3 December 2023, Sunday, 23:58
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A Teddy Bear Revolution in Russia and Belarus


Is the U.S. State Department sponsoring a legion of subversive LEGOs, Transformers, stuffed animals and toy favors from Kinder Surprise chocolates to foment an Orange Revolution in Russia?

So far the Kremlin hasn’t weighed in, but judging by the reaction of local authorities in several cities, the latest threat to Vladimir Putin’s rule is being taken very seriously as the March 4 presidential elections approach.

Since the disputed parliamentary elections last December 4, activists seeking to bypass bans on protest rallies by humans, have set up toys in the snow on city squares bearing tiny banners with big messages such as “We Have the Right to Choose,” “President — Don’t confuse the people’s interests with your own interests,” and “Screw the Junta!”

The phenomenon has even been given a name, “nanoprotests,” and the increasingly facetious Russian press has reported on a “wave of nanoprotests that has swept through the provinces.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the broadcaster funded by the U.S. Congress to encourage democracy, has reported on the protests, but so has Russia Today, the English-language news channel funded by the Kremlin to show that Russia is a democracy, which reported on the first nanoprotest, in Apatity, a city in the Arctic Murmansk region.

Novaya Gazeta, a leading opposition newspaper, posted footage of a nanoprotest in the southern city of Krasnodar on Feb. 11 as a counterpoint to a rather lackadaisical pro-Putin rally. At 00:52, the video shows a befuddled policemen trying to figure out what to do with toys holding banners with anti-Putin slogans. He finally forces the activist to pack them in a box.

In Barnaul on January 7, police took careful notes on and photographs of the “stuffed animal revolution,” while young activists giggled.

The nanoprotest movement has also spread to Belarus. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on stuffed animals being “detained” for “protesting” President Aleksandr Lukashenko near Minsk’s Independence Square with slogans such as “Free the people!” “Toys against lawlessness” and “Cops tore my eye out.”

As Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty reports, Barnaul, in the Altai region of Siberia, is now at the forefront of the Russian nanoprotest movement. Demonstrations were held there on January 7, Russian Orthodox Christmas Day, and January 14.

Ivan Krupchik, a Barnaul blogger, offered extensive photo coverage of the January 14 event.

Even RIA Novosti, an official news agency that seems to be having trouble containing anti-government sentiment in its own ranks — employees’ Facebook pages, and, increasingly, the agency’s reports, make it clear that they are not fans of Kremlin policies — has picked up on the new dissident movement and reported on the confusion it has caused among Barnaul officials.

Activists had sounded hopeful that they could continue the protests. The news agency reports that one of the protest organizers, Andrei Teslenko, a 30-year-old IT specialist, posted this message on VKontakte, a Russian social network: “While the authorities restrict our constitutional rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, the rights of toys have so far been untouched.”

Confused police, who could not find instructions for dealing with nanoprotests, turned to the prosecutor’s office, which informed them that they had every right to crack down.

“People are not stupid,” prosecutor Sergei Kirei told RIA Novosti. “The figurines did not come there by themselves. They did not write the placards on their own.”

Activists were forced to file an official application for their next nanoprotest, which they had planned to hold today, February 18. In their application, they detailed the participants, “100 Kinder Surprise, 100 LEGO figures, 20 toy soldiers, 20 stuffed animals, ten cars,” according to RIA Novosti.

Barnaul officials turned them down on the grounds that the toys are “inanimate,” of “foreign origin,” and not citizens of Russia, and suggested that activists apply to hold the demonstration at a puppet theater.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Andrei Lyapunov, a Barnaul city official in charge of information policy, said that “inanimate subjects such as toys cannot take part in public protest actions — especially the toys of foreign origin.”

But now authorities run the risk of turning the toys into martyrs. Activists of the Solidarity opposition movement plan to hold a nanoprotest in Tomsk, a Siberian university town, on Saturday, Feb. 18, to “demand an immediate end to mega repressions against nanocitizens in Barnaul.”

By Sophia Kishkovsky, «The New York Times»

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