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Russia: Astrakhan in Turmoil

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

Alexander Alyimov is the director of a self-created PR firm, Tochka Otsheta, and one of the most popular youth bloggers [ru] in Astrakhan. He can often be seen with Igor ‘Astranin,’ the local leader of Nashi. Astranin is also a popular local blogger [ru], whose election-season activism included a visit [ru] to Moscow to attend pro-United Russia rallies last December.

Both bloggers have remained closely connected to politics, and Alyimov attended both pro-Kremlin and opposition demonstrations in February. Defending one pro-Putin rally, Alyimov wrote [ru]:

Митинг организовали профсоюзы, ожидаемых сгонений всех и вся на митинг не случилось. Оно и понятно, ведь чиновники не имели к нему никакого отношения.

The demonstration was organized by unions, and the expected forced attendance did not occur. That's understandable, since bureaucrats had nothing to do with it.

Alyimov gave a speech at the same rally, describing a recent encounter with, as he explained it, a rather unfortunate soul:

[...] общался с одним “оппозиционером” в жж и спросил его, что они планируют. Он ответил, что надо сметать власть. А что будет когда сметем? спросил я. И мне ответили,потом разберемся,  а пока будет временный президент. Так вот я против такого подхода. Такое “потом разберемся” уже было.  Оппозиция прежде чем звать нас на баррикады должна точно знать куда нас поведет. Иначе все может обернуться очень плохо. Есть гражданское общество, нет достойных лидеров в оппозиции. И поэтому я поддержу на этих выборах Путина. Хоть я постоянно и борюсь с прооизволом чиновников, я не хочу рисковать страной ради таких лидеров “оппозиции”.

[...] I just talked with a member of the ‘opposition’ on LiveJournal and asked him what they were planning. He answered that the time has come to push aside the authorities. ‘And what will happen once they're swept away?’ I asked. And he answered that they would figure it out later, while a interim president served. I’m against such an approach. We've already had a ‘we'll figure it out later’ experience. Before calling us to the barricades, the opposition should know where its leading us. Otherwise, everything could turn out very badly. Russian civil society exists, [but] there are no worthy leaders in the opposition. That's why I am supporting Putin in these elections. Even though I constantly struggle against the tyranny of state officials, I don't want to risk the country for the sake of such ‘opposition’ leaders.

Alyimov noted the low attendance at opposition protests, estimating that about half of the people who came were politicians. His blog post ends with the following emphatic denunciation:

Вы спросите почему так мало людей вышло “против” и почему очень мнгого тех кто недавно был “Против” пришли на митинг “ЗА”? Причина в лидерах, которые выводят людей на улицу. Слишком мало доверя им в современном обществе.

You ask why so few people showed up to “PROTEST” and why so many, who not long ago attended the opposition rallies, have now turned out to “SUPPORT” [Putin]? The reason lies in the leaders who bring people out into the streets. Modern society has too little trust in them.

From apathy to awareness?

Navalny with a local student in Astrakhan, Russia. (14/5/2012). Photo by Anastasiya Simonenko. (Used with permission from author.)

Navalny with a local student in Astrakhan, Russia. (14/5/2012). Photo by Anastasiya Simonenko. (Used with permission from author.)

April 10 brought unexpected change to Astrakhan: activism, famous Moscow politicians, and sizable rallies. The commentary on VKontakte [ru] was mixed:

Ничего особенного! голодовка-провокация! Шеин ничем не лучше Столярова [...] вообщем шило на мыло менять нет смысла.

No big deal! This hunger strike is a provocation! Shein is no better than Stoliarov [...] Trading one trouble for another makes no sense!

Шеин – лучше Столярова. Факт. Но голодовка – бессмысленна. Она ничего не изменит.

Shein is better than Stoliarov — it's a fact. But a hunger strike is pointless. It won't change anything.

Такого митинга никогда не было! За нами следит вся страна и к субботе будет много иногородних.

We've never before had this kind of protest! The entire country is watching us and this Saturday there will be many Russians from other towns and cities!

An Astrakhan pro-Shein group has grown on Vkontakte, as well, with people offering their homes to visitors in town for the demonstrations.

The VKontakte backlash

As commentary posted to VKontakte grew more intense, cynical Internet memes appeared mocking the arrival of Muscovites in Astrakhan, implying foolish or sinister plots in the works. The complaints often targeted Aleksei Navalny, alleging a foreign infiltration of Astrakhan by outsider activists and politicians.

One typical post [ru] read:

У нас в Астрахани москвичи кричат: “Это наш город” [...] жесть [...]

Here in Astrakhan Muscovites are crying, “This is our city!”  [...] what a joke [...]

A number of image macros and Photoshops also appeared, often ridiculing the arrival of “the Muscovites,” as well as deriding Oleg Shein for his hunger strike:

“You're not a mayor when you're hungry. Don't wait: have a Snickers.” (14/4/2012) An anonymous image widely circulated online.

Muscovite American Pie Meme. (14/4/2012) An anonymous image widely circulated online.

Zhirinovsky Duma meme. (14/4/2012) An anonymous image widely circulated online.

Zhirinovsky Duma meme. (14/4/2012) An anonymous image widely circulated online.

In the first image above, Shein is implanted into a Snickers advertisement, encouraging him to break his hunger strike. In the next mockup, an advertisement for the latest American Pie film is transformed into “Astrakhanskii Pie: Reunion,” equating Muscovites’ trek to Astrakhan with a fatuous high school reunion. Finally, we find an example of a popular Zhirinovski meme. This iteration alleges that Astrakhan's protests are an import from Moscow — and that locals do not attend: “There's Navalny. There's Udaltsov and Yashin. And Sobchak is flying in, too. But where are the Astrakantsi?”

Short anecdotes have also emerged, again mocking Shein's resort to a hunger strike. VKontakte user Vasily Kamaldinov published the following joke [ru]:

“Почему Шеин голодает?” ~А Вы его фамилии наоборот прочитайте.~

“I don't get it. Why is Shein starving himself?” ~Try reading his surname backwards.~

(A note to non-Russian speakers: “Shein” read backwards is “ni esh,” or “don't eat!”)

A more active activism

All week long, Navalny traveled around Astrkahan, encouraging locals to attend the April 14 rally and tweeting pictures as he met students, civil workers, and government employees. On the day of the demonstration, opposition leaders relied on social media to mobilize and coordinate protestors after police blocked off the square originally intended for the rally.

Technology, however, is not a panacea for Astrakhan's struggling opposition. Many in the city are still strangers to Internet technology, and remain equally unaware of both the Twittersphere and the political atmosphere. Traditional outreach efforts are still underway — the mid-April events were littered with the winter's signature white ribbons, and activists enthusiastically handed out buttons and flyers. Even a local night club added to the propaganda effort (as well as the confusion), by trying to use the April 14 protest as a marketing tactic.

Protest in Astrakhan, Russia. Masks depicting Astrakhan Mayor Stoliarov and Governor Bozhenov. (14/5/2012) Photo by Rikki Brown

Protest in Astrakhan, Russia. Masks depicting Astrakhan Mayor Stoliarov and Governor Bozhenov. (14/5/2012) Photo by Rikki Brown

Protest in Astrakhan, Russia (14/5/2012) Photo by Rikki Brown

Protest in Astrakhan, Russia (14/5/2012) Photo by Rikki Brown

“He's tired! Thievery, Promises, and Lies. On May 6, the Million Man March for honest government!” in Astrakhan, Russia. (14/5/2012). Photo by Rikki Brown

“He's tired! Thievery, Promises, and Lies. On May 6, the Million Man March for honest government!” in Astrakhan, Russia. (14/5/2012). Photo by Rikki Brown

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