Exile from Russia is proving to be a blessing for Putin’s opponents
VILNIUS, Lithuania — Last week President Vladimir V. Putin sat in front of a large video monitor in his office in a Moscow suburb and spoke to local officials who are opening a turkey breeding center in far-off Siberia.
Before several dignitaries collectively pressed a platter-sized orange button, Mr Putin hailed home-made turkeys as a model for ensuring Russia’s independence. “Without exaggeration, this is a matter of our technological, scientific and food sovereignty,” he said.
The ceremony was solemnly conducted by state television in Russia. But across the border in Vilnius, Lithuania, the event served as raw material for a very different kind of broadcast: a YouTube impaling of the Russian president by the exiled political team of Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed opposition leader.
“With everything that’s happening, it’s completely insane,” said Nino Rosebashvili, a moderator on a YouTube channel run by the movement, which Mr Navalny founded. Mr. Putin, according to the moderator, has made it his mission to direct the most monotonous of events in order to avoid associating himself with Russia’s stumbling war on Ukraine.
In the months since Mr Navalny was sent to a penal colony in 2021, his political network across Russia has been smashed and the country’s opposition movement appeared dead. Many liberals fled into exile.
But now that Russia is at war, exile has proved a boon for the opposition movement. In Vilnius, the unofficial capital of Russia’s opposition abroad, the Navalny team uses YouTube to spearhead anti-war efforts in ways unthinkable at home.
“We ditched all our plans and reinvented ourselves as a media organization,” said Leonid Volkov, long-time chief of Mr Navalny’s staff and now leading his multiple efforts to counter the Kremlin’s narrative on the war. “This is the information front.”
Mr. Navalny used to stream videos for a few hours each week. But at the start of the war, his team launched a new channel, Popular Politics, which now broadcasts about 30 hours a week and produces more than 50 segments that are posted online as individual clips. The number of employees increased from around 70 in Moscow times to 130, and the team just doubled its production area.
“We see that more and more Russians are starting to ask questions, and in their search for answers, they come to us,” said Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer who has long worked on Mr. Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations and leads one of his YouTube Channels separate from the others.
We’re still hearing from Mr. Navalny, too, even as the Kremlin keeps adding years to his sentence and the penal colony where he’s been held since early last year faces increasingly harsh conditions.
With its typical irony he noticed via Twitter last Thursday that he kept hearing a radio station advertising local funeral services for military combatants. The funeral business has to be booming for a morgue to be able to afford such advertising, Mr Navalny said.
“Grandfather Putin” and his older cronies, he said, “pretended to be Napoleons, and the price is paid by those buried at a discount.”
According to members of his team, no ghostwriters create Mr Navalny’s social media posts, but they declined to be more specific. Mr Navalny has repeatedly complained about his treatment Court hearings where he appears via video link to insult the war.
Amid questioning whether the Navalny movement would be viable without its founder’s political mandate and charisma, his lieutenants point to their YouTube audience. Popular Politics has grown to 1.64 million subscribers. However, that is a fraction of the viewership figures for two channels originally created by Mr Navalny himself, which are still running and have around 9.5 million subscribers.
Mr Volkov addressed the issue on a recent broadcast, saying: “It’s not a single person. It is a serious political organization that has accomplished several things in the past.”
Among other things, the organization had established a network of 45 regional offices in Russia that worked to depose Putin supporters in local elections.
That campaign ended when the Kremlin labeled the burgeoning political party an extremist organization in April 2021, but over the past month the Navalny organization has begun rebuilding some 20 to 30 regional offices on a “virtual” basis, Mr Volkov said, with more than 12,000 people volunteering to volunteer.
In the face of isolated protests against the Kremlin’s uneasy mobilization for the war, the organization wants to be ready to channel any growing grudges.
Popular Politics remains available for viewers in Russia. Though Russia has banned Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, YouTube is still operational, not least because the Kremlin is desperate to reach the younger audience that is shunning state television. Hosts of Russian politicians, activists and journalists are now hosting their own YouTube channels.
While the Navalny channels draw a steady stream of viewers, few of the Popular Politics clips become true blockbusters. Crowdfunding brings in tens of thousands of dollars a month, as does YouTube ad revenue, although YouTube’s decision to stop paying outlets for Russia-generated views has rocked independent media.
In the Vilnius offices, Posters are hanging on the walls calling for the release of Mr. Navalny. The conference rooms are named after highlights of previous investigations by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a longtime arm of the Navalny organization, such as an investigation into the Scheherazade, a superyacht tied to Mr Putin.
Videos detailing anti-corruption investigations attract millions of viewers; One from last year claiming that a $1.3 billion palace was being built for Mr Putin on the Black Sea has garnered 125 million views. YouTube named it the most viewed Russian-language video of 2021, and the Kremlin, which usually ignores corruption allegations, has denied it.
The group has also made unconfirmed corruption allegations against other senior officials.
The latest investigation found that General Sergei Surovikin, who oversees Russia’s war effort, had accepted a payment of around $1.7 million from a pro-Kremlin oligarch in exchange for freeing two phosphate mines in Syria in 2017. The Russian government did not respond to the investigation.
Most of Mr. Navalny’s top lieutenants have served some jail terms, so they left Russia to avoid longer prison terms or worse, even though they are well aware that Putin enemies have sometimes been poisoned in Europe as well.
“In Russia you need a 20-digit password for your phone and 30 characters for something else, and you have to leave a camera on in your apartment when you go outside to see if someone has broken into your house, and on the street you have to check if you are being followed,” said Georgy Alburov, one of the anti-corruption investigators. “You feel safer here.”
The Popular Politics channel runs its version of a news program for two hours every evening, with headlines generally coming from various Russian and international news organizations.
Certain themes recur, including the illegal nature of the war in Ukraine and the poor performance of the Russian military.
The mobilization, announced at the end of September, proved to be a huge crowd puller with more than 17 million unique views, its best month ever, plus another 200,000 subscribers, said Ruslan Shaveddinov, one of the moderators. YouTube will not publicly confirm specific viewership numbers by month.
The idea is not to counter the lies propagated individually by Russia’s state media – there are too many, team members said – but to counter them more generally with verifiable news. One program focuses on the ills of everyday life in Russia, such as a story about a woman who fell into a pothole at night while looking for her husband’s mobilization camp. The hole was so deep that she had to wait until morning to be rescued.
Their YouTube channels go much further than regular news channels by attacking Mr Putin and regularly denouncing him as a “fascist”.
Her latest project is a public advocacy campaign to try to get the European Union and the United States – which have imposed sanctions on around 1,200 people over the war – to expand the list to include 6,000 Russian government apparatchiks and Kremlin allies . Bigger sanctions would help create cracks in the ruling hierarchy, Volkov said.
Journalists and political analysts, while praising the Navalny team’s YouTube offerings overall, say they’re more advocacy than news, noting they have an emotional edge that regular news channels avoid.
For example, during an interview, Ivan Zhdanov, a senior Navalny lieutenant whose father was jailed in Russia on charges widely believed to be motivated by his son’s work, attacked a pro-Kremlin military analyst as a “traitor.” The team labeled the incident a “bug” and removed the clip from its archive.
Activists from smaller organizations also complain that it is too difficult to have a say on their shows.
“It’s not a media project in a professional sense,” said Tanya Felgenhauer, a longtime talk show host at Echo of Moscow, a liberal radio station that shut down early in the war and is now working on various YouTube shows of her own. “It’s a political media project by Aleksei Navalny’s team and they’re doing really great. It’s just not journalism.”
Admitting that they are mostly activists, members of the team say they believed creating the channel was the best way to try to end both the war and Putin’s rule.
“We are not journalists, we are a political organization and we try to achieve our political goals, we try to make Putin suffer,” Volkov said.
Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/28/world/europe/russia-navalny-youtube-exiles.html Exile from Russia is proving to be a blessing for Putin’s opponents