Russia's 'moral entrepreneurs' who enforce public drinking ban through violence
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Activists from a Russian group called Lev Protiv confronted partying soldiers during celebrations for a holiday honouring Russian airborne forces on August 2 and demanded they respect a ban on public drinking in parks. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched the Youtube videos of the confrontations, which show the activists stopping people, sometimes violently, from drinking. The so-called vigilante group, who claim to be “moral entrepreneurs”, received government funding in 2014 and 2015.
"Why are you drinking here?" a man with camera in hand asks a group of people who are visibly upset.
One of the people he addresses has on the uniform and blue beret worn by Russian paratroopers.
"You don’t have the right to film us," a woman yells at the cameraman.
Every year, members of the Russian military flock to public parks, drinks in hand, to celebrate Paratroopers' Day. And every year, activists from a group known as Lev Protiv come to Gorki Park in Moscow in an attempt to stamp out the celebrations, which they view as immoral, as shown by this amateur video broadcast by Russian media outlet Ren TV:
This video, posted online on August 2, 2021, shows an activist from the Lev Protiv group (wearing a white shirt and holding a camera) demanding partiers stop drinking in Gorki Park in Moscow. A military man in uniform says they are celebrating because it is Paratroopers' Day. The soldier makes a valiant attempt to explain that everyone drinks on public holidays, but the activist simply responds “You shouldn’t drink.”
While public drinking is indeed banned in Moscow, it is usually tolerated on this special holiday.
The Lev Protiv ("Lion Versus" in English) movement was founded in 2014 by Mikhail Lazutin when he was just 18. The young man, often dressed in a suit, is usually front and centre of any Lev Protiv raid on tobacco or alcohol.
It’s not the only Russian group using aggressive vigilante means to influence social behaviour. There is also StopXam ("Stop Idiots"), whose members put giant stickers on badly parked cars, and Hrushi Protiv, a group of women who take action against supermarkets that sell expired products.
On their YouTube channel, which has more than 1.86 million followers, Lev Protiv activists share videos of their raids, which are edited and scored with dramatic music that highlight the tense moments. Often, the fights end in violence, like in this video posted by the group on October 14, 2020.
This video, posted on the Lev Protiv YouTube channel on October 14, 2020, shows Mikhail Lazutin trying to take a bottle of alcohol from a young man. Another tries to de-escalate the situation, saying to the man, “Don’t do that, he is trying to provoke you”. But the situation worsens and a fight breaks out.
'The paradox of vigilantism is that these people break the law in an attempt to maintain order'
Gilles Favarel-Guarrigues is a co-author of the book "Proud to Punish: The World of Extrajudicial Vigilantes" (originally, in French: Fiers de punir : Le monde des justiciers hors-la-loi). He has been studying the Lev Protiv activists for the past seven years and has witnessed some of their raids in Moscow. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about how this controversial group operates:
Lazutin developed the group in 2014, when vigilantism was on the rise in Russia. There were young people all across the country taking the law into their own hands. Each group had their own little cause: fighting alcohol consumption, corruption within the police, prostitution, the sale of expired products, or the sale of medication without a prescription in pharmacies. Vigilante movements were really common in Russia in the 2010s.
From the very beginning, [Mikhail Lazutin] wanted to become an influencer on YouTube. He undoubtedly believes in living a clean life and trying to show young people the ravages of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. He is an expert at bringing together a project of citizen policing and a quite lucrative source of revenue.
In this video, posted on the Lev Protiv YouTube channel on August 4, 2021, Mikhail Lazutin shows the cameraman a group of children near a group of soldiers who are drinking. He goes up to one of the groups of soldiers and, after wishing them a happy Paratroopers' Day, Lazutin asks them to put away their bottles of alcohol. They do so calmly, apologising.
The main source of revenue for the Lev Protiv movement comes from ads on their YouTube channel. According to expert Gilles Favarel-Garrigues, most of the subscribers to this channel are interested in the videos showing fights and people being humiliated:
Their aim, during each raid, is to have as many aggressive interactions as possible. The fact that they arrive with cameras with powerful flashes and a team of thugs contributes to the tension in the interactions and increases the likelihood that a fight will break out. You’ll never see a member of Lev Protiv throw the first punch, but they do everything they can to provoke people who are already drunk. Then they can use the excuse of self-defense, which gives them the legal right to physically defend themselves if they are attacked.
The paradox of vigilantism is that these people break the law to maintain order. It’s incredible, then, to see how much they talk about “the law” in their interactions. When people say they don’t have the right to film their faces, they will respond citing the exact law they think gives them the authority to do so.
It’s difficult to place this movement on the political spectrum. During an interview with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which he shared on his YouTube channel, Lazutin says that he is following the example of Maksim Martsinkevich, a notorious neo-Nazi known for beating up people he believed were paedophiles or homosexual, though he now sees that period as an error of his youth. Today, Lazutin's most popular video shows him confronting neo-Nazi skinheads.
Lazutin then worked with the vigilante group StopXam, whose founder is a former member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement. According to the Russian media outlet Lenta.ru, Lev Protiv received 12 million rubles (around €140,000) from the Russian government in 2014 and 2015. Gilles Favarel-Garrigues says this influenced their position during the time:
At that time, their videos were fairly pro-government. They were closely aligned with the Russian government’s vision of a good civil society. They portrayed themselves as active citizens with a project related to respecting the law, so that people could breathe more easily in parks, so that no one was drinking near the playgrounds, something useful for society. But since the government funding dried up, their discourse is more critical of the government, and one of their targets these days is the police.
During their raids, the members of Lev Protiv often call the police but then criticise the officers for arriving late, accusing them of being lax.
This video, posted on August 2 on the Russian social media platform Vkontakte, shows Russian special forces arresting Mikhail Lazutin, the founder of Lev Protiv.
On Paratroopers' Day in Moscow, special forces intervened in the altercations and arrested Lazutin. His followers seized the opportunity to post a video of the arrest on YouTube.