Navalny vs. Putin: The Next Round

Alexei Navalny has been getting under Putin’s skin for a long time, and recently things came to a head.  In January 2021, the Navalny Channel on YouTube featured the protest film, Dvorets dlya Putina: Istoriya Samoy Bol’shoy Bzyatki (Putin’s Palace: History of the World’s Biggest Bribe), an immensely popular exposé since viewed 113,654,953 times.

To counter the notable lack of reporting by the Russian press on Navalny’s mistreatment at the hands of the Putin regime, the film begins with this précis:  “In August 2020, on the order of Vladimir Putin, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok chemical warfare agent.  He survived, came back to Russia, and was arrested right at the airport.  On January 18, 2021, the court unlawfully arrested Alexey Navalny and sent him to Matrosskaya Tishina Prison.”  An invitation to protest followed:  “For many years, Navalny has been fighting for our rights.  Now, it’s time for us to fight for him.  On January 23, at 14:00, take to the main streets of your cities.  Don’t stand on the sidelines.”  Marches to protest Navalny’s wrongful poisoning, arrest, and imprisonment would indeed be held by his supporters on Saturday January 23, all over Russia.  One pollster estimated the crowd in Moscow alone to number 35,000.

Next, Navalny himself appears saying, “Hi, Navalny here.  We came up with this investigation when I was in intensive care, but we immediately agreed that we would release it when I returned home, to Russia, to Moscow, because we do not want the main character of this film to think that we are afraid of him so that I would tell about his worst secret while I was abroad.  One of the most devoted admirers of our work, the same one on whose orders I was poisoned, is Vladimir Putin.  He is definitely watching this now, and his heart is filling with nostalgia.”  Navalny proceeds to take a trip through Putin’s past, beginning at the building on Radeberger Strasse in Dresden where the early corruption schemes of then-KGB agent Vladimir Putin and his cronies were conceived, “by those who would later arrange the biggest robbery in the history of Russia -- simply, to steal all the national wealth.”  Navalny illustrates this point using material from Putin’s actual case file from Germany’s Stasi archives.

The rest of the film consists of a flyover of Putin’s pleasure palace in Krasnodar Krai, accomplished by launching a drone from a boat offshore to film the “legendary footage” of the edifice, a massive, 190,424 square foot castle on a promontory in Gelendzhik, near Sochi overlooking the Black Sea.  Navalny also homes in on numerous tarps and plywood and other humiliating proof that the building was badly constructed, leading to mold, leaky ceilings, and other problems.  “They literally threw billions into the trash and have now started over.”

For all of the above reasons, Putin has been livid and intent on some sort of retaliation.  In early February, videos in support of Putin suddenly began appearing on social networks.  The footage was shot in numerous regions as instructed by the presidential administration and as organized by Putin’s political party United Russia.

The sites for these videos were carefully chosen.  One location was Barnaul, a city in Siberia where their  pro-Navalny protest on January 23 is said to have been the city’s largest political rally in 15 years.  The Instagram video supposedly showed an “All-Russian Flash Mob in Support of Putin!”  The “flash mob” in question consisted of young workers of the Barnaul ATI chemical plant in matching bright blue overalls and face masks, standing at attention and waving Russian flags. Another supposed “rally for Putin,” this time of state employees and schoolchildren, was assembled to shoot a video in Volgograd.  Both groups had been told they were to be part of a music video for the Russian rock group Lyube (IPA).  They were not demonstrating for Putin, who was not even mentioned.

The students of Kutafin Moscow State Law University (MSLA) were invited to participate in a flash mob in support of Russia “as a leader in the fight against COVID” on February 5, promised that the video would be shown on the internet and on TV, and that each participant would be awarded a letter of thanks before the State Duma legislature.  According to the students who participated, shooting took place in a Moscow hotel.  They were asked to wave flags while reading the following text from a teleprompter:  “We have one president.  We will defeat the virus with him.  We have one president.  Together, we will win.  Vladimir Vladimirovich, we are with you!  Putin is our president!”  The Dozhd television channel published a photograph of the teleprompt slide.  An MSLA graduate revealed that some students refused to participate but would not speak with the reporter directly for fear of sanctions from the university.  They claim that the school administration was unaware that students were “deceived by the organizers from the State Duma.”

A third film clip was taken at Belgorod’s Institute of Arts and Culture (BGIIK).  The BGIIK students were asked merely to “dance with Russian flags to record a patriotic video.”  Later they were shocked to see their dance on Instagram with the hashtag #PutinNashPresident (#PutinOurPresident).  According to the students, a song praising Putin followed by youthful voices, shouting “Putin is our president!” and “Vladimir Vladimirovich, we are with you!” were dubbed in.  According to the students, they said no such things.  The incident led to a scandal.  Their parents complained that their children had not been warned that the video was being staged to show support for the president, and that they had not shouted the words in the video.  On February 8, the local newspaper Belgorod No. 1 published a transcript of a conversation in which the BGIIK Vice-Rector Natalya Baranichenko and Rector Sergei Kurgan apologized to the students.  Baranichenko, who had organized the filming, was made to resign.  She has not worked at BGIIK since February 10 and the leadership page on the BGIIK website no longer mentions the former vice-rector.

This pathetic ruse on the part of Putin, his administration, and United Russia serves only to demonstrate the popularity gap between Navalny and Putin -- one, inspiring tens of thousands of ordinary Russians to risk arrest and take to the streets, and the other, reduced to fabricating bogus “rallies” of supposed “supporters” in lieu of same.

Lynn Corum is a translator of Russian who studies developments in the Russian press that affect America’s national interests.  She has been researching and writing on Putin’s stated plans since 2009, and is a world expert on Project Russia, the Kremlin’s published state ideology.

Image: Mitya Aleshkovsky