BLM à la russe Russian libertarians want a localized movement against police brutality and now they’ve got a hashtag all their own
Following the killing of a man in Yekaterinburg by National Guard officers, Russian libertarian activists have mobilized a new campaign against police brutality using the English-language slogan “Russian Lives Matter” — a phrase deliberately modeled on “Black Lives Matter,” the movement against violence and systemic racism towards black people that began in the United States. Meduza looks at the incident that sparked this idea and how it’s reverbated so far in Russia.
On Twitter, the hashtag #RussianLivesMatter gained momentum after Libertarian Party member and “Civil Society” movement head Mikhail Svetov added the slogan to a tweet on June 1 about the killing of a man in Yekaterinburg. Another libertarian activist named Ivan Chinarov then published a thread of tweets about detainees in jails and prisons across Russia who have been tortured at the hands of police and guards. By the morning of June 2, #RussianLivesMatter was the top trending hashtag on Twitter in Russia.
Eager to seize the energy generated online, Svetov’s Civil Society movement organized picketing against police brutality outside Moscow’s city police department on June 2, leading to nearly two dozen arrests. Demonstrators came with signs like “Who will stop the killers if they’re wearing badges?” and “My police are killing me.”
What happened in Yekaterinburg?
The killing that sparked Svetov’s tweets occurred in Yekaterinburg on May 31. According to the local news websites E1.ru and Komsomolskaya Pravda Yekaterinburg, the man stole four rolls of wallpaper worth 8,000 rubles ($115) from a store. Employees say they tried to catch up with the man, but he allegedly threatened them with a knife. The police later identified the man and went to his home, where he refused to open the door.
For several hours, officers tried to arrest the suspect, even enlisting the man’s father for help, but the man responded by spraying mace in a police officer’s face. A National Guard SWAT team later arrived at the scene and stormed the apartment around midnight. The man allegedly armed himself with a knife and automatic weapon and started shooting at the officers, who returned fire and killed him. Forensics experts then searched the home and found two knives, a crossbow, a pepper-spray canister, and an object that resembles an automatic weapon. Officials have launched a robbery investigation.
The Russian media isn’t reporting the man’s full name, but he’s been identified as “Vladimir T.” His father, Anatoly, offered a different version of events in comments to E1.ru, saying that his son assured him that he paid for the wallpaper and never threatened the store’s staff with a knife. He apparently refused to open the door for the police because he feared going to prison. When his apartment was raided, Vladimir was in the hallway with a knife supposedly to cut the wallpaper he’d brought home. His father says he was in another room when he heard the gunfire. SWAT officers told Anatoly that his son had attacked them with pepper spray.
“He didn’t shoot. He just sprayed them — that’s it. And so what? If somebody bursts in through your front door… You can guess my state right now. It was self-defense!” says Vladimir’s father.
According to the website 66.ru, Vladimir was 27 years old. Neighbors in his apartment building described him as an upstanding and quiet young man. His father told Komsomolskaya Pravda Yekaterinburg that his son lived alone and earned money online. He says he doesn’t know how exactly his son made a living, but he maintains that it was perfectly legal with decent income.
“My son is no criminal! He never stole anything in his life. And they put three bullets in him! [...] They could have pinned him down and taken him to the station without killing him,” Anatoly told reporters. “Pepper spraying from his apartment was against the law, of course, but you don’t need to kill him for that. Why did they do all this?!” Vladimir’s mother asked journalists.
What are people saying with this hashtag?
The “Russian Lives Matter” movement (all two days of it) is ostensibly an effort by Russian opposition activists to localize a campaign against police brutality that began in America. Libertarian activists who use this phrase on social media, however, have often deployed the slogan not to suggest that Russians are joining a global struggle, but that Russians should dismiss concerns and unrest in the United States and focus instead on injustices at home.
Comments online feature a mix of disdain for foreign social justice campaigns and frustration that Russians have failed to mobilize against their own problems with violent law enforcement. “I don’t give a damn about kids starving in Africa when Russian children are starving in Vologda. I don’t give a damn about Syria when they’re bombing Voronezh and the Donbas. I don’t give a damn about blacks in America when they’re lynching Russians in Yekaterinburg,” tweeted one young man in Moscow, adding the #RussianLivesMatter hashtag.
A woman also using the hashtag wrote, “Everyone’s gone nuts with hatred for the cops in the States, but they’ve managed to close their eyes to the fact that Russian National Guardsmen right here at home can’t really explain the murder of a person ‘for stealing four rolls of wallpaper.’ In his own home.”
Others tweeting the hashtag shared photos from opposition demonstrations in Moscow last summer, where riot police resorted to force when dispersing peaceful protesters. “These people didn’t hurt a single police officer and didn’t break one window. It’s just that some people think a Russian deserves only a cop’s boot to his face,” tweeted one account, sharing photographs of demonstrators injured by the police.
Others promoting the hashtag on Twitter have argued that Russians’ lives are devalued broadly, beyond police brutality, due to law enforcement’s general unresponsiveness and the threat of random criminal prosecution. Once again, activists often express these ideas with dismissive comments about the BLM movement, tweeting things like “the lawlessness from the police and the authorities in Russia is far worse [than in the U.S.].”
The linguistic aspect
The phrase “Russian Lives Matter” has unique baggage in the Russian language, where “Russian” can be translated as either “russkie” or “rossiyane.” The former word typically has ethnic connotations, meaning that it applies exclusively to white ethnic Russians, whereas the latter term is used less colloquially to refer to all people and peoples residing in the Russian Federation.
Mikhail Svetov, the libertarian activist spearheading the Russian Lives Matter campaign, has insisted on using the word russkie, tweeting statements like “How did it come to be that it’s safer for blacks in the USA than Russians [russkie] in Russia?”
Svetov has also sparred with Novaya Gazeta, which reported on Tuesday’s rally outside the Moscow police department. In a special “explanation,” the newspaper clarified that it “does not support Mikhail Svetov’s nationalistic rhetoric” and understands “Russian Lives Matter” to be a protest against brutality directed at all Russian citizens (rossiyane). Svetov mocked the statement and implied in subsequent tweets that the word “russkie” is sufficiently inclusive, insofar as famously non-ethnic Russian historical figures like the poets Alexander Pushkin and Joseph Brodsky, General Pyotr Bagration, and lexicographer Vladimir Dal all self-identified as russkie.
What the National Guard says about the death in Yekaterinburg
Spokespeople for the National Guard didn’t comment on the death of the robbery suspect in Yekaterinburg until June 2, when the agency revealed that the man in question had previously been convicted of drug trafficking.
According to the National Guard, police officers tried to negotiate with the suspect through his father, but the father entered the man’s apartment and stopped responding to officers, “which in that extreme situation could have indicated the occurrence of another crime and raised concerns.” As a result, a SWAT team decided to storm the suspect’s home.
“When special forces entered the apartment, the suspect was holding an object that looked like an automatic weapon, pointing it at them, issuing threats to the officers and behaving aggressively. As a result, under those circumstances, they perceived his actions as a truly dangerous situation and decided to open fire,” officials told E1.ru. Regional state investigators subsequently announced that they will review the man’s death.
What the Kremlin says about all this
On June 2, journalists asked Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov about the killing in Yekaterinburg and the #RussianLivesMatter hashtag. Peskov told reporters that he was unaware of the incident in Yekaterinburg and stated that civil unrest in the United States has no connection to events in Russia. “The abuse of authority by police officers is an area strictly regulated by statutes in force and procedural regulations. But I cannot agree with you that this issue is especially acute in our country. And thank God, it isn’t,” Peskov said.