What’s more, while Mr. Navalny was in jail last week, staff members at his nonprofit organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, released a nearly two-hour-long video that claimed to reveal the details of an opulent mansion on the shore of the Black Sea — complete with spa, hockey rink and casino hall — owned by Mr. Putin through a network of intermediaries. (Mr. Putin denies the allegations.)
While it’s hard to know what effect the revelations had on the protests, some suggested that the video, which has been watched well over a hundred million times, played a role in turning people out all over the country, especially in regions not normally considered to be hotbeds of protest activity.
But the protests also emerged from — and revealed — the impotence of the government. To its discontented citizens it fails to offer anything but crude force and conspiracy theories. (Mr. Navalny is often depicted as a foreign agent, and protests as financed by “the West.”) There’s no vision of the future and little effort in the present to improve people’s lives, now worsened by the pandemic.
Tellingly, state propaganda is failing on platforms where it’s attempting to compete with independent voices. On Saturday, 10 times more people watched coverage of the protests on TV Rain, a small independent channel, than the live-streamed show on RT, the government-controlled network.
More protests may be coming, as Leonid Volkov, a close ally of Mr. Navalny, has promised. It would be foolish, however, to think they are going to lead to significant political changes or concessions from the state. If anything, as with the mass protests nearly a decade ago, they will probably just lead to more criminal cases and more repressive laws.
Yet what happened on Saturday matters. Crackdown and coercion are no longer enough to discourage Russians from protesting: According to sociologists who studied Saturday’s demonstrations, at least 42 percent of all participants were first-time protesters. Mr. Navalny has clearly struck a chord well outside his regular circle of supporters. The Kremlin, its room for compromise limited, is likely to respond with further escalation.
What that might lead to, no one can say. But one thing’s certain: It doesn’t bode well for anyone.
Alexey Kovalev (@Alexey__Kovalev) is the investigations editor at Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet.
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