Is there anything more thrilling than teenage rebellion in the name of political justice? In Russia, high schoolers have massively taken to TikTok, with over 500 million views at present, to express their support of Alexei Navalny, the resolute opposition leader most feared by the Kremlin. Harnessing the power of a social media platform targeted at youth, and cleverly using humor, catchy music, and visual filters as tools for political resistance, Gen Zers in Russia are finally voicing that they are desperately craving change.
Sunday, January 17 marked Navalny’s return to his homeland, after seeking refuge in Germany to recover from attempted poisoning by the Russian government in August. Unsurprisingly, Navalny was arrested upon arrival. Two days later, Navalny (who had clearly planned ahead) released a full-length film exposing “Putin’s palace,” the president’s secret $1.35 billion residence on the coast of the Black Sea. Not only does the Versaille-like palace expose extreme extravagance and greed, but the film also proves that the estate was constructed with money stolen from the Russian people. From detainment, Navalny released a video statement encouraging his followers not to remain silent, but take their frustrations to the streets on Saturday, January 23. “Nobody will defend us but ourselves,” Navalny poignantly states.
In response, calls for organized protests quickly spread across social media platforms. TikTok videos with the hashtag #23января (January 23) were viewed over 125 million times by Saturday, as the New York Times reports. The most circulated video follows a simple format: teenagers throw away their Russian passport while quoting a famous line from the Russian cult classic film Brat 2 (2000): “Boy, didn’t you hear? Bring us some vodka, we’re flying home.” This is followed by a flashing filter turning the video into a negative, at which point an image of Navalny appears next to the teenager, who thereby literally “takes Navalny’s side.” Other videos range from funny montages of the teenagers “hanging out” at Putin’s palace; clever advice on how to prepare for the demonstrations (for example, to pretend you are an American tourist when arrested); teenagers throwing away their Russian passports and literally “siding” with Navalny; as well as videos of teenagers removing portraits of Putin from classrooms and hanging portraits of Navalny instead (as a result of the latter, high schoolers were called in for questioning by the police, and their parents were fined for supporting the opposition).
Several platforms took down the videos with the #january23 hashtag, claiming they “illegally incited minors to attend unauthorized rallies.” Various schools and universities purposefully scheduled exams this past Saturday, while others released statements warning students that they would lose their good standing if they attended the protests. Two days before the planned demonstration, the Russian Ministry for Education published an announcement strongly urging parents to keep their children from participating, instead offering a rather laughable list of “non-political activities” to engage in instead, such as “watching a favorite movie, taking a walk in a park or the forest, going ice skating, playing board games.” Still, as the Moscow Times reports, thousands of people across 100 Russian cities did in fact “take it” to the streets in what became highly violent protests and resulted in over 34,000 arrests (a number that is surely downplayed). Pussy Riot members Victoria Kuznetsova and Maria Alehina were among the arrested and are being detained for 10 days.
Navalny’s political views are far from a leftist dream, and many of those protesting on Saturday did not do so to stand up for Navalny specifically, but rather to speak out against a regime that censors, poisons, and steals from its people — a dictatorship that has divided the country into the abject poor and the filthy rich, with little in between. While the results of this weekend demonstrations are yet to manifest themselves, the Gen Z TikTokers form the first cracks in Russia’s authoritarian stronghold. They understand the power of mass media, and social platforms enable them to be in touch with the world beyond Russia in ways that were inaccessible before. TikTok’s delightfully simple strategy of juxtaposing short video clips with music, in particular, transcends language barriers. Either unaware or indifferent to the fact that the entire world is watching, Putin continues to confirm the already existing perception of the Russian president as a cranky boogieman desperately holding on to his power and willing to fight anyone for it — even the country’s own children. This could be the beginning of a long journey towards Russian democracy, for there is one secret weapon the new generation has that Putin doesn’t: youth.