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‘We’re not dissidents — we’re fighting for a majority’ Alexey Navalny’s chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, lauds last weekend’s protests as a ‘triumph over fear’ and as a sign of things to come in Russia
How big are the nationwide demonstrations led by Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny’s team? Did the turnout on Saturday, January 23, match expectations? Will Team Navalny drop another investigative bombshell before the next round of protests on Sunday, January 31? Meduza spoke to Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, for answers to these questions and more.
The protests on Saturday were powerful. We expected as much after seeing [“Putin’s Palace”] get so many views. We understood that people’s reactions to all that has happened around Alexey Navalny have been building. Even so, the scale of the protests was spectacular.
First, the [demonstrations’] geography both in Russia and abroad was the most striking. We’ve definitely never seen anything like the rallies held outside Russia. There were multiple cities — Berlin, Tel Aviv, London — where the turnout was several thousand. That’s unprecedented. Inside Russia, we know of 150 cities that held rallies and marches.
Some of the places where this happened are totally surprising — you’d never expect protests to happen there. We’d prepared for demonstrations in the 40 cities where we have campaign offices, but the rallies spread far wider, exceeding our expectations. The turnout figures nationwide were also impressive. I stand by my estimate of about 300,000 people. And that number could turn out to be even higher as we learn about more and more towns where people turned out. Of course, that’s a lot more than in 2017 [when Navalny’s team organized large anti-corruption protests against then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, following another major investigative report]. And it’s more than in 2011 [when large crowds protested against parliamentary election results].
In terms of age groups, there weren’t any surprises. We know our audience well. We’re well aware that our average [YouTube] viewer is between 25 and 30 years old, and these people comprised the core age group [at the protests]. But the demonstrations’ geography and demography were also incredibly broad. We actually saw people ranging from high school students to retirees, in cities both big and small.
Our movement has broken free from the old stereotypes. This isn’t just a bunch of Moscow hipsters or something limited to the middle class in big cities. And I hope it never returns to that. This is a true nationwide initiative that brings together a wide variety of people. And we’re vying for a majority of all Russians. We’re not dissidents or marginals; we’re not fighting for some two percent or even 20 percent [in elections]. We’re fighting for the political majority, and these demonstrations clearly demonstrated that.
All that the state can do is deal in terror and provoke fear with threats, arrests, and criminal charges. But we are witness to 300,000 individual victories over terror. That’s very cool. It’s a lot of people. And it’s entirely clear that our numbers would be 10 times higher without the [state’s] campaign of fear and terror. We see this in the ratio of [YouTube] views to [protest] attendance, as well as in the ratios of [online] registration for [protest] attendance.
If we look back to the 2011 demonstrations “For Fair Elections,” 40,000 people registered on Facebook and the same number of people showed up at Bolotnaya Square. Last Saturday, the sociologist [Alexey] Zakharov was at the rally in Moscow, asking people if they’d registered on Facebook, and only one in 12 of everyone there said they’d RSVP’d. About 5,000 had registered online, which means roughly 60,000 came [5,000 x 12]. This shows that people are afraid [to RSVP online].
The marches are another story. Take what happened in Omsk, for example, which I quite liked. About 5,000 people took part, but the live-stream drew in 500,000 views.
Of course, national broadcasts like the streams from Dozhd and Navalny Live probably attracted people from around the country, complicating any conclusions we might reach based on the online audience. But recall the numbers for the first nationwide live-streams from protests against Medvedev [in 2017], when there were almost 4 million views. Now our broadcasts together with Dozhd attract more than 20 million views.
Coming back to last weekend in Omsk: there weren’t likely many people outside the city who bothered to tune in. In other words, you’ve got half a million people [in Omsk] watching 5,000 people marching through the streets. That means everyone knows about it and everybody is following it, but not everyone can overcome their fear, which is perfectly natural and completely understandable. I’m not going to judge anyone for that. But this does show just how much potential these protests would have if the [authorities] didn’t bash people into the pavement.
Do we expect a new wave of lawsuits and felony charges? It’s already on its way. We will certainly be helping everyone together with [the international advocacy groups] “Agora” and “Apologiya Protesta.” Our lawyers are on the job. We’ll be compensating people for fines, helping to bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights, and helping people win those lawsuits.
Felony charges are more complicated. It’s unfortunate that some [demonstrators] lost control and attacked the riot police, regardless of whatever appalling injustice or unwarranted brutality that particular officer inflicted on others. We warned people many times: “They’ll hit you and there will be no consequences for them, but you’ll be locked up if you hit them, and there will be nothing anyone can do about it.” Unfortunately, these incidents happened anyway, and it’s very sad. But we’ll also try to help [in these cases] in any way we can.
The main outcome of Saturday’s demonstrations is a victory over fear. We’ll continue next weekend, releasing details soon.
Are there any new investigations or documentary films in the works? I’m not aware of any. As always, our investigative department operates entirely separately from our political team.
Translation by Peter Bertero
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