MOSCOW — The scale of Russia’s nationwide protests this weekend took even their organizers by surprise.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of Russians took part in anti-corruption demonstrations across 82 cities — from Vladivostok on the Pacific to Kaliningrad on the European Union’s borders. In Moscow, the protest culminated in over 1,000 arrests, a record for the city under President Vladimir Putin’s rule. The man who brought the country out into the streets was able to revel in his achievement for only a few minutes. As soon as opposition leader Alexei Navalny appeared on Moscow’s central Tverskaya Street, he was immediately detained by police. (The next day, a Moscow court fined Navalny $350 for organizing banned protests and sentenced him to 15 days in jail.) But Navalny remained defiant. “The time will come when we will have them on trial (but honestly),” he tweeted before his sentencing.
Two weeks earlier, Navalny — Putin’s most prominent critic and the one most devoted to opposing him at the ballot box — had published an investigation into Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s alleged corruption. His team released a video revealing that Medvedev had amassed a collection of palaces, yachts, and vineyards during his time in office. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation regularly publishes blogs and videos making public the ill-begotten riches of people within or close to the government. Past exposés have focused on the business empire belonging to the son of Russia’s general prosecutor and the millions allocated to a foundation run by Putin’s daughter. With the Medvedev video, however, Navalny struck a nerve like never before.
Russia, which is in its third year of a serious economic recession, has been living under Western sanctions since annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The news of Medvedev’s secret fortunes, at a time of nationwide suffering, had the country furious. In a matter of days, millions of Russians had watched the video on YouTube.
The prime minister’s riches quickly became a symbol of all the injustices in Putin’s Russia, where corruption is part of daily life. According to Navalny, Medvedev used a web of charities run by his associates to conceal his fortunes; the prime minister owns a vineyard in Italy and an 18th-century palace in St. Petersburg. “Dimon [Medvedev] Will Answer” became the protest’s slogan. Russians carried banners of ducks, alluding to the expensive home Medvedev allegedly built for waterfowl on a pond at one of his estates, and sneakers around their necks, representing his collection of expensive shoes.
It wasn’t just the ostentatious wealth that had protesters so angry. Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012 before Putin returned to the presidency, has long been an unpopular figure in Russia. Unlike Putin, who never appears in a compromising light, Medvedev is the Kremlin official most prone to gaffes. He is famously tone deaf. On a trip to Russian-annexed Crimea last year, he told a group of angry pensioners, “There’s no money, but you hang in there!” The quote immediately went viral. (His reaction to the protests against him was true to form. An Instagram user asked the prime minister, on his page, how his day went. Medvedev replied, “Not bad, I went skiing!”) While Putin’s approval ratings have soared as a result of his efforts to play tough with the West and secure military victories abroad, Medvedev has taken the blame for falling living standards at home. For the past few years, the Russian public, and even some within Putin’s hard-line inner circle, have considered Medvedev both weak and dispensable.
And so, it was only a matter of time before Navalny, a savvy operator who recently announced plans to run for the presidency next year, saw an opening.
By focusing his protests on Medvedev, analysts say, Navalny managed to get turnout on a scale that he’d never before achieved. That’s in part because the framing appealed to two very different groups of protesters: the politically discontented in Russia’s biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and those living in Russia’s far-flung regions, where protest movements have traditionally had little appeal. Most Russians far from the cities would think twice before protesting against their president, but they care little for his clumsy prime minister. They also witness the painful effects of localized corruption on a daily basis. It was these regional protests that took Russian authorities most by surprise. Even before 2 p.m., when the protests were officially supposed to begin across Russia’s 11 time zones, an estimated 20,000 people had already taken part in protests in Siberia and the Urals.