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This December, Russia's Kids Aren't Alright

As billions of people across the world awoke today to open gifts and be with their families, three of Russian Duma Deputy Sergei Zhelezniak's four daughters rolled out of bed to find that intimate photographs from their social network accounts had been published [ru] in a muckraking attack on their father. The man behind this effort was none other than Alexey Navalny, Russia's most famous anti-corruption netizen, and the venue was Navalny's blog on LiveJournal. The post now has over four thousand “shares” on Facebook and over three thousand retweets on Twitter.

Navalny called attention to the fact that Zhelezniak's three oldest daughters have attended or are now attending foreign universities in Switzerland and England. He also highlighted that Zhelezniak owns two expensive non-Russian cars and two large apartments. In connection with his Good Machine of Truth campaign, Navalny is releasing two versions of a flyer [ru] propagating Zhelezniak's supposedly suspect financials, as well as his public statements about the need for strict Russian patriotism.

Anastasia Zhelezniak. Screen capture from Alexey Navalny's blog attack on Sergei Zhelezniak for sending his daughters to foreign universities. 25 December 2012.

Navalny's decision to target Zhelezniak's children has split the RuNet into camps of supporters [ru] grateful for Navalny's daring and critics [ru] terrified by his audacity. Certainly, the most unsavory aspect of Navalny's attack is that he elected to include photographs of Zhelezniak's daughters, Ekaterina, Anastasia, and Liza. The photos of Anastasia, for instance, are rather risqué, despite the fact that she is underage. (Major media outlets, such as Forbes.ru, have subsequently reposted some of these photographs.) Of course, many defend Navalny, arguing that these images were available publicly, but—as blogger Maksim Kononenko points out [ru]—Navalny also posted links to the girls’ social network pages on Facebook, Vkontakte, and Lookbook. While Navalny later amended his original LiveJournal post to encourage readers to be respectful toward Zhelezniak's daughters and mindful of their youth, that he linked to their social network accounts at all indicates a rather underhanded attempt to bully Zhelezniak's family.

Zhelezniak responded within hours in a Facebook post [ru], explaining that he earned his wealth before becoming a Duma deputy, when he headed News Outdoor, an advertising agency. (Kononenko quipped that Navalny possibly bought advertising space from Zhelezniak during his public relations work for SPS in 2009.) In a somewhat disjointed reply, Zhelezniak tried to clarify his understanding of patriotism, saying that “[t]rue patriotism is realizing oneself in the country for the good of the country.” He then implied (not entirely convincingly) that his daughters have pursued educations abroad in order to serve Russia better, later in life.

Navalny's favorite (and faithful) blogger, Vladislav Naganov, immediately assaulted [ru] Zhelezniak's answer, regurgitating the main aspects of Navalny's initial work, and adding his own rejoinders to choice excerpts. Also apparently in response to backlash about the decision to post compromising photos of adolescent girls, Navalny shared [ru] on Instagram the following SMS from his wife:

Хочу вам также напомнить про Захара Навального, который в 4 года вынужден смотреть на эти мерзкие картинки у нас во дворе, и Дашу Навальную, которая не имеет возможности, в отличие от этих прекрасных девушек, завести вконтакте из-за нашистов.

I also want to remind you about Zakhar Navalny [their son], who at four-years-old has to look at these vile pictures in our courtyard [presumably NASHist graffiti? ~RuNet Echo], and Dasha Navalny [their daughter], who—unlike [Zhelezniak's] pretty girls—can't have an account on Vkontakte, thanks to the NASHists.

Naganov seemed to endorse this spirit of revenge, tweeting [ru] triumphantly:

Думаю, сегодня все депутаты-единороссы звонили своим детям и кричали в трубку: Нет времени объяснять! Удаляй все свои аккаунты в соцсетях!

I think that, today, all the United Russia deputies called up their kids and screamed into the phone: There's no time to explain! Delete all your social network accounts!

Russia's most read blogger, Rustem Adagamov, was even more succinct, tweeting [ru] simply:

Я за Дашу Навальную. А вы?

I'm for Dasha Navalny. What about you?

In a long and at times bizarre exchange, oppositionist Maria Baronova tangled with various Twitter users after she accused [ru] anyone who defended Zhelezniak against Navalny of being complicit in the imprisonment of Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina:

Хочу напомнить каждому, каждому защищающего Железняка про Геру Верзилову и Филиппа Алехина, лишенных матерей. Вы поощряете это

I want to remind everyone, everyone who defends Zhelezniak, about Gera Verzilova [Tolokonnikova's daughter] and Filipp Alekhin [Alekhina's son], who have been deprived of their mothers. You're behind this.

Sergei Zhelezniak at the 2011 RuNet Awards. 25 November 2011. Photo by Dmitry Rozhkov, CC 3.0.

Later in her conversation with Olga Shanster, Baronova actually declared [ru] that Zhelezniak's daughters are “guilty,” adding “they're even very guilty,” arguing that their failure to denounce their own father makes them culpable for his crimes.

Baronova's old boss, Duma deputy and oppositionist Ilya Ponomarev (whom many in the protest movement have condemned [ru] as a Kremlin agent), was not so eager to paint a target on the backs of Zhelezniak's girls. In a post [ru] on Facebook, Ponomarev wrote:

Всегда говорил и говорю: не надо втягивать семьи в политические разборки. […] Не надо развязывать борьбу на новом фронте, нам хватает существующих баталий. Это по меньшей мере неумно.

I've always said and I am saying now: we shouldn't drag families into political showdowns. […] We don't need to open a new front for our fight, we have no shortage of battles, as it is. At the very least, [Navalny's post] was not smart.

As with any RuNet scandal, the basic frame we apply to this Navalny-Zhelezniak confrontation says a lot about our biases. Did Russia's hero-blogger etch the latest chapter in his “speaking truth to power” epic? Or did Russia's worst mudslinger traumatize three innocent girls, in order to wound a political foe?

There is also the current context to consider: earlier this month, United Russia rammed through the Duma a draft law to ban American adoptions of Russian orphans. For weeks now, the RuNet has been ablaze with protestations and outrage about how Putin's minions have politicized the children. (Never mind the fact that Ekaterina Savina at Publicpost.ru mused [ru] just yesterday that Zhelezniak might have recently signaled [ru] on Facebook subtle reservations about implementing the legislation, if Putin signs it.) It's in this atmosphere that Navalny published photographs of three teenage girls making fools of themselves.

Is this giving United Russia a taste of its own medicine? Or was Navalny simply out of line?

  • http://twitter.com/larussophobe La Russophobe

    “Is this giving United Russia a taste of its own medicine? Or was Navalny simply out of line?” As usual, you miss the point with this question, the answer to which is “who cares.” The question that matters is whether Navalny considered the fact that he is facing not one but three pending criminal indictments, and this looks like something that could seal his fate to start cooling his heels in Siberia next to Khodorkovsky. Is he getting desperate because he has failed so miserably to lead the opposition movement against Putin? Is he just reckless? Incredibly brave? And the even more important question is, wouldn’t the movement be better off if Navalny were sent to prison? Then at last he would be removed as leader, as he should have been by his own forces long ago, and at the same time a motivational martyr would be created. The best thing Putin could do for the opposition right now might well be to send Navalny to prison for a long time.

  • H.K.

    “Здравствуй милый Лондон! Прощай добрая старая Москва!” What do they think, these “New Russians”, that they are some kind of old Russian aristocracy? Pftt..
    In their imagination only.
    But thanks Kevin for your writing – you are as informative as ever.

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