Polite police and disorderly demonstrators How Russian television networks and national news agencies reported Alexey Navalny’s January 31 opposition protests
On January 31, in the wake of a second round of nationwide protests demanding the release of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny, Russian state television networks and news agencies reported a “dramatic decline” in attendance at rallies and aired footage from demonstrations in cities that typically draw small crowds or failed to mobilize for Sunday’s events. “It’s fizzled out,” declared Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the Kremlin’s most prominent TV propagandists. State networks and news agencies offered no explanation, however, for how such supposedly piddling turnout resulted in more than 5,600 arrests on Sunday — a single-day record for the opposition.
On the show “Itogi Nedeli” (Weekly Review), host Irada Zeinalova accused protest organizers of inciting people into the streets in an effort to “make public gatherings the new rule.” She stressed that the state authorities can’t allow such a thing, though “they are open to dialogue,” she said. Most of the broadcast featured footage of demonstrators clashing with police officers, followed by videos of some activists later apologizing for their actions.
“The number of people who want to join the protests has declined sharply. In Blagoveshchensk, there were only a pair of police cars, and there was just a one-person picket in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk,” Zeinalova told viewers, showing scenes from poorly attended rallies in Russia’s Far East. Meanwhile, NTV aired no footage from the bigger rallies in Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, and totally ignored Sunday’s massive protest in St. Petersburg.
Turning to Moscow, Zeinalova’s program showed footage from Sukharevskaya Square at the very start of the demonstrations. Addressing the massive police presence in the capital on Sunday, the show told viewers: “In other locations, the police made sure that protesters didn’t block traffic.” There was no mention of officers using tear gas and tasers against demonstrators in St. Petersburg. NTV did, however, remind viewers about new felony charges against Alexey Navalny’s chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, for “recruiting minors for unlawful assemblies.”
“A nothing burger” — that’s how pundit Dmitry Kiselyov summed up Sunday’s protests, after describing the response from law enforcement a week earlier as “perfection.” After all, police had not resorted to water cannons, like in the Netherlands during demonstrations against pandemic lockdown restrictions, or rubber bullets, like in France against the “Yellow Vest” activists.
Introducing his segment about the protests, Kiselyov spoke so dismissively that some viewers may have wondered why he bothered to discuss them at all: “The [January 31] rallies drew several times fewer people, totally fizzled out, the deception became obvious, and the authorities’ decisive actions were effective against offenders.”
Kiselyov’s program declared the day’s demonstrations a “complete failure” and aired some of the same footage that appeared on NTV showing largely empty squares in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Blagoveshchensk, and Birobidzhan. There were also images of “courteous policemen” in Khabarovsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, showing how they informed small groups of protesters that their public assembly was unpermitted.
Instead of showing the large crowd that gathered in Novosibirsk, Rossiya 1 featured comments from a single enthusiastic anarchist. Then there was a segment about “apathy in Vyborg” — a report from a sleepy town outside St. Petersburg, miles from major protest activity. Turning to Yaroslavl, where a demonstrator was arrested with an ax, Rossiya 1’s narrator warned that some activists “came prepared.”
Unlike Irada Zeinalova on NTV, Dmitry Kiselyov did include some scenes from St. Petersburg, airing footage recorded outside Mariinsky Palace — one of Sunday’s rallying points for demonstrators. Just a few hundred people attended the protest, viewers were told, though the footage itself clearly showed several thousand people in attendance. Rossiya 1 even broadcast a video showing a police officer in St. Petersburg brandishing his pistol at a group of protesters, but Kiselyov’s correspondent explained the incident as the result of an attempt by several “aggressive demonstrators” to free detainees from police custody.
The opposition was apparently in a festive spirit on Sunday, according to Kiselyov’s show. “It’s not immediately apparent that this is a protest; everyone is having fun and hooting and hollering,” says the narrator, though audible chants of “Russia without Putin!” and a demonstrator who says, “He stole my whole childhood” somewhat dampen this mood.
Viewers learned that some people during the protests attacked others and a few particularly “deranged” individuals deliberately frightened families passing by. Members of law enforcement, on the other hand, were courteous and careful. “The police looked after the detainees,” said an anchor narrating footage from the capital showing an officer retrieving a dropped pair of headphones for an arrested protester.
Judging by the footage from Moscow that Kiselyov chose to air on his show, it’s apparent that his editors chose images that make it hard to judge the crowd’s actual size, though it’s clear at certain moments during the segment that thousands of people attended the demonstrations. Ending the report from the capital, Rossiya 1 cites official estimates by the police that “no more than 2,000 people” protested in Moscow on Sunday, before repeating Kisleyov’s claim that “many times fewer” activists turned out than on January 23.
The evening news program “Vremya” recycled many of the same themes aired on NTV and Rossiya 1, including some identical footage (like the interview with the young anarchist in Novosibirsk). Pervyi Kanal also showed some scenes from the protest in Novosibirsk, selecting videos that depicted only scattered parts of the main crowd.
“The police [in Krasnoyarsk] arrested the offenders, but also tried to help them,” explained the show’s narrator, describing how officers escorted protesters into a police van “so they could warm up” and take refuge from the subzero temperatures outside.
Pervyi Kanal’s reporters said some protesters “openly provoked” members of law enforcement in St. Petersburg, but riot police “never wavered” and officers quickly arrested the “most active perpetrators.” The network didn’t mention any estimates about how many people demonstrated in the city.
Sunday evening’s Vremya broadcast also featured a young protester with a bandaged head in a segment suggesting that the activists who reported police abuse actually staged their injuries. “What liquid covers this person’s head is an open question,” says the show’s narrator, before an older woman appears on screen claiming that the young man “is lying” about being beaten by police officers.
The program concluded with the following summary of Sunday’s demonstration in Moscow: “The [opposition’s] supporters were fewer [than a week ago] and several minors were spotted among them.” The police officers who responded to the unpermitted rally, meanwhile, were “as courteous as possible.”
The state news agency RIA Novosti devoted the most attention to Sunday’s protests. In an op-ed, titled “Navalny Has Killed the Protest [Movement],” Irina Alksnis says, “Alexey Navalny and his organization are collapsing before our eyes, losing the last remnants of their reputation and social influence. Today’s events with their significantly reduced attendance (perhaps by an order of magnitude)....”
Much of RIA Novosti’s coverage of Moscow’s protests was devoted to the noble actions of police officers, with headlines like “Police in Moscow Help Man Who Becomes Ill in Stromynka District” and “Riot Police in Moscow Help Lift Wheelchair Up Ramp.” The news agency did report the use of tasers against demonstrators, but only as unconfirmed information that needed further verification.
In its evening news summary, the state outlet TASS emphasized that Sunday’s nationwide protests drew fewer people than rallies a week earlier.
Interfax — a nonstate outlet that completes Russia’s trinity of major news outlets — didn’t claim outright that Sunday’s demonstrations attracted fewer protesters, but it did report the crowd size estimates released by the police.
Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal censor, responded to the demonstrations on January 31 more aggressively than it did a week earlier, warning news outlets and bloggers at the day’s outset that anyone responsible for “disseminating fakes about unpermitted rallies” could face fines as high as 4 million rubles ($52,600) and be blocked immediately. Officials explicitly cautioned Internet users and journalists against sharing “false information with inflated figures about the number of people joining illegal rallies, and about alleged violence and clashes or supposed deaths of demonstrators.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock