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Russia: The RuNet's Enduring Tomatoes & Tusovki

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

To a casual observer, the Russian protest movement seems current and contemporary. Undeniably, it is. The throngs of people. The charismatic young leaders and elder statesmen. The use of social media networks in their multitude to communicate, organize, and argue. The positioning of the protests within a global movement: from Occupy to Tahrir and the Arab Spring.

Amidst all the excitement, it is easy to forget that the core of the protests — the professional revolutionaries, the leaders, young and old, the activists and the reporters, the analysts and the bloggers, the Russian political tusovka and its online extension — has now existed for almost a decade. Few bloggers last this long. Certainly, the entire Internet infrastructure has changed several times over during the period. Nevertheless, the tusovka endures, perhaps due to the peculiarity of the Russian blogosphere and its longtime sequestration at LiveJournal.

That is not to say that the scene has ossified. On the contrary, relationships have changed, as have account names. Some figures lost prevalence; some have switched sides and opinions. But on the whole, the RuNet of the early oughts is a microcosm of modernity. Pick any recent protest organizer. Oleg Kashin has blogged on LiveJournal since 2002, the same as Sergei Parkhomenko. Ilya Yashin began in 2004 (and has been a promising young politician since). Alexey Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov’s wife, Anastasia, started blogging in 2006, a year after Ilya Ponomarev and Garry Kasparov.

Or pick a critic: former Natsbol and current DemVybor functionary Stas Yakovlev started writing in 2004, while the unabashedly pro-Kremlin Maksim Kononenko (formerly known as Mr. Parker) and Konstantin Rykov have been prominent bloggers for over a decade (though both have since abandoned LiveJournal).

Then, as now, they not only blogged on the same platform; they also argued and engaged each other in polemics. A snapshot taken seven years ago of these movers and shakers would today present many familiar faces and opinions (although notoriously flip-floppy Kashin has done his best to keep things interesting).

Screenshot of Andrei Morozov's LiveJournal, 18 May 2012.

Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps fitting that the man who last Sunday threw tomatoes at Ilya Yashin and journalist/writer Yulia Latynina was a man who did precisely the same thing seven years ago. Andrei Morozov (also known as “Murz,” who blogs at kenigtiger), wearing the same jacket he had on seven years earlier, approached a crowd of OccupyAbai protestors during the “Control Stroll” rally. He threw two tomatoes at the speakers (both missed), after which he was detained by the crowd, who mistook him for a Nashist. Oleg Kashin reported the small incident, lamenting a forgetful new crop of protestors.

Indeed, during the summer of 2005, Morozov gained RuNet notoriety for what he called the “Red Blitzkrieg.” It was the heady summer after the success of the Orange Revolution — the summer of Russian youth politics, and the summer of tomatoes. “Red Blitzkrieg” was what Morozov named the tiny Stalinist-nationalist group he had founded around the time, but the phrase referred more visibly to his strategy of throwing tomatoes at political and ideological opponents.

Tomato terrorism,” as Morozov jokingly called it, claimed several victims that summer. The first was Yashin, then a leader of Young Yabloko and a memeber of Oborona (a youth organization modeled on Pora and Otpor). On June 20, 2005, Oleg Kashin wrote in his blog, “Today, at Kitai-Gorod, unknown parties threw tomatoes at the Oborona picket line (the tomatoes were good and fresh).” Yashin later posted the name of the assailant, identifying him a member of Dugin’s Eurasia group.

Morozov, who spent a day under arrest for the incident, responded in his blog (vandalized and deleted in 2009; an archive exists on the alternative lj.rossia.org service), claiming full responsibility and denying membership in any political group:

And in general, dear “orangists,” get used to the fact that someone can throw a tomato at you without it being some kind of political commission, but simply from the bottom of their heart, out of aesthetic considerations.

Perhaps because of the gleeful response of Russian netizens to his actions, several days later he tomatoed (“otpomidoril”) the editor of the occasionally sensationalist newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which had published an article about World War II with which Morozov disagreed (the author controversially wrote that the USSR should have surrendered to Germany, and was “ice-creamed” by another activist on the same day). Soon after came a failed attempt (Morozov missed) of tomatoing Yulia Latynina, whose revisionism of WWII orthodoxy also angered the Red Blitzkrieg.

Ilia Yashin, a member of the Solidarity coalition, 23 November 2008, photo by Lena Lebedeva-Hooft, CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons.

In the meantime, Morozov showed up at another Oborona action, and this time gifted Yashin the tomatoes, rather than throwing them. He followed a similar strategy at a book signing by Maksim Kononenko (whose book of Putin anecdotes was published by Parkhomenko). In August came the tomatoing of the Polish embassy (a response to a scandal involving children of Russian diplomats in Poland, for which Morozov and an accomplice spent three nights in jail), and in September the tomatoing of Echo Moskvy's offices (on general principle).

Other noteworthy incidents included an October small-sword duel (described here by Morozov’s second) between Morozov and a defender of Latynina's honor (which thankfully led to no bloodshed), as well as a failed (and ill-conceived) attempt to throw mice at an opposition rally.

In 2007, Morozov did something even crazier than usual. He had always claimed that his “tomato terrorism” was equal opportunity; that rather than singling out the liberal opposition in his actions, they just happened to be in the way. And so, one cold spring night, Morozov armed himself with a sawed-off shotgun, fired it at the Moscow office of United Russia, and blogged about it. As he had also managed to hit the FSB office located in the same building, this escapade did not end well. He was sentenced to three years in prison for the shotgun, and, under Article 280 of the Criminal Code, for extremist rhetoric in his blog (becoming one of the first Russian bloggers to serve time for extremist speech).

By the time he was released in 2009, after serving eighteen months of his sentence, “Red Blitzkrieg” had fallen apart. Morozov himself states that he has quit public politics, calling it an ineffective waste, and that personal, not political, circumstances were behind his arrest. While it appears that he still has some connections to the nationalist underground, claiming membership in the so-called “Black Blitzkrieg,” he has dismissed his ‘tomato period’ as childish, which makes the May 13, 2012, incident all the more surprising.

Morozov described the impetus for his return to form in a May 12 post. “Fate itself,” he argued, brought together in one place his old opponents, Yashin and Latynina. He could “no longer stand” the concentration of “abomination” in the center of the city. ‘Action had to be taken.’

After he went to prison in 2007, Morozov fell off the RuNet radar, though he has been writing regularly since his 2009 release. Most of the protestors present at his latest action had no idea who he was. The ones who did recognize him reacted with disbelief and nostalgia. “F…, the man who threw tomatoes at Yashin was the notorious Murz? Now that's f-ing something!” tweeted Kashin. “The very same?” sentimentally asked Rykov.

There is definitely something romantic about Morozov's little acts of defiance. Of course, there are always questions. Is he a Kremlin project or his own man? Does he believe in what he says or is he just very good at “trolling”? These same questions were asked seven years ago, to no avail. Kashin later succinctly summed up the sentiment: “Today is the same day it was yesterday.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia's Protest Movement.

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