Among the footage from Russia-wide protests against the jailing of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny on January 23, one clip stood out.
On Moscow’s Pushkin Square, a squat policeman in a black mask and fur hat seizes a small boy by the arm and yanks him toward a riot van as a crowd of onlookers shouts “leave the child alone!”
The following day, the minor would appear before viewers on state TV’s flagship current affairs show News Of The Week. But it wasn’t video of his roughhousing that they saw — it was a brief interview in which he insists he came alone.
“There are people who are ready, with complete baseness, to pull children into politics like political pedophiles,” said presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, before launching into an extended tirade against Navalny and his allies.
The accusation — that Navalny was brainwashing children to maximize protest turnout — would be repeated on other government-controlled channels, forming a key element of propaganda efforts to discredit the opposition movement.
“Children are pliant and gullible. They’re easily led astray,” said a presenter on NTV.
“They only vaguely understand what violence and revolutionary turmoil have led to in Russia,” intoned the anchor on Rossia-1, the main state channel.
As Russian authorities move to prosecute protesters ahead of planned follow-up rallies on January 31, they are seizing on the same narrative. Officials are accusing Navalny and his supporters of exploiting the vulnerability of children. “This is a serious operation,” said Valery Fadeyev, the head of Putin’s human rights council.
On January 25, President Vladimir Putin was asked about the latest protests in a virtual meeting with Russian students from his residence outside Moscow. He zeroed in on the same topic.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable to thrust minors forward,” Putin said. “After all, that’s what terrorists do.”
The theme is not new: A similar protest wave in March 2017 prompted the Kremlin to rethink its approach toward Russia’s youth, with schools and universities lecturing students on what they described as the dangers of dissent and threatening some with expulsion for attending unauthorized protests. Many of the talks were recorded and went viral online.
‘Cooked Up By The Kremlin’
In May of that year, Russian pop singer Alisa Vox released a raunchy music clip in which she sings about the lure of protests and admonishes a teenager as he bows his head in shame. The song, Baby Boy, suggested without evidence that Western funding was behind the protests and warned kids against attending in return for “mountains of gold.” Independent TV channel Dozhd later cited sources close to the Kremlin saying the video was funded by the state.
The following month, Putin signed a law laying out criminal punishment for anyone who encourages minors to engage in activities that put them in danger. It was this law that Russia’s Investigative Committee cited last week as it launched a sweeping probe targeting unnamed Navalny supporters. According to Russian media reports, witnesses in several cities are already being questioned in connection with the case.
“They planned this in advance,” Sergei Smirnov, editor of the news site Mediazona, which focuses on issues related to law, justice, and human rights, said in an interview with independent TV channel Dozhd (Rain). “Where did the mass propaganda come from, saying ‘look, they’re roping in minors!’ It was cooked up by the Kremlin.”
However, the overwhelming focus on underage protesters belies their status as a small minority of participants. Protest and police-response monitor OVD-Info reported that of the almost 4,000 people detained at the protests, 195 were minors. Anna Kuznetsova, the Kremlin’s Children’s Rights Commissioner, put the figure at “around 300.”
Aleksandra Arkhipova, an anthropologist who was part of a research group that interviewed protest participants on January 23, said that, of 356 protesters questioned by her team, only 4 percent were underage.
‘Aimed At Demonizing Navalny’
After the protests of 2017, Arkhipova said, Navalny developed a reputation as someone who can inspire teenagers to engage in politics, and that rattled the Kremlin because it lacked the ability to do the same. In the politicization of Russia’s youth, she told RFE/RL, “Navalny served as the trigger, not the cause.”
But it was his appeal among youth that prompted a preemptive campaign ahead of the latest protest wave, especially in educational institutions. One university announced January 23 as an extra day of classes, ostensibly because students had fallen behind. Another, in Kostroma northeast of Moscow, warned students that, by joining protests, “you will ruin your reputation and cast a shadow on your university.”
“It’s probably a myth that Navalny is backed by school kids and that his regional branches provoke minors into joining protests,” Arkhipova said. “It’s a myth aimed at demonizing Navalny, on one hand, and on the other at portraying the protest as not serious.”
Navalny and his allies have denied the accusations peddled on state media, but the authorities appear to be doubling down. Lawmakers are debating legislation imposing five-year prison terms for urging minors to protest, significantly raising the potential consequences of sharing protest videos online.
The news comes as posts in support of Navalny continue to gather millions of views on the TikTok video app, and authorities continue to demand that TikTok remove them and that other social media platforms delete pro-Navalny content.
The move to censor sites popular with Russian youth testifies to a broader issue for the Kremlin. As the popularity of state TV declines, the influence of social media platforms that allow users to freely express political views is growing throughout the country.
Arkhipova predicts a new state campaign to engage Russia’s youth in an effort to tamp down its protest potential. She points to Putin’s meeting with students, to the university appeals, and to public statements by parents cited widely by the media.
“Protest is a game of ping pong,” she said. “Each player must make his move.”
With reporting by Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America
Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based correspondent for RFE/RL covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. Before joining RFE/RL in 2018, he reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University’s Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.