‘Am I still riling people up?’ Alexey Navalny takes the stage in Novosibirsk
Evgeny Feldman for the Navalny 2018 campaign
On September 22, opposition politician Alexey Navalny held a mass rally in Novosibirsk. For the past two weekends, the anti-corruption activist has been traveling the country, campaigning in new cities daily. Last weekend, Navalny hit Murmansk, Yekaterinburg, and Omsk. Now he’s headed to Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, and Khabarovsk. Each of his rallies attracts anywhere from a thousand to several thousand people. Local officials have been granting permits for these assemblies, albeit with various restrictions on crowd size and location. Meduza reports on Navalny’s gathering in Novosibirsk.
City officials in Novosibirsk granted Alexey Navalny’s presidential campaign a permit to hold a rally at the Ob River Embankment — about a 30-minute walk from the center of town. Mayor Anatoly Lokot, a member of the Communist Party, didn’t interfere with Navalny’s event, but the city did stage a number of public attractions throughout Novosibirsk at the same time as the campaign rally.
On September 19, the Communist Party’s regional committee (also headed by Lokot) announced a rally in support of North Korea, scheduled to begin an hour before Navalny’s demonstration at a location closer to downtown. The rally puzzled many of Novosibirsk’s politicians and public figures, insofar as local Communists have never before assembled to profess their love for the DPRK, and because one of Novosibirsk’s sister cities is Daejeon, in South Korea.
“Today the North Korean people and leadership are making every effort to protect their state from aggression by the United States of America. Novosibirsk’s Communists decisively say no to the imperialist policies of the U.S. and its threats against the people of North Korea,” an announcement for the protest read, which surprised even some members of the party’s regional committee. On September 21, Mayor Lokot told journalists that they could address any questions about the demonstration “to Mr. Trump, who has decided to escalate things so sharply.”
Also during Navalny’s rally, the movie theater “Luxor Novosibirsk” scheduled a special advanced screening of Alexey Uchitel’s controversial new film “Matilda,” which has enraged conservative Christian Orthodox activists because it depicts a love affair involving Nicholas II before he ascended to the throne. Earlier in September, however, the cinema stated that it wouldn’t show the film until October 26 at the earliest, ruling out any advanced screenings.
The Luxor is a private movie theater, but city officials directly advertised its “Matilda” pre-premiere. “Friends! I’m happy to be the first to inform you that this Friday — on September 22, a whole month before its nationwide release — Novosibirsk will screen Alexey Uchitel’s ‘Matilda’!!!” wrote Anna Tereshkova, the head of the city’s Culture Department, on her Facebook page.
“In terms of creativity, this is of course a great deal more sophisticated than a rally in support of North Korea. And it’s great that, without even becoming president, Alexey is already advancing cultural freedoms in this city,” Sergey Boiko, the head of Navalny’s regional campaign staff, told Meduza.
On the day of Navalny’s rally, dozens of local websites published stories warning that all demonstrators would be recorded and identified using the facial recognition neural network FindFace. Other articles claimed that only “0.1 percent of the city’s population” would be attending Navalny’s event. One of the city’s biggest social media groups sent a message to its more than 288,000 subscribers, warning that personal data belonging to people who attended Navalny’s rallies in Omsk and Yekaterinburg “had leaked online,” and now Novosibirsk residents risked similar unwanted exposure.
A few hours before the campaign rally was due to begin at the Ob River Embankment, a water line burst. Gushing hot water started flooding the square, and Navalny’s organizers had to call emergency responders, fearing their stage equipment would be damaged.
In the end, Navalny’s supporters nevertheless filled the square by the Alexander III monument at the Ob River Embankment. According to police, 3,500 people turned out, though the demonstration’s permit was for just 1,500.
Meticulously searching people as they arrived, police admitted Navalny’s supporters into the square through three entrance points at different sides. Officers spent a few minutes checking each individual. Behind the metal detectors (which Novosibirsk police usually do not use at public events), there were people wearing jackets with the following message printed on their backs: “Look for your photo at Jesuismaidan.com.” One of these men made a point of shouldering people, as they walked by and filled the square. The men in jackets told Meduza that they’d flown in from St. Petersburg, but refused to speak while being recorded.
“We’re participating in this country’s political life — just like you,” one of the jacketed men said.
Next, someone wearing dark clothes and a mask climbed a support beam of the first railway bridge across the Ob River (it stands at the embankment as a monument). He ignored police officers’ demands to climb down, and the officers had no ladder to go up after him. A few minutes before the rally began, he unfurled a large banner featuring a photograph of a half naked Navalny with the caption, “McTits 2018.” The masked man then tried to leap down from the support beam without being caught by the police, but officers managed to grab him, anyway. Watching the spectacle, people in the crowd shouted, “Take off the mask, you coward!” and “C’mon, everybody should know the faces of their heroes!” Officers led him to a police van, and the rally got underway, though half the audience was still beyond the police barricade, waiting to be admitted.
The first speakers to take the stage were the actress Tatyana Lazaryeva (who’s become a kind of “proxy” for Navalny) and Sergey Boiko (Navalny’s campaign manager in Novosibirsk). “They offered us Severny airport and anywhere else they could stick us that’s farther from the subway stations and bus stops. Anything to stop you from coming,” Boiko told the crowd. “We only got this square, which is far from ideal, after threatening to stage an unsanctioned rally. They’re scared of us, you see! And we got threats, too. They said: you’ll have a lot of people. They’ll crush each other, and you’ll be held responsible, and we’ll throw you in prison and fine you.”
Boiko also talked about the Communists’ North Korea rally, and the surprise “Matilda” screening, and threats that federal agents would be adding everyone to a list. “Think about it: a political party with seats in the State Duma [Russia’s Community Party] is staging a rally not for the poor souls unlucky enough to be born in North Korea, and not for the starving kids there, but for the North Korean regime. This is an excellent illustration of what we’ll be voting on, come March [when Russia’s next presidential election takes place]. We will all have to choose, and it won’t be a choice between Vova and Lyosha [Putin and Navalny], no matter how much we want that, but a choice for the future of our country. It will be a choice between Europe and North Korea,” Boiko said.
It was already dusk when Navalny took the stage, but the audience continued to grow, and the metal detectors at the police barricades still beeped incessantly.
Navalny got the crowd involved from the start: “When I read the announcements by your governor [Vladimir Gorodetsky] and your Kremlin envoy [Sergey Menyailo], it always seems like they’re asking, ‘Why is he coming here? Who wants him here anyway?’ Well what do you say, folks? Does anyone want me here?”
“Yes!’ the audience shouted back.
“They say I’m an extremist. That I rile people up. Am I still riling people up?” Navalny continued.
“Yes!” the crowd said again, but this time with a little less confidence, if not the falling intonation of a question.
Next, Navalny started laying out his local agenda, reminding his audience about a construction scandal involving a fourth bridge across the Ob River (this one will be a toll bridge). He also mentioned two new waste sorting plants created in agreements where the regional government promised to compensate investors for any lost revenue. The private partners in the deal are controlled by a company called “VIS” that’s tied to Igor Rotenberg, the director of “TEK Mosenergo” and the son of one of Vladimir Putin’s closest friends.
“Here’s a question: why Rotenberg? Why?” Navalny asked the audience.
“He’s Putin’s friend!” a man shouted from the crowd.
“And how does that even work? Why is it that one person — Putin’s childhood friend — is building just about everything? I’m not sure he’s ever been to Novosibirsk in his life. And right away with the deal signed on paper, it’s clear that they’ll steal half the money,” Navalny said.
Navalny asked the crowd about their salaries, and criticized the government for how it spends billions on questionable projects, but can’t find the half billion rubles needed for Novosibirsk’s East Bypass — a road being built with federal money, where Moscow has only supplied enough funding to complete the first stage of construction.
At the end of the rally, Navalny invited to the stage a man named Sergey, who identified himself as a member of United Russia, the country’s ruling political party. Navalny said he would be pleased to have a discussion with him (see top photo). The two men then argued about each other’s income sources: Sergey insisted that Navalny’s campaign trips are expensive, saying it is unclear where he gets the money to afford so much travel. Sergey added that United Russia owes its resources to membership dues, which he said he pays. Navalny responded by saying that United Russia receives government funds, arguing that this means the people feeding it money included the demonstrators gathered before them. Sergey then predictably began backpedaling, conceding that he actually likes some of Navalny’s ideas and subscribes to his channel on YouTube.
About 50 people showed up at the Communists’ North Korea rally, which took place under slogans like “Hands off North Korea, Yankees!” and “We’ll defend Korea like we did in 1953!” The Luxor’s screening of “Matilda” passed without incident, though a handful of Russian Orthodox activists picketed the movie theater, condemning the film as a sacrilege against the “holy martyred tsar.”