The year is 2012 and the place is northern Moscow. A tall man with blond hair addresses 80,000 people gathered as part of the biggest anti-government demonstration Russia had seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Who’s the power here?” he asks a crowd bubbling with excitement.
“We are!” the assembled masses shout in reply.
The man is Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader whose jailing two weeks ago prompted a wave of demonstrations across the country and the detention of 261 protesters last week. Over the past decade, Navalny has grown in prominence through organising a series of anti-government movements, culminating in the posting to YouTube of an investigation accusing the president, Vladimir Putin, of corruption relating to the ownership of a £1bn Black Sea residence – an allegation Putin has dismissed.
Analysts of the socio-political climate in Russia have highlighted key factors that distinguish the current anti-government movement from previous demonstrations. Chief among them is that the opposition has now found a clear leader in Navalny and he has become influential despite bypassing traditional media channels.
Confined to a cell, Navalny is proving that he doesn’t need to be physically present and ‘visible’ to inspire crowds of supporters, inspiring rallies in 100 cities and towns across Russia by harnessing the power of digital media as an alternative communication space.
A similar formula was applied in the anti-government demonstrations which swept Belarus and Bulgaria last summer, with digital channels playing a central role in shaping public opinion in both instances. While fundamentally different in scope and context, all three movements took hold in countries notorious for their limited freedom of speech, with state-controlled mass media stifling voices of protest.
Alexei Navalny is considered by many to be the greatest threat to Putin’s government to date, although we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the Kremlin is entirely inexperienced in playing online games. What would appear to be true, however, is that in a world growing more digital by the second, controlling traditional media no longer guarantees strongman leaders control of hearts and minds.