On Feb. 3, an influx of young Russians flooded my Instagram inbox and followers list. Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, had just reposted my recent Instagram story: a photo of Navalny in court, holding up his hands to form the shape of a heart, which had made the cover of The Wall Street Journal.
My family emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in the 1990s, when I was 13 years old, but I couldn’t recall meeting Russian teenagers and young people quite like them before: an entire generation who grew up under Putin’s reign. Across their social media pages on Instagram and TikTok, they come across as purposeful, bold and creative. They made political videos on TikTok and Instagram. Some of them identified as feminists, vegan activists, dancers, musicians, and aspiring lawyers. They seemed to march to the beat of a different drum, sharing a set of universal values that differed from that of their parents and grandparents. It was like they were visitors from another planet.
When Navalny flew back to Moscow on Jan. 17 and was swiftly detained, his team was able to mobilize thousands of people in cities across Russia’s 11 time zones. After the Russian court sentenced Navalny to two and a half years’ imprisonment, his supporters continued to protest in the streets. Videos shared on social media showed teenagers tearing up Putin’s portraits in schools and replacing them with photos of Navalny.
On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, Navalny’s team held a campaign they called “Love Is Stronger than Fear,” inspired by Navalny’s gesture to his wife in court. “We’re calling on all residents of the big Russian cities to do one some simple thing on February 14, 8pm,” Navalny’s team wrote. “Go outside and turn on the flash on your phone, lift it up and stand there for a few minutes.”
On Sunday, there were several protests, mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg where a few hundred women gathered in solidarity with Navalny’s wife Yulia, according to AFP. Separately, “tens of thousands” of people answered Navalny’s call for the Valentine’s Day campaign, braving winter temperatures and going outside with flashlights for symbolic vigils in “hundreds of courtyards” across the country, according to estimates from Navalny's team.
This time, the turnout was smaller and more peaceful, without the violent clashes with police and mass detentions that characterized the pro-Navalny protests last month. Instead, the government’s response moved behind the scenes, focusing on pressuring social media platforms and taking measures 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 taking a picture of himself indoors wearing protective equipment, Meduza reported.
Even before Sunday’s events, many young people expressed skepticism about the long-term impact of this new wave of protests. Aram Badalyan, a 25-year-old indie folk musician based in Krasnodar, southern Russia—the region where Putin’s alleged palace is located—calls the protests “toothless.” Navalny’s investigation and the burst of political activism he saw 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 supporters. “He is persistent, courageous and brave. Bravery is a rarity in Russia.”
This is the type of grassroots mobilization that has set Navalny apart from other opposition leaders and allowed him to connect with this new generation through social media, like in this TikTok video where he shows off his investigation of his own poisoning. From providing copies of flyers to put up in their neighborhoods in a Google drive to continuing to post investigative videos even while Navalny is in prison—his team is teaching this new generation a new methodology of protesting and political activism.
“Navalny’s offering instruments, protests for examples, where others opposition members can show up and unite for common goals,” says 23-year-old, St. Petersburg-based Nikolai, who spoke with The Daily Beast under a pseudonym. “For me Navalny is also about the people he gathered around him, people who are fighting the system and are helping others.”
Navalny’s anti-corruption activities have not only educated this new generation about the state of affairs in their country, but it has 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 years old, an aspiring lawyer, who is counting the months until she officially becomes “an adult” in Russia. “I plan to apply to law school, I would like to help people,” she says. “I love Russia, but I’m 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, noted that Putin’s response to Navalny’s latest investigation into the president’s alleged palace showed the disconnect between the ruling regime and this new generation. This almost two-hour investigation into an imperial-style palace in southern Russia received over 112 million views within a month. Putin has dismissed the video as boring, calling it a “montage,” and claiming that “nothing that is listed there as my property belongs to me or my close relatives, and never did.” Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov continued to deny any ownership.
Khodorkovsky called Putin’s response to the viral video more shocking than the investigation itself. “It’s a joke,” he said. “It’s natural that the young generation wants something different. The government can listen to them. But for this you need institutions in which you set up rules, and the young people live their lives within the framework. But our government doesn’t want to set up frameworks. They want to rule it all in order to remain in power.”
A Levada Center opinion poll showed a quarter of Russians had seen the palace video, and that younger people, aged 18-24, absorbed it the most. According to the poll, 37 percent of the younger age group had seen it, more than any other group.
Putin’s first public response to Navalny’s viral investigation into Putin’s reported palace in southern Russia was mocked widely on social media. One TikTok video showed Putin speaking from a deep purple “hookah” room that showed a metal pole in the middle of the room as he explained that there were no documents linking him to the palace.
The Kremlin’s response has included a range of denials of any connections to the palace, heavy-handed mass detainment, and more tech-savvy measures to detain participants before the protests using facial recognition technology. But the primary focus of the government's response has been to crack down on social media sites that enable information sharing, mobilization, and political engagement.
Following the first wave of protests, Russian media censorship agency Roskomnadzor zeroed in on the most popular social media agencies, even ordering them to remove protest-related materials. On Jan. 29, Roskomnadzor called in representatives of TikTok, Facebook, Telegram and VKontakte, arguing that it was their responsibility to remove posts that encourage participation in "unsanctioned events,” according to the agency’s statement. The agency also ordered several media outlets to delete reports on the Valentine’s Day protest.
To be sure, these young people are only a fraction of the Russian opposition and Navalny himself doesn’t share all of their values. The majority of Russians still get their news from traditional news media, which is more loyal to the Kremlin. But in this moment—after Navalny’s latest poisoning attempt, recovery, return from Germany and hasty sentencing in Moscow—he is the one who is uniting Russia’s opposition, including this younger generation who can only remember a Russia under Putin.
Navalny was able to capture their imagination and the government’s response was swift. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs even opened an official TikTok account in early February, dedicating the first two posts to Navalny. For some of his supporters, what resonates the most about Navalny is that he is providing a tent for the opposition, providing them with tools, and educating them about how to make their voices heard: through social media activism, video and protests on the street. And they’re continuing to listen and take notes, even with Navalny behind bars.
Nikolai says he plans to continue to participate in protests despite his detainment. “I think the protest movement will continue, but will take different forms, not just going to specific streets at a specific time,” he says. “I see the future of Russia as democratic, free, with respect to the rule of law and each other. The new generation is less susceptible to state propaganda.”
“If the ruling order remains the same, we’re not going to see anything improve.” Shipilova tells The Daily Beast. She worries that serving a prison sentence will impact Navalny’s chances to run for office again. “I hope that our country will get better and we’ll have laws that are important and needed.”
Even Alexei Navalny’s tone took on a more somber, pensive tone following the Valentine’s Day events. He was sentenced to almost three years in prison. “The prison is in your head,” he wrote in a recent Instagram post, proceeding to compare his prison cell and conditions to flying a spaceship. “At this moment, I understand that I’m on a space journey, flying towards a beautiful new world.”