Polina Kartavenko, 18, is in a position felt by much of Russia’s youth.
“I was born and he was president. I went to school. He was president. I graduated from high school. He was president. In one year, I’m graduating from my college and he’s still president and he’s going to run for more presidential elections in the future,” she says of her president, Vladimir Putin.
“We just want to say we’re done with that.”
Since moving to Saint Petersburg from Crimea in 2018, Kartavenko said she has been to seven different protests, giving her a front-row seat to members of the Russian military beating, arresting and, in some instances, physically dragging protesters into vans. Last week, she joined thousands of Russians on the streets to demand the release of jailed political opposition leader Alexei Navalny — and for the president’s resignation.
Putin was first inaugurated as president during the year 2000. With the exception of serving as Russia’s prime minister during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency from 2008-2012, Putin has led Russia for a combined total of more than 17 years. Last July, Russia overwhelmingly approved constitutional changes that would allow Putin to remain in power until 2036.
Navalny, who heads the country’s Russia of the Future Party, was arrested on Jan. 17 in passport control after his flight from Berlin to Moscow, which Russian authorities said violated the terms of a suspended money-laundering conviction in 2014. Navalny claims the case is illegitimate.
Navalny had been in Germany recovering from a coma after being poisoned by Novichok, a fatal military-grade nerve agent. In October, he posted a video accusing Putin of ordering his poisoning and alleged that it was carried out by intelligence and federal security services. Putin denies the accusations.
According to OVD-info, an independent activist group that tracks arrests at Russian protests, at least 4,051 people have been arrested in protests supporting Navalny so far, including more than 1,400 in Moscow. Many are young people who have shown up in droves to voice their displeasure, giving the Russian government cause for concern.
Navalny has largely appealed to this demographic, criticizing Putin for years on different forms of social media. His recent video investigation into an extravagant palace Navalny claims was built for Putin on the Black Sea has garnered more than 86 million views on YouTube so far. Putin later denied owning the property.
Russian media and internet watchdog Roskomnadzor has announced fines for social media companies encouraging minors to participate.
According to the Associated Press, “the move came amid media reports of calls for demonstrations — and videos of school students replacing portraits of President Vladimir Putin in their classrooms with that of Navalny — going viral among teenagers on social network TikTok.”
In a statement released Saturday, Roskomnadzor said TikTok and Russian social network Vkontakte were the largest spreaders of these messages, claiming it had blocked 93 per cent and 87 per cent of flagged content, respectively.
“No one has the right to drag young people into various political actions and provocations,” Russia’s Education Ministry said in a statement Saturday.
But Kartavenko disagreed.
“If they can do this to (Navalny),” she says, “who’s really famous here and millions of people are watching this situation right now, what are they going to do to some citizen there who is not famous?”
Kartavenko has been living in Saint Petersburg since 2018, but she grew up in Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea. With the infamous annexation of Crimea in 2014, which has been widely viewed as illegal by Western countries and the United Nations, Kartavenko has been mostly separated from her parents. But once she left, Kartavenko said she started viewing Russia differently than how it was portrayed by state TV.
“I kept seeing my city and the entire country becoming worse and worse and worse with every year and (then I’d) see our president on TV saying, ‘we’re so great, we’re doing so good, everything is fine,'” she said.
“Nothing changes in this country. It’s like you’re waking up every day and it’s the same day and it’s just getting worse.”
Aurel Braun, an associate of Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said the anger felt by Kartavenko is consistent with public behaviour in the toppling of regimes.
“What is unusual is this kind of loss of fear on the part of the demonstrators,” he said, citing the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the peaceful Leipzig demonstrations against the German Democratic Republic between 1989 and 1991.
Braun, who also teaches at the University of Toronto, said that in both cases “the government tried to clamp down, but people were no longer afraid, despite the terrible measures that were taken against them.”
“We see signs of that in Russia — this loss of fear — and that is when dramatic change can take place.”
For the most part, Putin has governed Russia with an iron fist. In Russia, there is a zero-tolerance policy for dissent. Unsanctioned protests have been banned and are punishable with fines or jail time. Braun noted this level of crackdown is also consistent with regimes trying to keep control over a population.
A display of force is important, he said, because it shows that “no one is absolutely safe” if they cross Putin.
“There were protests before in Russia and what they showed was that Putin intends to stay in power, that he is willing to use very harsh measures to suppress protest, that he’s willing to go to truly extreme measures,” he said.
Braun remarked on the killing of Boris Nemtsov, a top political opponent who was fatally shot near the Kremlin in 2015. Five men were found guilty for Nemtsov’s assassination in 2017, but according to his eldest daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, “the case remains unsolved.”
Achieving systemic change is hardly simple in Russia.
“There have been a lot of protest waves over the years that sometimes have led to some policy reforms in response, but have never led to the downfall of the government or anything,” Lisa Sundstrom, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, told Global News.
While it is unclear what change, if any, these protests will bring, Sundstrom, who specializes in Russian politics and the Soviet Union, said the protests could be viewed as a sign of tides shifting: “lighting the match that’s in the middle of the rubble pile.”
“There’s a huge wave of it going on right now, which I think is a sign that the leadership in the government is very worried that society right now is so disgruntled from the economy and from things like the Navalny scandals that it’s like a tinder box,” she said.
“They just want to prevent anyone who’s likely to be able to organize a lot of opposition protests from doing so in an organized manner.”
For Sundstrom, one thing is clear though: the situation in Russia is “terrible. And it’s getting worse, progressively worse.”