Navalny will struggle to shift older, offline Russians who still wield brute power. As shown in neighbouring Belarus, a political strongman can defy mass protests for months — so long as his inner circle does not split.