Second, it indicated that despite the government’s total control of television and creeping control of the web, technology and social media are still powerful tools. By Sunday, the Medvedev expose had been viewed nearly 12 million times. By comparison, 52 million people voted in September’s parliamentary elections. It doesn’t mean that all those viewers believed it or agreed with its anti-Kremlin message, but it means they at least saw it, even though it wasn’t shown on state TV. It also means that Navalny, with his YouTube channel, which was doing a live broadcast during the protests, can reach past Kremlin TV and influence people even in the heart of Putin country.
Third, it indicated that, despite the slight easing of the economic crisis in Russia and the conventional wisdom that Russians have adjusted to the slow sagging of their economy, an economic, populist message resonated enough to bring out what in Russia counts as a massive showing. Because the economy may not be at rock bottom anymore, but it is still bad. Since the economic crisis began in 2013, Russia’s GDP per capita has plummeted—from $15,500 to $9,000—and it is now approaching that of China’s. In 2013, it had been double China’s.
Fourth, despite the government’s efforts to provide a “patriotic”—that is, pro-government—education to young people, to sponsor various Kremlin youth groups, and to intimidate students in schools and universities into not attending such events, a huge number of those who came out Sunday were very, very young. The hero of a protest in Tomsk was a grade schooler who addressed the crowd. Many of those I spoke to in Moscow were younger than 21. Some were as young as 15, and, though they don’t remember the 2011 protests, they are old enough to have ideas about how they want to live. “For a country that is so rich in natural resources, we are too poor,” Andrei, 16, told me. And as the police made thousands of arrests across the country—there were over a thousand in Moscow alone—they arrested the minors, too, like this kid with his bike. Or this one, who looks barely pubescent but clearly in pain as police twist his arms behind his back. They packed them in paddy wagons with the adults and detained them for hours.
The Kremlin is already fighting back. Kremlin TV didn’t show the protests at all, and on Monday morning Putin’s spokesman said that those minors had been promised money by some shady actors to be paid if they got themselves arrested. Many of those who work in Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which made the expose, spent the night behind bars. The police raided their offices and seized all their computers. Navalny’s campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, is being charged with a criminal offense—inciting hatred during his Sunday broadcast on Navalny’s YouTube channel. Navalny himself was sentenced to 15 days in jail by a judge who wouldn’t let him call a single witness in his defense. Because he is on probation for yet another trumped up conviction, the most recent charges could eventually land him in jail for years. Meanwhile, the authorities immediately opened up a criminal investigation when a policeman who was attacked in Moscow landed in the hospital with a head trauma. All of this could send another few dozen protestors to jail for a long time, just like what happened after May 2012.
But intimidation and jail sentences are a short-term fix. And Sunday showed that they have a very limited effect. Monday, as Moscow courts rushed to process the hundreds and hundreds of arrests, the Moscow opposition struggled to process what had happened. Like the protests that exploded on their streets five years ago, these were an unexpected breach in the façade of indifference and acceptance that the Kremlin had worked so hard to erect. Behind it, though, something had clearly changed.