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Behind the scenes of a propaganda campaign How Russian federal investigators are fighting Navalny’s movement in classrooms and on social media

Source: Meduza
Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee / YouTube

For years, Russian officials and the Kremlin’s advocates in the media have accused Alexey Navalny and his activists of deliberately recruiting minors for protests against the government. These allegations are mainly a response to the Navalny movement’s reliance on social media for public outreach, as well as the fact that his message apparently resonates better with younger audiences. For all their complaints about how Navalny “politicizes the youth,” Russia’s state authorities have actually engaged students across the country far more aggressively.

On February 3, 2021, for example, the Federal Investigative Committee published a 17-minute video on its YouTube channel, titled “Behind the Scenes of the Protest,” devoted entirely to demonizing unpermitted demonstrations on January 23 and 31 (when activists demanded Navalny’s release from prison). Meduza looks behind the scenes of the Investigative Committee’s new anti-Navalny campaign.

The video itself features a collection of supposed footage from Moscow’s January protests, mixed with apologies from arrested demonstrators and commentary from a handful of experts, including Maria Kiselyova, the director of the Sechenov State Medical University’s Psychological and Social Work Institute. Kiselyova, it so happens, is also the wife of Dmitry Kiselyov, perhaps Russia’s most prominent pro-Kremlin pundit and media executive.

Throughout the video, the narrator and experts repeatedly claim that teenagers are gullible and vulnerable to manipulation, especially on the platform TikTok, which Kiselyova describes as a “recruiting office” that lures adolescents using methods similar to “subliminal advertising.” The Investigative Committee’s video also features hidden-camera footage released by the state television network Russia Today showing Vladimir Ashurkov, one of Navalny’s close associates, apparently meeting in private with British diplomats. 

A series of media outlets has labored to promote the Investigative Committee’s video. After the short film appeared on the agency’s official YouTube channel, other Internet users subscribed to various state and pro-Kremlin publications started sharing it on their own platforms. 

The video also spread to online accounts operated by communities related to Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, far-right “NOD” activists, youth rights committees, local police departments, and regional human rights commissions. Even some city libraries and institutions of higher learning got in on the action, posting the video to their pages on VKontakte. Spokespeople for the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Bryansk, for instance, told Meduza that the school shared the Investigative Committee’s film “as content about current affairs that reflects the professional view of different specialists on the situation.”

Belarusian likes and Ukrainian footage

At the time of this writing, the Investigative Committee’s original video had more than 70,000 views on YouTube, with 2,400 likes and a whopping 13,000 dislikes. Analytics available from show that most of the video’s comments were from YouTube accounts that regularly post similar pro-government messages on videos related to Alexey Navalny and protests in Belarus. When negative comments first started appearing below the Investigative Committee’s video on February 14, administrators tried to delete any criticism, but the agency abandoned the effort after a few hours.

Meduza discovered that much of the footage used in “Behind the Scenes of the Protest” was actually recorded in Ukraine between 2013 and 2016. Sources say the videos were apparently downloaded from a stock-video platform that may have acquired the original content illegally.  

From online promotion to offline advocacy

Members of Russia’s Investigative Committee have also met directly with students at institutions across the country to screen the agency’s film and deliver lectures on the subject of criminal extremism. These presentations have struggled to attract large crowds, despite “quotas” implemented by universities. About 30 people attended one of these meetings at the North-East State University in Magadan, students told Meduza.

Spokespeople for the Investigative Committee did not respond to Meduza’s questions about the film or the agency’s promotion efforts online and offline. Yulia Matyunina, the executive director of the National Parents’ Committee, is the only specialist who appears in the video who agreed to speak to Meduza. She defended the film’s expert commentary as “apolitical,” and said the video is intended to foster “critical thinking” among audiences. 

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Story by Andrey Serafimov, edited by Alexey Kovalev

Summary by Kevin Rothrock