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Story Publication logo July 17, 2017

In Russia, Opposition Grows as Fear of the State Fades


Image by Zach Fannin. Russia, 2017.

PBS NewsHour goes inside Russia for a series that explores everything from the bilateral...

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Alexei Navalny, Putin's opposition, at a campaign event. Image from PBS NewsHour. Russia, 2017.
Alexei Navalny, Putin's opposition, at a campaign event. Image from PBS NewsHour. Russia, 2017.

NICK SCHIFRIN: This is the season of Russia's discontent. Under President Vladimir Putin there's been a tacit agreement that people enjoy their lives and stay out of politics. Now, many Russians are deciding that bargain's no longer worth it.

ALEXEY KOTOREV: Until recently, people were thinking politics were somewhere far away. But now people understand politics hits close to home.

NICK SCHIFRIN: 38-year-old Alexey Kotorov and his neighbors had considered themselves apolitical. But they launched these protests when the City of Moscow planned to evict them from their apartments to knock them down and build high rises. As always, police presence was strong. But some Russians' fear of their state seems to be fading, and faith in themselves, rising.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Do you think you can make a difference?

ALEXEY KOTOREV: We can change things if we stay together. We need to stay active. It's very important right now to recreate civil society. For the last five years, civil society has almost disappeared.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In the 1960s, the former Soviet Union built Kotorev's apartment complex as inexpensive housing…

NICK SCHIFRIN: So this is your home?

ALEXEY KOTOREV: This is my home.

NICK SCHIFRIN:…for people like him to have their own space. Inside, it's nice…with a view of the Moscow River. Kotorev accuses local officials of wanting to seize valuable land to get rich.

ALEXEY KOTOREV: Now's a very important moment. The people are starting to unite to show the government their point of view.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The man most responsible for creating that unity is Alexei Navalny. The 41-year-old lawyer is the country's most prominent opposition politician…on a crusade against corruption. He calls the ruling United Russia Party, "the party of crooks and thieves." In March, he posted an hour-long YouTube expose about mansions, yachts, and land that he says were corruptly acquired by Putin's Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: Medvedev can steal so much and so openly because Putin does the same, but on a greater scale. The system is so rotten, there's nothing healthy left.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Navalny's been fighting Putin for six years. In 2011, he sparked massive protests ahead of a parliamentary election he called rigged.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: It's very simple: Power to the people.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Two years later, he ran unsuccessfully for Moscow mayor against the Putin-backed incumbent. Today, by using YouTube Navalny circumvents state-run media and maintains a huge following. This video has 23 million views.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: This is our country, and these swindlers are stealing our money. Everyone should fight however he can.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Tens of thousands of people answered his call. On March 26 and June 12, Russians launched the largest unsanctioned protests in a quarter century. They were held in 185 cities. Nearly all the protesters were young and motivated to speak out by corruption. "Putin's a thief," they chanted. "Police, join the people," they say. "Don't serve the government of monsters." Police declined their invitation…and arrested 1,700 protesters across the country, including Navalny. He was sentenced to 25 days in jail for organizing an unsanctioned rally. He was also arrested and jailed in March. And back in 2014, he was convicted of a felony — defrauding clients of a shipping company he helped his brother, Oleg, start. Oleg remains in prison. Alexei calls his brother a hostage, and the charges fabricated. But his conviction means, legally, he can't run for office. That hasn't stopped him from campaigning for next year's presidential election.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: We do not owe the government anything. It is the government who owes us. They build an authoritarian regime that doesn't give anything back.

NICK SCHIFRIN: His rallies are unusual in a country where retail campaigning is almost unheard of. The crowds are young and he talks like them.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: They think we have no right to ask questions, that we have to shut up and listen. They tell us, [BLEEP] you and we have to say, oh, ok, we're very sorry. But no, we have gathered here to say we're going to ask these questions and we'll obtain the answers.

KIRIL KOZLOVSKY: His anti-corruption message resonates with me. And I think that he's a very charismatic politician.

NICK SCHIFRIN: 23-year-old Kiril Kozlovsky — and anyone in the crowd who wanted one — got a photo with Navalny. Kozlovksy promptly posted it to his profile on VK, Russia's equivalent of Facebook. Koslovsky acknowledges that Putin has brought relative prosperity to Russia. He's not even old enough to remember the political and economic chaos that Putin helped end when he came to power in 1999.

NICK SCHIFRIN: What would you say to your parents or grandparents who say, "Look, things were a lot worse for us before President Putin?"

KIRIL KOZLOVSKY: In the 18 years that have passed he and his team could have done a lot more to help the situation, a lot more to make it better. And he didn't. So, he's to blame for this.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In Cheboksary, 375 miles east of Moscow, the local government made sure no one in the city center would rent space to the Navalny campaign, so his gatherings often take place on the edge of towns, like this apartment complex. Semyon Kochkin is the local campaign manager.

SEMYON KOCHKIN: We were rejected by all the landlords, by all the hotels, even the international hotels. Even construction fields rejected us.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Kochkin says he's been targeted personally. Last year on VK, he posted a clip from comedian John Oliver's HBO program, "Last Week Tonight."

JOHN OLIVER: "Scamming ISIS is the best thing anyone did on Earth this week!"

NICK SCHIFRIN: The video shows banned ISIS symbols, and Kochkin was arrested for extremism. He took a selfie in the back of a police car. He accuses the government of exploiting anti-terrorism laws to silence Navalny's campaign.

SEMYON KOCHKIN: We are constantly fighting with the authorities, and it's always one-sided. Because when it comes to election season, they make it impossible.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Local police also arrested 35-year-old Andrei Usipov. He's the local orchestra's first violin. On March 26 he joined the Navalny protest. And a week later, police interrupted a rehearsal to take him to jail. I asked him if he thought he'd be arrested for protesting if Navalny were President.

ANDREI USIPOV: I am absolutely certain this would not happen, because under Alexei Navalny, the country will be more open. Alexei is for transparency, and only with transparency can we overpower corruption.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Arrests are only one way the Russian establishment pushes back. State TV portrays Navalny's protests as an existential threat to Russia's stability. Listen to what the country's most popular anchor said last month:

DMITRY KISELYOV: They use people to provoke the crowd and make the situation spiral out of control, achieving chaos. First in one square in one city, and then they plunge the entire country into poverty and—I'm afraid to say—civil war.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Government-run high schools force students to watch a video comparing Navalny to Hitler…accusing him of being a fascist and trying to undermine the state. But for the first time in a generation, young people are rejecting the government's talking points. In a classroom 2000 miles from Moscow, students posted a video of themselves challenging a government-funded school teacher, who called Navalny's supporters freaks, and defended corruption.

LECTURER: If there is no corruption in a state, it means that nobody needs this state.

STUDENT: So you mean you like it when they steal from you?

LECTURER: So? People steal everywhere.

STUDENT: But it is not normal.

LECTURER: Every student should mind his own business.

STUDENT: And a lecturer should mind his own business.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The pressure on Navalny himself is sometimes physical. Last year, members of the pro-government Cossacks doused Navalny with milk…and beat up his staff. In April, a state TV channel showed an assailant after he sprayed Navalny with green dye and chemicals. Navalny's right eye needed surgery. Navalny accused the Kremlin of organizing the attack.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: Even if I look like this, does that mean that we will accept money's been stolen and used to buy yachts? I don't think so.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Navalny's poll numbers remain low, but he's changing public opinion. Two-thirds of Russians now identify corruption as the country's number one problem. President Putin avoids responding to Navalny substantively. But the Navalny effect means at a town hall in Moscow, where questions are usually screened in advance, this teenager dared to ask Putin about corrupt officials undermining the public's faith in government.

DANILA PRILEPA: How are you planning to solve this problem?

NICK SCHIFRIN: Putin responded:

VLADIMIR PUTIN: You read your question. Did you prepare it yourself, or did someone put you up to it?

DANILA PRILEPA: Life prepared me for this question.

NICK SCHIFRIN: While he's inspired the younger generation…some fellow Putin opponents criticize Navalny for being a nativist. Six years ago, he released videos comparing immigrants who work in Russia to cockroaches. Navalny stands by the videos and says he wants to appeal to nationalists. Which is why he rarely criticizes Putin's muscular and popular foreign policy in Ukraine and Syria. Navalny turns down interview requests — including ours — and tries to keep the focus on corruption.

NICK SCHIFRIN: You save your harshest criticism of the President for his domestic policy, obviously not his foreign policy. In fact you don't talk very much about his foreign policy. Is that because you agree with most of it?

ALEXEI NAVALNY: I don't talk a lot about foreign policy, because here everyone is interested in wages, income, and bad roads.

NICK SCHIFRIN: He tries to feed populism to an audience that's hungry. He highlights government corruption to people who feel they have nothing to lose. And he's trying to convince a generation — and perhaps the country — that politics requires participation.


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Democracy and Authoritarianism

Democracy and Authoritarianism

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