December 16, 2011 8:45 pm

Activists get connected

With more than 50 million users, Russia has the biggest internet audience in Europe. And recent protests show people are now discovering how powerful a tool online activism can be

Two years ago, Dmitry Ternovskiy, a Russian small business owner, blogger, and hobby photographer, had a dream: he is skiing, and he runs into Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The two men make each other’s acquaintance, at which point Ternovskiy asks the president for his autograph on the side of his camera lens. A week later, Ternovskiy found himself on the slopes above Sochi, where, he was told, the president also happened to be skiing. Intrigued by the coincidence, Ternovskiy made his way over to where Medvedev was passing and took a few pictures. To his even greater surprise, the president approached him, and Ternovskiy asked him to sign his camera lens. And, because things were already unfolding so bizarrely, Ternovskiy decided to take the opportunity to ask the president about something that had been bothering him for years: the pointless Soviet-era ban on photography in the Kremlin and Red Square. “Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] said this was stupid and within an hour, the news agencies were reporting that he had given the order to the head of the Federal Security Service [the Russian Secret Service] to lift this ban, which had been in place for 20 years,” Ternovskiy recalls, still marvelling at the cosmic strangeness of that day.

The run-in was not only broadcast on national television, it also provided the catalyst for a project Ternovskiy called A Country Without Stupidity. Chief among the inanities in his sights is something most tourists in Russia have encountered: the screaming security guard or elderly woman telling you that you cannot take pictures here, as if your photograph of that supermarket compromises Russian national security. Ternovskiy has used his blog to mobilise Russians to inform these guards and grannies that they are the ones in the wrong: by Russian law, photography is allowed almost everywhere. “Despite the fact that there is no legal basis to ban photography in all the places it’s banned, people will still tell you it’s forbidden,” Ternovskiy says, pouring himself a cup of thyme tea as we sit in a Moscow café. “It’s like a Soviet phantom limb. Back then, every person felt himself to be in the thick of a nest of spies, there were enemies all around, everything was banned. Unfortunately, we still see this alive and well in the minds of many people today.”

Using his blog and Twitter, Ternovskiy has declared war on this archaic mentality. In the year since he launched A Country Without Stupidity, he has taught a growing number of sympathisers what to do if a guard in a train station tells you to delete that picture you just took: call the police, have them write a report, then write an official complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office. Thanks to Medvedev’s modernisation initiative, he points out, you can now file that complaint online. “It’s very simple and it uses legal methods,” Ternovskiy explains. “You don’t have to fight anyone, you don’t have to pitch a fit and yell at the guards. Just go home, and calmly register a complaint.” To everyone’s surprise, the prosecutor’s office stopped ignoring these complaints and began answering them – and finding in the complainants’ favour.

This may seem like a strange fight, but in a country where abuse of authority and brazen shirking of the law has become an accepted part of the daily routine even in the smallest things, Ternovskiy’s battle is a novel attempt not to fall into the sort of complacency that makes this kind of grim reality possible in the first place. “It’s a small thing, yes, but Russians are so indifferent and so convinced that you can’t change anything here, that what we’re trying to show people is that sometimes you just need a little effort to change something,” Ternovskiy explains. “And then maybe the next time, when this person encounters a bigger problem, not just something stupid, he’ll know that he can act, and he’ll know how to.”

With more than 50 million users, the Russian internet has this year become Europe’s biggest internet audience and Ternovskiy’s initiative is one of several that has used the explosion of the web in Russia to do something unheard of in its history: the mobilisation of civil society. “For many years, there was no means for people living here to do anything that relates to the organisation of society in any way,” says Anton Nossik, a pioneer of the Russian web and now the media director of SUP, the company that owns LiveJournal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform. “In Russia, it was always the state that was in charge of dealing with social issues, never the people. It’s a situation that, on the whole, has lasted here for about a thousand years.”

The change came only recently, and only with the introduction of high-speed internet, first in the big cities, then in the countryside. Then came LiveJournal, which gave Russians a platform to discuss the things no longer being discussed in the state-controlled media. After that, the social networks – VKontakte, or Facebook for the urban elite – which Russians use more than any other people on the planet, connected like-minded citizens of a country spread across nine time zones. In the past year this trifecta – low-cost, hi-speed internet access, LiveJournal, and social networks – has given rise to a cluster of novel civic movements. One of the first was anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny’s RosPil, which used crowd sourcing to spot corrupt government tenders. Then, using Yandex.Money, the Russian analogue of PayPal, he launched an online collection of funds to hire young lawyers to help him fight corrupt state corporations in court. His goal had been to raise Rbs3m (£61,000). As of May this year he had raised Rbs6.5m. The next frontier in this movement is apps. Ternovskiy is currently working with developers to create an app that allows users to document and send a complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office right from their phones. “We want people to act,” Ternovskiy says, explaining that, in the time it takes someone to come home and get in front of a computer, the desire to register an official complaint may easily pass. Another potential hit, given the talk of fraud in Russia’s recent parliamentary elections, is RUGolos, an application that allows voters to register how and where they voted. The idea is that, given the penetration of smartphones in Russia, the app can collect enough data to serve as an independent counterweight to official election results.

Blue Buckets, another online movement, uses a different currency to achieve its aims: public shame. Loosely affiliated clusters of people have united in fighting the blue migalki, or sirens, which allow any car to which they are attached to circumvent all traffic laws. Predictably, they cause countless, often deadly, accidents, and given the sanctity of the car in Russia, they have become a major social irritant. Blue Buckets – named for the blue buckets activists tape to their car roofs as a spoof of these VIP sirens – gives people the means to fight back against the abuse of privilege. Drivers who capture this abuse – the VIP vehicle of a film director speeding in the oncoming lane, a bureaucrat turning on his siren to get to the dry cleaners – on camera, can submit the picture or video to Blue Buckets, which then disseminates it to its nearly 40,000 members and hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors to its LiveJournal page. Inevitably, this makes it into the news cycle, fuelling more rage. This summer saw a spate of such small but loud scandals over migalki, and Blue Buckets was behind most of them.

“It’s the broken windows theory,” says Petr Shkumatov, one of the Blue Buckets co-ordinators, and a marketing specialist by day. “Since we’ve started the group, people have stopped being as brazen. A year ago, you saw these migalki everywhere but now they are more hesitant to turn on their discotheques,” he says, referring to the whoop of the sirens. “Of course, they’re allowed to by law, but the fact that society has become so angry at them, and they see the anger, has clearly been giving them pause.”

The point of Blue Buckets is to disincentivise ostentatious prestige, which is still so comically common in contemporary Russia. “The problem of migalki is not solved through laws because the sirens play to a very natural desire to be above other people,” says Shkumatov. He sees the legacy of the Soviet Union at play here, too, and he and his co-conspirators at Blue Buckets have tried hard to keep the group as decentralised and organic as possible, in order to prevent it from becoming “an instrument for realising someone’s ambitions”.

“The Soviet Union still exists in Russia because people are still repeating old patterns,” Shkumatov explains. “As soon as someone joins an organisation, he wants to become the general secretary of the Communist party.”

In the past few days, the Russian blogosphere has proved to be a powerful tool in organising such sentiments. A day after disputed election results delivered both a victory and a defeat to the ruling, vaguely Soviet, United Russia party – it won a majority of seats in the Russian parliament, but lost 15 per cent compared with the 2007 electio7 – some 6,000 young people took to Moscow’s streets. As in the case of protests seen around the world, from Cairo to Zucotti Park, they had been brought there by Facebook and Twitter. And they were angry about what they had read on the internet, information that rarely makes it into the “official” Russian press. In absolute terms, it was not a large number – Moscow is a city of at least 11 million – but it flew in the face of the conventional wisdom. Young Russians are thought to be apathetic and, even if they are not, rarely come out to protest, which they see as the realm of the shrill and the elderly.

The anonymous KermlinRussia duo, who write a wildly popular parody of Medvedev’s Twitter account, recently teamed up with Zhgun, a graphic designer, to create a campaign ad on YouTube for a fictional party called “F****** Amazing Russia”. The premise of the party was to leave behind the bad guys – Putin, Medvedev, and their cronies – and to mobilise what one of the KermlinRussia writers called “the party of the internet.” Hundreds of thousands of people watched the YouTube video, but nothing seemed to happen – until it suddenly did. “The internet is the new politics,” one of the duo told me. “It was able to organise the first serious protest in many years.”

Whether or not these protests continue as temperatures in Moscow drop is not clear, but they have already accomplished something very important: they have brought down the barrier between the online and offline worlds. When Navalny was arrested at the December 5 protest, thousands of his followers watched a live feed of the protest staged outside the police station where he was being held. At 4am on a weeknight, there were nearly four thousand viewers. When Navalny’s trace temporarily vanished, and when Navalny was brought into court and sentenced to 15 days in prison, it was Shkumatov who tweeted the proceedings to everyone who had not been allowed inside the courtroom: Shkumatov, too, had been arrested.

On December 10, around 50,000 of the young urban elite came out in Moscow for the biggest anti-government protest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands protested in dozens of cities around Russia. Addressing the crowd, Shkumatov thanked them for coming out, “for showing them” – the Kremlin – “that you’re not cattle”. “You guys are so wonderful!” he said, while recording a video of the crowd with his phone.

Julia Ioffe is the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy magazine and The New Yorker

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