While the Russian people are usually quiet in the face of dictatorial oppression, political activist Alexei Navalny has spurred a break in the silence. He is the man behind many of the protests against President Vladimir Putin’s regime, earning him a target on his back. As a long-standing critic of the Kremlin and a Russian opposition leader, Navalny was arrested in Moscow a few weeks ago after deboarding a flight back home from Germany where he had just finished recovering from an allegedly government-coordinated poisoning attempt. One might ask, why is his jailing so significant among all the others who have been silenced? Does it merit an article at all?
Yes, it does. Navalny’s familiarity with technology distinguishes him from past Russian political prisoners and has enabled him to continue spreading his message among the Russian public, even while incarcerated. This distinction will allow Navalny’s movement to continue to gain traction regardless of his freedom, and highlights the power of technology in combating political corruption and motivating the public to enact change. Whereas previous political prisoners were simply cut off from the outside world, Navalny has made his most significant impact so far while behind bars— he sparked protests en masse without being present in person— even amidst raids of his supporters’ offices. According to BBC, the Moscow police are “struggling to find space in jail” for those arrested during protests for Navalny’s freedom. Although he was unable to gather with supporters in person, Navalny’s wake up call to see the flaws in the country’s system still successfully roused many Russians, especially tech savvy young adults, to take action.
Even personal websites, though they may seem to have little impact, are a useful tool for activists to change the status quo. Navalny is not a politician by profession; he started as a blogger and still runs his own personal website. Having been excluded entirely from media discourse, he once ran for the position of Moscow’s mayor solely through the internet and word of mouth and managed to win a whopping 27 percent of the vote, by official count. Navalny has also consistently posted political videos on YouTube, garnering over a billion views total and more than 6 million subscribers. Soon after he was arrested, his closest supporters released his magnum opus, a documentary that goes into depth about the corruption taking place in Russia’s government. He exposed Putin’s lavish palace, which was built while the Russian poor were forced to live without their basic needs fulfilled. In the space of a few weeks, it received 100 million views. This widespread dissemination of information would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago, but now it is commonplace.
From his prison cell in Matrosskaya Tishina, Navalny continues to make an impact. Incredibly, he has continued to post on his blog regularly, and recently published a transcript of the court session that led to his detention, as well as a motivational letter that encourages just 2 percent of the 100 million viewers of his documentary to go out and protest on the streets. Navalny’s closest supporters have organized mass protests in support of his freedom through this blog as well; clearly Navalny’s absence has not crushed his movement. To put the incredible impact of technology on his ability to disseminate information in perspective, his online presence is the modern equivalent of a political prisoner in the 1980’s writing and successfully sending 100 million letters simultaneously.
Though he has now received a jail sentence of more than two and a half years, it is clear that Navalny’s movement will continue. As long as he has fingers to type with, it doesn’t matter where he is or what circumstances he endures; his voice will be heard.