Russia: Anti-Government Protest Covered By Bloggers, Ignored By Media

At least 7,000 protesters gathered on the streets of Kaliningrad [ENG], the country's westernmost city, on January 30 to demand, among other things, the resignation of the regional governor Georgy Boos [ENG] and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But don't count on the leading Russian media outlets to tell you about it.

The biggest and most popular TV channels keep their silence. Mainstream newspapers and radio stations ignore the rally and go about their business like nothing happened. But it only takes a quick glance at the most popular blog posts on RuNet (Russian Internet) to realize that the protest in Kaliningrad is the hottest topic of the day. Famous political leaders, journalists and regular netizens flooded the blogosphere with their takes on the protest.

Boris Nemtsov (a.k.a. LJ user b-nemtsov), a former Russian Deputy Prime Minister, wrote an inspiring post “Kaliningrad is the hope of free Russia” where he stressed the uniqueness of the protest in Kaliningrad [RUS]:

Такого грандиозного митинга я не видел лет так 10. На митинге четко и ясно были выдвинуты политические требования: отставка Путина и губернатора Бооса.
Исключительной особенностью калининградского феномена стало участие всех оппозиционных сил области в протестной акции.

I haven't seen such a grandiose rally for the last ten years. At the protest, people expressed their political demands: the resignation of Putin and governor Boos. The uniqueness of the Kaliningrad phenomenon is participation of all oppositional groups of the region in the protest.

Blogger olegmakarov added [RUS] that, unlike in the past, the police forces in the city did not even try to prevent people from protesting. Nemtsov later talked about the unusual friendliness of the Kaliningrad police in a short video [RUS] shot during his detention in Moscow on January 31. Ilja Yashin (a.k.a. LJ user yashin), a political activist and columnist for an oppositional Russian newspaper “Novaya Gazeta,” explained [RUS] the friendly attitude of the police:

Совершенно спокойно вела себя милиция. Никакой агрессии, четкое соблюдение законов, ОМОН мирно дремал в автозаках, припаркованных в стороне. Причина очевидна: когда на площади собирается больше десяти тысяч человек – милиция с народом. Потому что разогнать сто человек легко. А 12 тысяч сами кого хочешь разгонят, если понадобится.

The police forces stayed calm. No aggression, following the law, a SWAT team peacefully slept in trucks parked on the side. The reason is obvious: when more than 10,000 people gather on the square, the police are with people. Because it is easy to disperse 100 people. And 12,000 people can themselves disperse anyone if needed.

Many hundreds of comments to those blogs cover a wide range of feelings. Many people seem to believe that the protest will change the situation in the country for the better. The vast majority of bloggers agree with the claim that something like this was unimaginable several years ago when the approval rating of Vladimir Putin was through the roof. Many people see the protest as a sign of big changes in political landscape of the country.

But not everyone on the bogosphere shares the optimism. Nikolay Troitsky (a.k.a. LJ user _kutuzov), a political analyst for the Russian Information Agency, is not that exited [RUS] about the rally's results:

Много народу вышло протестовать в Калининграде, немало недвольных выходили во Владивостоке, может выйти на улицы хоть весь Тамбов, Липецк, Петропавловск-Камчатский – всё это неважно.
Ничего не сдвинется и не изменится, пока на массовые акции протеста не начнут выходить в Москве. И не 9-12 тысяч, это чепуха, это мало, а хотя бы тысяч 50 для начала. Как это было в 1989-91 годах

Many people went to protest in Kaliningrad, many unhappy people went out in Vladivostok, the whole city of Tambov, Lipetsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky can go on the streets. All this is not important. Nothing will move and nothing will change until the mass protests start happening in Moscow. And not 9,000-12,000. It is rubbish. It's too little. At least 50,000 to start with. The way it happened in 1989-1991.

LJ user clen_lj replied [RUS] to Troitsky:

Большое начинается с малого. Пару лет тому назад трудно было представить выход десятка тысяч человек различных политических взглядов в том числе и под лозунгом отставки Путина.

Everything big starts with a small thing. A couple of years ago, it was difficult to imagine that ten thousand people with different political views would go out under the slogan of Putin's resignation.

But Troitsky is still not convinced:

Так еще лет 10-15 будет начинаться с малого.

It will take another 10-15 years for everything big to start with a small thing.

The posts on the lack of media coverage of the protest also occasionally emerge in the blogosphere. Blogger kt-withlove wrote [RUS]:

Почему митинг с 10 000 человек освещен только в ?
rian молчит молчит… Чувствуется цензурка то)))

Why the protest with 10,000 people is covered only by RIAN [Russian Information Agency – GV] is silent. [Web site of a news program on TV channel “Russia” – GV] is silent. One can feel the censorship )))

But it looks like the mainstream media censorship is no match for an open information access online where Russians can easily practice free speech.  But as the Russian blogosphere is gradually becoming mainstream, the question is how long does it take for the government to start treating it the way it treats the mainstream media.


  • Stephen Ennis

    Hi Vadim,

    I think you may be exaggerating the extent to which the mainstream media did not cover the event. Of course, the big three TV channels have so far ignored it, but it was covered reasonably extensively in several of the major newspapers. A photo of the rally even made it on to the front of “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”. Ren TV also mentioned the rally in “Nedelya” on Saturday, and reported on it at greater length on Monday, where they even said that the protesters were calling for the removal of Boos and the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections. They carefully avoided any referenences to Putin, though, and did not show any of the speeches at the rally. Also, I noticed on YouTube that St Petersburg Channel 5 ran a short report but without mentioning the protestors political gripes.

    The authorities run a carefully calibrated policy of strategic control over the key media outlets, but not the kind of blanket censorship that operated in the Soviet Union or that is currently the norm in places like China. They judge, I think rightly, that this course is less likely to lead to the build up of dangerous social and political tensions.

    Kaliningrad, though, seems to have taken them more or less by surprise. Where were the OMON with their prison trucks and nightsticks? Somebody goofed, it seems. Are they losing their grip?


    • Stephen,
      you are absolutely right, some media outlets did cover it briefly but I was talking more about “leading media outlets.” With all my respect, “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” hardly falls into a category of “leading newspapers.” And its coverage of the protest is rather an exception that proves the rule. Some regional media outlets, in general, were doing a better job covering the rally but, again, how “leading” they are on a national scale?

      If you were a regular person in Russia with a regular media diet (ORT, NTV, Radio Mayak, AiF, etc.), how likely would you be to hear about what happened in Kaliningrad without going into an extensive search online? I even talked to a couple of people who live in Kaliningrad region and even they did not really hear about the protest. And those people are not deprived of media.

      Sure, there is a practice of gatekeeping, which is more open than a total control over the message, but does it really mean that the “leading mainstream media” covered it?

      Thank you for your feedback.

  • Why the Kaliningrad Protest Is a Big Deal…

    From a posting published over on the Khodorkovsky & Lebedev Communications Center which argues that 10,000 people on the streets of Kaliningrad over the weekend is a notable development:So what is new here? During the transition between Vladimir Pu…

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  • Mila

    Thank you very much, Vadim, for such an informative post!

  • Stephen Ennis

    Hi Vadim,

    Sure, the blogosphere is becoming more mainstream, but I still think more people are likely to have heard about the protest in Kaliningrad from watching Ren TV, listening to Ekho Moskvy or reading papers like Kommersant or Vedomosti either in their print editons or online. These may not be leading mainstream media, but they all have audiences counted in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands, which is comfortably more than the leading bloggers in Russia.

    My point is that I think that if the Kremlin tolerates reporting of things like this on Ren TV or Ekho, they are probably a long way from needing to impose any systematic censorship of the blogosphere. As long as 80 or 90 per cent of people ar getting their “news” from Pervyy Kanal, Rossiya and NTV, why should they? Your reference to your contacts in Kaliningrad tends to prove my point.


    • Hi, Stephen,
      yes, the blogosphere in Russia is not as “mainstream” as, say, in the U.S. but, again, there maybe hundreds of thousands who watch Ren TV and there are millions who are online.
      yes, the most popular bloggers in Russia don’t have millions of readers but think about hundreds of bloggers who reposed the news about Kaliningrad on their blogs. The numbers will go up…

      I would refer you to this post on Foreign Policy that (on the second page) also touches upon how Ren TV and Channel 5 covered the protests and if it can be called coverage at all…,1

      I see your point about the Kremlin tolerating Ren TV and Ekho. But it is important to understand that, first of all, Ren TV and Ekho are marginal media in Russia. I know that Ekho, for example, would strongly disagree with me but I think that the Kremlin tolerates Ekho only because it can use the radio station as an “evidence” that the country has a freedom of speech.

      This is a pretty common practice in some countries of the former USSR. Post-Soviet dictators tolerate the existence of a small, say, theater that constantly criticizes the government so people have this illusion that they live in a democratic society.

      I guess the Kremlin doesn’t have to worry as long as the majority of people get 90% of news from Channel 1 but the Russian online audience is growing very fast (more than 25% a year) and we may discover that the government will start worrying about it very soon.

  • Stephen Ennis

    Hi Vadim,
    I think you are being a bit hard on Ren TV, which covered the story high up the news agenda and, apart from mentioning the political element to the protest, wondered if the phenomenon might spread. It even showed half of the “Путин в ответе за всё” poster!

    I agree with you (and the Foreign Policy author) that the toleration of semi-free media is a cynical ploy designed to maintain the illusion of a free society. But actually I think that the ability of PutMed and Co to remain in power might well depend on them keeping these windows of freedom open. If they started clamping down further on the media and seriously monkeying with the internet, they might well end up stirring up more discontent and hostility than would ever be generated by unfettered blogging.

    I think that Surkov is probably smart enough to realize this.

    By the way, I wonder if the extension of internet penetration will have much of bearing on the situation. Take Moscow, for example, where the numbers of people online are pretty close to Western standards, I would guess. Among the 18-30 section of the population, it must be at around 90 per cent or so. But has this had much of an impact on politics in the capital? At first glance, I would say not all that much. Any thoughts?

    • The Russians always say that Moscow is not Russia. :-)
      The thing about Moscow, Stephen, is that it is much easier to “survive” there. That is where jobs and money are. After the protest in Kaliningrad there were a lot of discussions in Russia why something like that cannot happen in Moscow. And the assumption was that people are just happier in Moscow.
      My prediction is that as the internet becomes more available to people in smaller cities and regions of Russia, we will hear more about problems that “glubinka” (Russian word for peripheral towns and regions) faces. Will that lead to more protests with online interactions as a uniting factor? I don’t know. I guess it will depend, among other things, on how the government would react to those online interactions…

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  • Ha-ha. All that points of view is not from Kaliningraders, not point of view of insiders.
    Welcome to the real deal.
    What was particularly unusual about the mass protest in Kaliningrad, is that unlike most public demonstrations in Russia, this one was left untouched by riot police. The explanation presented by many is quite simple – protests are usually dispersed by riot police squads from other regions, but it’s not easy to bring external forces into Kaliningrad, due to the fact that it’s geographically separated from the rest of the country, with Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus in-between. The region is very close-knit, so getting the local police to arrest what could be their relatives or close friends is a rather complicated task.
    And another thing. There is a pressure from FSB and local newly formed police department \E\ ( extremism). Most of the organizers of rallies are gone through paths of hells in those organizations.
    Konstantin Doroshok lost counts on how many times he visited FSB. He was prisoned for 2 days before mass protests. Police fabricate cases against activists.
    They are fabricated my \criminal\ case to silence me up. Restricted my movements.

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