Trial parodies, golden toilet brushes: on TikTok, Russian youth lash out against Putin

On the left, an Internet user dressed as a judge is having fun conducting mock trials with passersby. On the right, a demonstrator brandishes a golden toilet brush during a protest in Tomsk on January 23, 2021.
On the left, an Internet user dressed as a judge is having fun conducting mock trials with passersby. On the right, a demonstrator brandishes a golden toilet brush during a protest in Tomsk on January 23, 2021. © TikTok
Text by: Liselotte Mas
4 min

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny's return to Russia, where he was subjected to a rapid trial on January 17, sparked an online protest movement in the form of parody videos. The movement spread to the streets when Navalny’s anti-corruption organisation broadcast a documentary about a palace belonging to Vladimir Putin on the coast of the Black Sea. On TikTok, young users posted numerous videos denouncing his arrest as well as the corrupt political system which, according to them, governs their country.

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On January 23, nearly 20,000 demonstrators gathered in Moscow, in addition to crowds in 113 other cities, to denounce corruption and Navalny's imprisonment. 

On social media, young people also mobilised around the hashtag #FreeNavalny (#свободунавальному). This hashtag has amassed more than 340 million views on TikTok.  

The videos filmed by these teenagers show portraits of President Vladimir Putin taken down in classrooms. These portraits were sometimes replaced by photos of Navalny. 

“Hello, can I sue you?”

Previously, several trial parody videos had circulated on social media, ridiculing Navalny's rushed hearing in a police station in Khimki near Moscow on January 18, less than a day after his return to Russia. The court ruling extended his imprisonment for 30 days – a decision which according to Navalny (also a trained lawyer) violated legal procedure. After the ruling, he published a series of videos in which he denounced the hearing as "a parody of justice [...] at the height of illegality”.

In this video, the young man enters several stores and approaches people in their cars. "Hello, can I sue you? Apparently, we can conduct trials anywhere now," he says. At the end of the video, the cameraperson asks him: "Who do you want to try?", and he answers: "What difference does it make?". 

Using the same idea, another Internet user made a parody video in a bathroom with the defendant in the shower. 

Putin's palace with its 700 euro toilet brushes

On January 19, two days after his arrest, the team from the Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK), an organisation set up by Navalny, published a nearly two-hour documentary revealing the pomp and splendour of the Guelendjik Palace, Putin's residence on the coast of the Black Sea. With a worth estimated at more than a billion euros, many see it as proof of widespread corruption in the upper echelons of Russian politics. 

Outraged, TikTok users posted video montages inspired by the palace, and even recreated the building on Minecraft, a construction video game.

The investigation conducted by Navalny's team also revealed some unusual details about the palace, which includes a hookah lounge, a hockey rink dug beneath a nearby mountain and Italian toilet brushes, worth 700 euros each. 

Inspired, a protester applied golden spray to a simple plastic brush and brandished it at a rally organised in front of Tomsk University on January 23. His video received more than 180,000 likes on TikTok. 

Many users also filmed themselves throwing away or even burning their Russian passports in protest against the government. "Being against the authorities doesn't mean being against your homeland," wrote an user under one of these videos.

A counter-influence operation on TikTok 

Following the success of this social media youth movement, the Russian authorities have launched a counter-attack. The Russian telecommunications regulator Roskomnador issued a warning to TikTok and Vkontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) asking them to block all content encouraging "minors to participate in illegal activities". Other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were ordered to "block calls to demonstrate on January 23", reported the French media 20 Minutes.

According to the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a certain "Public Organisation for Youth Affairs" sent many Russian influencers an "urgent request for advertising content" via Telegram.

In exchange for 1,500 roubles, or about 16 euros, the influencers had to produce a creative video, filmed before January 23, that used one or two phrases from this list: "the demonstrators provoked the police", "few people gathered", "generally speaking, I'm fed up with Navalny", "I'm fed up with politics and all these demonstrations," "I want peace to return". The instructions specified that these phrases should be reformulated and not recited as such. 

The "organisation" sent further documents that increased the payment to 2,000 roubles, or 21 euros. Several influencers complied, publishing videos with the requested phrases, sometimes word for word, under the hashtags #NoToTheRevolution and #IDontWantARevolution (#нетреволюции and #нехочуреволюциюet).

These hashtags have amassed three million views on TikTok, which represents less than 1% of the views amassed by the hashtag calling for Navalny's release.