Photo courtesy of Nadezhda Schur.
Teddy bears, Lego and dolls are all the rage with anti-government protesters in Russia. Whether it’s because they don’t have time to request a permit to hold a demonstration, or because their requests have been denied, activists are turning to toys to do their protesting for them. The authorities, however, are not amused.
Russia’s disputed parliamentary elections brought tens of thousands of angry protesters into the streets of Moscow last month. But when some 2,000 demonstrators tried to stage a rally in the remote Siberian town of Barnaul on the same day, the police arrested approximately 20 of them and rejected all further requests to hold sanctioned protests.
Inspired by protesters in the small northwestern town of Apatity, who had come up with the idea, Barnaul’s activists decided to channel their frustration through toys. They held two so-called “nano-demonstrations”, on January 7 and January 14, which saw dozens of toys brave the snow in the city’s main square, holding tiny signs with slogans such as “We want clean elections”, “A thief should sit in jail, not the Kremlin”, and more. Activists posted numerous videos of these mini-protests online. Since then, the trend has spread to many other cities throughout Russia.
While the tiny protests seem to have amused many passers-by, the police in Barnaul have taken them quite seriously -- last week, they asked prosecutors to look into the legality of these events.
“Political opposition forces are using new technologies to carry out public events -- using toys with placards at mini-protests,” local media quoted Andrei Mulintsev, the city’s deputy police chief, as saying. “In our opinion, this is still an unsanctioned public event.”
To the amusement of organisers, police take notes on the toys' slogans during a demonstration in Barnaul on January 7.
A toy protest in Barnaul on January 14.

“We didn’t have time to get a permit, so we decided to protest with toys”

Diana Dudoreva was one of the organisers of the very first toy protests, which took place on December 10 in Apatity.
There were demonstrations in big cities all over Russia on December 10 to protest the rigged parliamentary elections. My friends and I really wanted to participate, but didn’t have time to get a permit to hold a demonstration. So we decided to protest with toys, because this wouldn’t violate any laws and wouldn’t be dangerous for the people involved. Friends on social networks also sent us ideas of slogans to use.
Our colourful stage with Kinder Surprise toys attracted lots of people. They smiled, asked questions. The press came, too. There were also people who scolded us, and asked us why we weren’t ‘on the barricades’ with the ‘real’ protesters. But we didn’t want to make a big scandal; we just wanted to express our feelings and support those who attended real protests in other cities. In fact, the next day I received a message from a person I didn’t know who had attended real protests, saying, ‘Thank you from the city of Petrozavodsk! It’s been a long time since we laughed so loud; it raised our spirits!’ If only because of this one message, it was totally worth it.”
The very first toy protest took place in Apatity on December 10. Photo courtesy of Nadezhda Schur.

“Even toys have more rights than we do!”

Andrey Teslenko is one of the organisers of Barnaul’s toy protests.
Myself and others activists were trying to figure out what to do because Barnaul had become one of a handful of Russian cities where anti-government protests had been banned by local authorities. Somebody had heard about a toy protest in the town of Apatity and suggested we follow their example.
We really liked the idea – not only was it creative and unusual, but it was humorous, which was perfect because it was the holiday season here, when people do not want to think too seriously about politics. It also allowed us show the absurdity of the authorities’ attempts to forbid peaceful demonstrations, since even toys have more rights than we do!
“The police filmed us and wrote down all the slogans on the toys’ signs”
During our first nano-demonstration, there were probably more policemen - both in uniform and in civilian clothing – than toys. The police filmed us and wrote down all slogans we had written on the toys’ signs. They tried to get us to leave by claiming that our protest was illegal because the toys were situated on municipal property and we hadn’t signed a rent agreement. We filmed all this and uploaded the videos to YouTube; thanks to these videos, many journalists came to our second protest, and several other cities – among them Saint-Petersburg, Omsk, Irkutsk – followed our example and held their own nano-demonstrations.
The local police have sent a request to the prosecutor’s office, asking if we can be charged with organising non-sanctioned public events. We’re eagerly awaiting the prosecutor’s answer. Meanwhile we’re preparing a real, not toy, demonstration for February 4, which is Russia’s next big protest day [one month before presidential elections.]”
Post written with freelancer Ostap Karmodi.