Freedom in the Urals

Sergey Zykov, a physics professor from Yekaterinburg, on his story as an opposition activist, organizing power of social media and crowdfunding fines.

Human rights in Russia, Yekaterinburg
Sergey, holding the flag of his local activist group Yekaterinburg for Freedom

1972, the year Sergey was born, was a time of deep stagnation in Russia. Sergey remembers watching long trains full of produce pass through his hometown of Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Ural region, to Moscow. When little Sergey asked why all the food was being taken to Moscow while the shelves were empty in Sverdlovsk, his father struggled to answer. How does one explain central planning to a toddler? People from all over the Soviet Union went to Moscow to buy food and bring it back to their hometowns: “I remember how my farther brought 20 kilos of meat from Moscow, and we were labelling all the meat parts and stacking all of it in the freezer.”

Sergey was asking tough questions at five, and he continued throughout his life. His frustration with poor governance and the lack of accountability spurred interest in Russian politics as he grew older. But for a long time, that interest didn’t translate into action. Not knowing how or where to start, Sergey stuck largely to his career in physics.

The Advent of Digital Organizing

Everything changed with social media. Beyond passively reading newspapers and watching the news, Sergey was suddenly able to engage with others and connect with like-minded Russians. Sergey was an avid user of a blog hosting website LiveJournal, a major resource for a generation of engaged Russians in the early 2000s. By 2006 LiveJournal was the largest online community on Runet, comprising nearly half of all entries in the Russian blogosphere.

Inspired by the possibilities digital engagement enabled, Russian opposition leaders became fascinated with the idea of digital democracy, proposing progressive applications for the new technology: crowdsourcing for legislative proposals, digital voting, online government services. They saw how these new lines of communication between citizens and the government could increase civic participation and improve governance in Russia.

Then came the mass protests of 2011, the largest protest activity since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which these innovators saw as proof of an increased demand for political participation. Responding to this demand, they created Demokratia 2, a digital platform the Russians to discuss legislative proposals and organize votes.

Sergey believed in the idea and he became a moderator of the platform. But Demokratia 2 failed to reach the wide audience envisioned by its creators: by 2012 the platform had only 3,000 members. Eventually, the project died off, but for Sergey, it was an important step. After decades on the side-lines, he felt like he was in the heart of the Russian opposition movement. He was invited to join the unregistered liberal political party called the Party 5th of December, after the fair elections protests of December 2011.

The party also didn’t manage to attract a significant member base in Yekaterinburg. For Russians, emerging from decades of Soviet repression into a hopeful but traumatizing experiment with democracy in the 90s, these false starts and unrealized potentials seem like the rule. Sergey admits he was never very hopeful about the prospects of the party in the first place. He doesn’t see evidence that any Russian opposition parties can achieve a real political impact. But in the face of near-certain defeat, he sees an obligation to “do what you must, be that as it may.” Sergey and many other Russian activists of his generation oppose not just to Russia’s current government, but of the underlying rules that govern what Russians can expect from life: “We don’t act because we think it’s going to work, we act because the current situation is impossible and it shouldn’t be like this.”

Sergey discussing political arrests in Yekaterinburg with Moscow-based NGOs OVD-info and Rusia Behind Bars

Is Enough, Enough?

Disappointed but not dismayed by the setbacks of the national opposition projects Demokratia 2 and the 5th of December Party, Sergey shifted his focus to the more local action, becoming a coordinator of the citizen activist group Yekaterinburg for Freedom, which advocates for human rights in Yekaterinburg and Russia broadly.

Sergey describes how, as a loose association of independent parties and movements, early on the group suffered from a similar lack of unifying energy to what he’d seen at the national level. Sergey explains: after the social chaos and economic hardships of the 1990s, a social contract emerged between Russian citizens and their state, in which they would exchange some civil liberties for stability and peace. Sergey distills this contract as: “basically exchanging their political rights for a full stomach.” While Sergey and his cohort of activist Russians have long decided the terms of this contract are unacceptable, the risks of action remain too severe for many Russians.

It seemed that only a seismic event could uproot Russians from their cautious posture and bring the disparate activist movements together.

In 2014, Sergey together with much of the rest of the world, watched with rapt attention as Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea against the objections of the international community. For Sergey and Yekaterinburg for Freedom, anti-war sentiment quickly emerged as the unifying idea they’d been lacking: “We thought if we could act quickly enough, something could be achieved. Every month was very important. People weren’t ready [for the war] and people didn’t know how to react.”

But as Yekaterinburg for Freedom and activists across Russia sprung to action, so too did the Russian state’s intense propaganda machine, which appealed to a deep-seated nationalism, and portrayed the annexation and invasion as necessary steps to protect the Russian majority in Crimea and East Ukraine.

In the end, the military intervention in Ukraine received overwhelming public support from the Russian public. However, the affairs injected lasting energy into Yekaterinburg for Freedom, who have widened their goals from anti-war activism to promotion of civil rights like freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Yekaterinburg for Freedom now organizes street protests, helps activists obtain legal representation in political cases, and provides assistance and volunteer support for other organizations, such as the human rights center Memorial, Open Russia foundation, OVD-info and the oppositional political parties Yabloko and Parnas.

Digital Organizing Finds New Life

In Yekaterinburg for Freedom, Sergey is able to apply many of the lessons he learned through his earlier civil organizing experience. To help avoid sanctions and fines often used against opposition organizations, Sergey recommended they forego registering their community as an NGO. As a result, much like the forums where Sergey first found his footing as an activist, Yekaterinburg for Freedom relies heavily on digital organizing, communicating largely online or through informal meetings.

Leonid Volkov, Russian opposition, human rights Russia
Sergey at a solitary picket in support of Leonid Volkov

While useful in avoiding formal sanctions, the lack of a formal registration doesn’t protect the participants from being targeted individually. In recent years, one of the most notorious methods used by local authorities to exert pressure on opposition activists was arresting people at the unsanctioned protests. All mass protests in Russia must be approved by the local authorities, who often use bureaucratic procedures to block protests or require that they are moved to less visible areas. Some opposition organizations and politicians view this obstruction as unconstitutional, infringing on the right to freedom of assembly. To push back, they conduct protests as originally planned. People who attend such protests risk being arrested and fined.

As a member of a regional Monitoring Commission, Sergey often attends unsanctioned protests to monitor arrest violations. He wears an observer vest and doesn’t hold banners or signs. Nevertheless, at one such protest, he was arrested, tried and found guilty of repeated participation in unsanctioned protests. His punishment was a $4,700 fine.

“I was surprised when they arrested me, but after that all was clear. I was ready for even worse. … I didn’t have money to pay this fine. I hardly have a $100 cash on my account.” For perspective, the average salary in Yekaterinburg is $650 a month.

Facing an impossible situation, Sergey reached out to his online network through a post on Facebook asking for donations. With community support, in just a few weeks he was able to collect what amounted to half his yearly income. This support was inspiring for Sergey, but it wasn’t unexpected. For opposition activists, stories like this have become a new norm in recent years. As the Russian state increasingly relies on fines to deter any undesirable activity, such digital crowdfunding has become a lifeline for individual activists, NGOs, and media organizations alike.

In one of many such incidents, 7x7 Horizontal Russia, an independent media that covers regional issues, was able to collect and pay 800 thousand rubles for a narcotics propaganda fine after featuring an interview with a libertarian who advocates for the legalization of marijuana. Transparency International crowdfunded 1 million rubles to pay a slander fine for an article exposing a corrupt official.

Sometimes such support is the only thing that stands between an organization and its inevitable closure. The New Times, one of Russia’s oldest independent newspapers, got charged with a “liquidation fine” of 22,250,000 rubles ($360,000) because they failed to report the “foreign source” income after one of their funders was declared a “foreign agent”. They got rescued by a viral campaign and collected the whole sum in just 4 days. The editor-in-chief wrote on her Facebook page after the first day of the campaign: “Many transfers of 50, 100, 200, 300 rubles. And always with a note. … “We won’t give you up”, “We will win”, “Keep on fighting”, “So my consciousness doesn’t eat me up”, “We are together”, “For free press”, “Hold up, everything is going to be okay”. Like this, fines that were designed to be an exertion of pressure and censorship are becoming a form of citizen solidarity, and a symbol of civil responsibility.

Russians are finding new ways to express their protest that reach across Russia’s vast geography and disparate social classes. These new avenues for citizen action and organization have the potential to convince Russians that change is possible, and their government must provide more than just faltering stability. The impact of this second wave of digital organizing is significant, but it remains to be seen if this is enough to transform Sergey’s necessary but hopeless struggle into one that brings significant change.

Useful links:

  1. Yekaterinburg for Freedom website (rus)

  2. OVD-info report Art of Ban on how Russian authorities refuse permission for rallies (eng)

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