Self-proclaimed supporters of Internet freedom and the instant messenger Telegram assembled and dispersed at Sakharov Prospekt in Moscow on April 30. Organized by Russia’s Libertarian Party and the Internet Protection Society, the demonstration lasted about two hours. One volunteer organization estimates that roughly 12,000 people attended the rally. Moscow’s police department says about 7,500 turned out. Meduza reports from on the ground in Russia’s capital.
Organizers started promoting the April 30 rally ten days before it happened, and the event got publicity from Telegram channels across and beyond the political spectrum. Founded by former staff at the pro-Kremlin tabloid Life, the Telegram channel Mash even live-streamed coverage from Sakharov Prospekt. Telegram co-founder and CEO Pavel Durov also urged Russians to attend the protest, saying, “Some people will say that a demonstration won’t change anything. But that’s not so. Russia is at a crossroads, and full-fledged censorship still hasn’t been implemented. Without action, Russia will lose Telegram and other popular services. Your active participation can change the course of history.” On the evening of April 29, Telegram sent a service notification to all users in Russia, inviting them to Monday’s demonstration in Moscow.
The rally was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., though people started gathering as early as noon. Thanks to a row of public utilities trucks, access to Sakharov Prospekt was narrowed considerably, and long lines formed in front of the metal detectors through which demonstrators had to pass.
People passed out sheets of paper, which others folded into airplanes — the Telegram company logo.
“Give that back. I’ll fold it for you another way,” said a man who looked about 40.
“What’s wrong with this?” his friend asked.
“Your résistance ain’t much. That plane won’t fly anywhere,” the man answered.
Not far from this pair, a young man passionately addressed a group of older people, explaining how Telegram protects users’ correspondence. He told them that the service is actually incapable of surrendering its encryption keys because it doesn’t store them centrally. “Security? Bah! They’re using planes to bring in drugs, and now they want to snoop on our messages!” said an old man in a gray overcoat, referring to a cocaine smuggling operation that allegedly operated through Russia’s embassy in Argentina.
When the drizzle started, a young man in makeup seemed to suffer the worst. He’d given himself white cheeks and black circles around his eyes, posing as “Durov’s Dog” — a symbol Pavel Durov created as head of Vkontakte that has stuck with him and become a banner of support for Telegram. Other demonstrators soon produced an umbrella for the man. Calling himself Vladimir, he warned that “today they’ve come for Telegram, but tomorrow they’ll come for ordinary users.”
Thirty minutes before the rally got underway, the crowd waiting for the metal detectors was even denser and about 3,000 people had made it to the stage. Loudspeakers played “Momma, I'm Not Doing Nazi Salutes” by Liza Girdimova (aka Monetochka) and then “Kill the State Inside Yourself” by Yegor Letov. Some demonstrators sang along, while others went around photographing all the funny banners done in the style of the “Monstration” rally and the 2011-2012 winter protests. There were a lot of amusing signs, but the most popular one belonged to a young women in thick-rimmed glasses, who carried a piece of cardboard inscribed: “Things are so bad that even the introverts are here.”
“It’s a holiday of disobedience!” shouted someone in the crowd.
A man dressed in a formal suit carried a sign that read, “Victory will be ours!” An older woman walked up to him and asked, “Tell me, dear, victory will be whose?”
“It will come to those who are here, grandma,” the man said. “They’re all for the same thing.” Pointing to the drawings on his banner, he explained: “You see, here’s Durov’s dog. It supports the Internet. And here’s a girl. She also wants [Internet] freedom,” he added, aiming his finger at what appeared to be an anime character.
The speakers’ list featured many people who have played parts in Russia’s Internet freedom debate. The crowd heard from mathematician Dmitry Bogatov, who spent eight months in pre-trial detention on suspicion of inciting riots (though his role in the case was merely that his computer had functioned as an exit node for the Tor network). “This case is about more than Telegram, Bogatov told Meduza. “The whole Internet is suffering. The logical conclusion of what they’ve started would be white lists [of permitted websites].”
Sergey Boyko, the chairman of Russia’s Libertarian Party, led off the rally, chanting, “No to jailing people for likes and reposts!” and “State officials, get your hands off the Internet!” as well as “Dissolve Roskomnadzor!” The crowd was happy to shout along with him.
Known to many as “Tenacious Phil,” the activist Filipp Kulin also took the stage, telling the demonstrators about his work monitoring how Russia’s federal censor is blocking parts of the Internet. “While we’ve been standing here, they’ve blocked another few dozen IP addresses. I’m watching it happen in real time,” Kulin said.
Alexander Isavin, a representative for the Internet-freedom watchdog Roskomsvoboda, proclaimed, “The State Duma deputies, the prosecutors, the Federal Security Service, and Roskomnadzor are carrying out nuclear strikes on the Internet, trying to hit a little paper airplane.”
“State officials want to build two Russias,” said Mediazona chief editor, Sergey Smirnov. “They allow themselves a free Internet and foreign real estate, while everyone else is allowed nothing. And that infuriates us.”
“I was born in ‘93 — the year our country finally shook free of its Soviet past. Who here has relatives who were shot, or repressed, or exiled to Siberia? A hell of a lot of us do. So why the hell are we betraying their memory like this?” the rapper Loqiemean nearly screamed from the stage. “We’re smarter than our parents, and we’ll straighten out our country!”
Opposition activist Alexey Navalny got the loudest welcome of the day. Taking the stage, he thanked Pavel Durov for calling the rally an act of “resistance” and promoting the hashtag “#DigitalResistance.” “There’s one phrase echoing in my head constantly, every day from morning until night: I’m not going to take this anymore. I’m not going to sit by quietly. Some guys out there with big fat faces think they have the right to read everything you write on the Internet. Are you going to take that?” Navalny asked, prompting cries of “No!” from the audience.
As soon as Navalny’s speech was over, people in the crowd started heading for the exits. Now facing mostly the backs of people’s heads, the organizers thanked Pavel Durov, who wrote on his Vkontakte page: “This is unprecedented. I’m proud to have been born in the same country as these people.”
As the crowd dispersed, some demonstrators stopped to pick up paper planes that had been launched in an earlier show of solidarity and abandoned on the asphalt.