Russia’s TikTok Technology Is Putin’s Achilles’ Heel
On February 3rd, an influx of young Russians flooded my Instagram inbox and follower list. Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of incarcerated Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, had just reposted my most recent Instagram story: a photo of Navalny in court holding his hands up to form the shape of a heart that made the cover of the Wall Street Journal would have .
My family immigrated to the United States from Russia in the 1990s when I was 13, but I couldn’t remember meeting Russian teenagers and young people like them before: an entire generation raised under Putin’s rule was. On their social media pages on Instagram and TikTok, they appear purposeful, courageous and creative. They made political videos on TikTok and Instagram. Some of them have been identified as feminists, vegan activists, dancers, musicians and aspiring lawyers. They seemed to be marching to the beat of a different drum and shared a set of universal values different from those of their parents and grandparents. It was as if they were visitors from another planet.
When Navalny flew back to Moscow on January 17 and was quickly arrested, his team was able to mobilize thousands of people in cities across Russia’s eleven time zones. After the Russian court sentenced Navalny to two and a half years in prison, his supporters continued to protest on the streets. Videos shared on social media showed teenagers tearing up Putin’s portraits in schools and replacing them with photos of Navalny.
On February 14th, Valentine’s Day, Navalny’s team ran a campaign entitled “Love Is Stronger Than Fear,” inspired by Navalny’s gesture towards his wife in court. “We urge all residents of major Russian cities to do one simple thing on February 14th at 8pm,” wrote Navalny’s team. “Go outside and turn on the flash on your phone, pick it up and stand there for a few minutes.”
There were several protests on Sunday, mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where, according to AFP, several hundred women gathered in solidarity with Navalny’s wife Julia. Regardless, the Navalny team estimated that “tens of thousands” responded to Navalny’s call for a Valentine’s Day campaign, braving winter temperatures and going outside with flashlights for symbolic vigils in “hundreds of courtyards” across the country.
This time the turnout was smaller and more peaceful, without the violent clashes with police and mass detention that marked the protests for Navalny last month. Instead, the government’s response moved behind the scenes, focusing on pressuring social media platforms and taking action against those who imply they are even thinking about taking to the streets. Immediately after the Valentine’s Day events, there were reports of retaliation against those who participated in the campaign, including a COVID-19 nurse, Saidanvar Sulaimonov, who was fired after participating in the “Love Is Stronger Than Fear” campaign and Meduza said he was wearing protective clothing inside.
Even before the events on Sunday, many young people expressed skepticism about the long-term effects of this new wave of protests. Aram Badalyam, a 25-year-old indie folk musician from Krasnodar, southern Russia – the region where Putin’s alleged palace is located – calls the protests “toothless”. Navalny’s investigation and the outbreak of political activism he witnessed in the country and in Krasnodar inspired him to write a song about the palace. “Navalny speaks their language,” he says of the new generation of followers. “He is persistent, brave and brave. Bravery is a rarity in Russia. “
This kind of grassroots mobilization set Navalny apart from other opposition leaders and enabled him to connect with this new generation through social media, as in this TikTok video showing his investigation into his own poisoning. From providing copies of flyers to display in a Google Drive in their neighborhood to posting investigative videos even when Navalny is in jail, his team brings a new method of protest and political activism to this new generation at.
“Navalny offers instruments, protests for example, in which other opposition members can show up and join forces on common goals,” says 23-year-old Nikolai from St. Petersburg, who spoke to The Daily Beast under a pseudonym. “For me, Navalny is also about the people he has gathered around him, people who fight against the system and help others.”
Navalny’s anti-corruption activities have not only educated this new generation about the state of affairs in their country, but also taught them how to fight corruption in the existing system. It showed them what works. “I trust Navalny because he provides arguments and facts,” says Catherine Shipilova, 17, an aspiring lawyer who counts the months before she officially “grows up” in Russia. “I’m planning to apply to law school. I want to help people,” she says. “I love Russia, but I am against our current government.”
In an interview with Russian radio platform Echo Moskvy, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oil tycoon who himself was imprisoned for a decade, stated that Putin’s response to Navalny’s recent investigation into the alleged palace of the president revealed the division between the ruling regime and this new generation. This nearly two-hour investigation into an imperial-style palace in southern Russia received over 112 million views in one month. Putin has dismissed the video as boring, calling it a “montage” and claiming that “nothing listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives and never did”. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov continued to deny any ownership.
Khodorkovsky described Putin’s reaction to the viral video as more shocking than the investigation itself. “It’s a joke,” he said. “It is natural for the younger generation to want something different. The government can listen to them. But for that you need institutions in which rules are drawn up and young people live their lives within the framework. But our government does not want to create any framework conditions. They want to rule everything in order to stay in power. “
An opinion poll at the Levada Center found that a quarter of Russians had seen the palace video and that younger people, ages 18-24, recorded it the most. According to the survey, 37 percent of the younger age group had seen it, more than any other group.
Putin’s first public reaction to Navalny’s viral investigation of Putin’s-reported palace in southern Russia has been largely mocked on social media. A TikTok video showed Putin speaking from a deep purple “shisha” room with a metal rod in the middle as he explained that there were no documents linking him to the palace.
The Kremlin’s response included a series of rejections of any connection with the palace, persistent mass detention, and more tech-savvy measures to use facial recognition technology to detain participants before the protests. However, the main focus of the government’s response has been on combating social media websites that enable information sharing, mobilization and political engagement.
After the initial wave of protests, Russian media censorship agency Roskomnadzor focused on the most popular social media agencies and even ordered them to remove protest-related material. On Jan. 29, Roskomnadzor called representatives from TikTok, Facebook, Telegram and VKontakte, arguing that it was their responsibility to remove posts that encourage participation in “unapproved events,” the agency said. The agency also ordered several media outlets to clear reports of the Valentine’s Day protest.
Of course, these young people are only a fraction of the Russian opposition, and Navalny himself does not share all of their values. The majority of Russians still get their news from traditional news media, which are more loyal to the Kremlin. But right now – after Navalny’s recent poisoning attempt, his recovery, his return from Germany and his hasty condemnation in Moscow – he is the one who unites the Russian opposition, including this younger generation who can only remember a Russia under Putin.
Navalny was able to stimulate her imagination and the government responded quickly. The State Department even opened an official TikTok account in early February and dedicated the first two digits to Navalny. For some of his supporters, what matters most about Navalny is that he gives the opposition a tent, tools and educates them about how to make their voices heard: through social media activism, video and protests on the street. And they keep listening and taking notes, even when Navalny is behind bars.
Nikolai says he plans to continue participating in protests despite his incarceration. “I think the protest movement will continue, but take different forms and not just hit certain streets at one time,” he says. “I see Russia’s future as democratic, free in terms of the rule of law and each other. The new generation is less susceptible to government propaganda. “
“If the prevailing order remains the same, we will see no improvement.” Shipilova tells The Daily Beast. She fears that serving a prison sentence will reduce Navalny’s chances of running again for office. “I hope that our country will get better and that we have laws that are important and necessary.”
Even Alexei Navalny’s tone took on a darker, more thoughtful tone after the events of Valentine’s Day. He was sentenced to almost three years in prison. “The prison is in your head,” he wrote in a recent Instagram post, comparing his prison cell and conditions to flying a spaceship. “At that moment I understand that I am on a space trip and that I am flying to a brave new world.”