Messages from a Russian freedom fighter protesting at the World Cup
“Call me just ‘Jan’”
That ominous message I read was from a Russian national and ethnic Ukrainian, and begins to tell the tale of what life is like in post-Soviet Russia for disenfranchised young people. Jan* is part of a growing generation of revolutionaries who’ve taken their fight for freedom from the oppressive streets of Moscow to the information superhighway.
As Russia basked in its perfectly crafted display of openness and internationalism during the World Cup, the story of what’s happening to Jan, his friends, and young Russians across the country is a jarring contrast.
Throughout the events, Russian leaders worked tirelessly to project the facade of a country that embraces freedom and debate for the sporting event — with a minimal police presence, inviting to outsiders. This carefully crafted message from Russian leaders wasn’t solely targeted to foreign soccer fans, but also to its own young people, many of whom can’t remember a time before Putin took power in 2000.
Believing this false narrative, however, would prove to be to the detriment of many young Russians who’ve been duped into discussing political disappointment and hope for a new Russia. This is the story Jan wanted to tell first.
With the ever-watchful eye of the Russian government and its propensity for social media infiltration — a skill mastered internationally because of ample practice nationally — young Russians have increasingly turned to the platform Telegram which encrypts messages and blocks uninvited members from seeing what others post on message boards.
“I communicate with a lot of activists through Telegram, but the Russian government is planting spies on the message boards to monitor us," Jan tells us. "This is what happened with the board New Dignity which is in the courts now.”
New Dignity was a message board on Telegram whereby unsuspecting teens were lured to participate. Initially, the teens commiserated with one another harboring the usual teen angst: complaining about parents, jobs, boyfriends, girlfriends, music. As the teens began to feel more comfortable with one another, political topics were introduced, and coupled with the naivete of the inexperienced and the passion of youth, the teens began to vent.
Many are convinced the topics were planted by intelligence agencies to determine who was a potential extremist. As Jan tells it, New Dignity was started by Russian authorities under the guise of a group to create a vision of working, but the government’s true motive was more sinister. “It was [the Russian Government] who created this group and convinced young people to join [it]. It's complicated … but I'm sure for 100 percent that the children and young people who joined the [message board] are not extremists and now, because of their posts, they can be sent to prison for up to 10 years.”
Dozens of teens have been arrested, many still await trial. Most of whom never participated in any political action and merely spoke of their opinions of the government.
But the infiltration, crafted entrapment and potential spying of the Russian government, hasn’t slowed the cyber-organized rebellion of its young people.
“The action against the World Soccer Championship was organized online by my acquaintance, whose name is Alexei," explains Jan. "We [wanted to demonstrate] our disagreement with the fact that world championship takes place in the Russian Federation. First we [stood near] Moscow State University holding signs, then we went to Vorobievy Gory [park in Moscow]. We fought with police and one family of Russians and with a company of people from Caucas, but it was minor.”
The lack of police action to this protest was in accordance with the Russian’s attempt to allow political discord for the World Cup while the world watched — an extreme departure from how protestors are usually handled.
“On the 5th of May I [found out] about Alexei Navalny’s protest online," says Jan. "It was called He’s Not My Czar, [and] was against Putin’s fourth term.
"[We were attacked by the] Kazaks and a pro-Putin organization called Nod. The Kazaks get money from Russian government and they were ordered to deal with us — ordinary, [unarmed] people. They started beating us with their nagaykas and fists, we tried to fight back, but it was impossible,” he continues.
“Later the police started arresting everyone and moving us out Pushkin's Square. We [started] walking and screaming slogans in the center of Moscow and later returned to the Square [and that’s when] the police decided to finish us [with brutal beatings and arrests].”
Hiring ethnic goons such as the Kazaks and the Nod to handle the dirty work of disrupting protests is common practice in Putin’s Russia. It serves a two-fold purpose as a means for the government to maintain a distance from the attempts to silence freedom fighters — but perhaps more important, as a humiliating message to protesters that their actions aren’t worthy of the attention of Russian police.
The Russian government penetration and hacking into their own citizens’ encrypted message boards has been a fruitful means to stem the growing tide of real-time protests, however.
“On [May 31st] my comrade and close friend, Katerina Ivanov, tried to organize a [protest] to support the 31st article of Russian Constitution, which guarantees us the right for peaceful protest. When we arrived, she had hardly opened her poster when the police [emerged] and took her and other protesters away. The arrests [were] so fast I was shocked,” Jan says of a recent protest where authorities were tipped off before it even began. “They [were] ready for our [protest] even before we [arrived].”
“We aren’t going to stop, no matter what they do,” Jan adds, defiantly.
Message from Jan; June 20th: 2:24pm (MDT)
“When will your story be ready? It is getting dangerous and confusing here, I believe Putin’s pigs know I spoke to you but I am eager to read it and share it with my comrades, anyway. The police have already gone to my mother’s house and the [apartment] where I used to live looking for me.”
While he’s been contacted several times via the Internet in the past month for follow-up questions, as of this writing, his social media and email accounts have remained silent.