Apr 14, 2016 | 22:31 GMT

5 mins read

Postering: Russia's Newest Form of Protest


A new form of political protest is spreading quickly through Russia, and it may become more popular still as the country's September elections approach. Since late last year, satirical posters caricaturing Russian leaders and Kremlin policies have been appearing on the streets of Moscow. Authorities have been quick to take them down, only to find passersby — and the activists who put the posters up in the first place — posting them on social media, where they have attracted even more attention. Taken together, the posters' professional quality, witty content and rapid dissemination suggest that Russian protesters may be developing and adopting more peaceful tactics to express their discontent.

The first notable example of these protest posters emerged in December 2015 on Pokrovka Street, deep in the heart of Moscow. At first glance, it looked like an advertisement for a new adaptation of Anton Chekov's play "The Seagull." But the Russian word for seagull, "chaika," is also the surname of Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika — and upon closer inspection, the poster joked that the play starred Chaika's two sons, who are currently being investigated for corruption. The words "Browder and intelligence agencies" were also buried within the poster, pointing to Hermitage Capital Management CEO and Kremlin critic William Browder, whose lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was killed in a Russian prison. After authorities removed the Chaika poster, more appeared throughout the city over the following week.

The poster on the left portrays a piece of cheese shaped like Crimea on a rattrap, the one on the right makes reference to Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika. (VARLAMOV/Facebook (R), LEONID VOLKOV/Twitter) 

Not long after, a second poster — this time featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin — appeared nearby. It portrayed Putin as Russian singer Philip Kirkorov, saying "I'll sing to you. On all the country's TVs! The Best Songs." The poster listed fake song titles such as "The Ruble Falls — Revenues Grow," and "We Will Not Seize Your Pensions." Eugene Levkovich, the founder of a relatively new Russian protest movement called Julia & Winston, claimed credit for the poster and referred to himself as a "poster guerrilla." He added that Russia's dissatisfied citizens have no other way to express themselves, since the police detain anyone holding signs or protests. According to Levkovich, the poster cost him 15,000 rubles (about $226) to make, a hefty sum for the average young Russian amid the country's current recession.

Putin is portrayed as Russian singer Philip Kirkorov on the left. A picture of Stalin's death mask is shown on the right, with a cryptic message. (JULIA & WINSTON/Facebook (R), DAVID HOMAK/Twitter)

In January, yet another poster cropped up in Moscow's Garden Ring near the Paveletskaya railway station, one of the largest in the city. It featured an image of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov with the word "shame" written underneath. The poster was raised following a Krasnoyarsk City Council deputy's public condemnation of Kadyrov as "the shame of Russia," a description the Chechen president heatedly disputed. Meduza journalist Daniel Turov received threats from the police after he snapped several photographs of the poster before it was removed by a local Chechen.

Then on March 5, the anniversary of Josef Stalin's death, the same railway station was plastered with a fourth poster, this time showing Stalin's death mask. It said, "This one died and so will that," prompting rampant speculation on social media as to whom or what the second half of the phrase was referring to. Human rights groups including Open Russia jumped at the chance to disseminate the image and condemn both Stalin and Putin. Meanwhile, the country's TV Rain linked the poster to the efforts of opposition heavyweight Alexei Navalny, although there is no evidence that Navalny or his Anti-Corruption Foundation were involved in the poster's production.

Unsurprisingly, the recent publication of the Panama Papers has given the poster guerrillas new fodder for their work. The leaked documents revealed that several of Putin's friends have stashed away billions of dollars, likely at the president's behest, in offshore holdings. In a matter of days after the Panama Papers' April 3 release, a poster was put up in central Moscow on Zemlyanoye Val Street. The image, possibly taken from a poster for the movie "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," in which Johnny Depp plays a drug-addled journalist, asks "What Panama?" And this week, yet another highly stylized poster appeared portraying Crimea as a piece of cheese on a rattrap.

One poster apes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author Hunter S. Thompson, while Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov is shown on the right with the word "shame" written beneath him. (OPEN RUSSIA/Facebook (R), PPRUZAVIN/Instagram)

The protest posters are beginning to show up in other cities, too. In Rostov, for instance, a professional but less stylized banner was raised over a road full of potholes and covered in trash. It read, "Vote for United Russia, and your life will be like this road." Each of these postering incidents, though minor on its own, has rippled throughout social media and many Russian media outlets.

So far, the poster guerrilla movement is small, but its level of professionalization reflects a notable shift among activists who do not feel safe protesting publicly in Russia's current environment. The quality of the posters also raises questions of whether their producers are receiving sums of money from larger groups, such as the country's established liberal opposition or foreign backers. An interesting pattern across the posters is that none of the personalities they criticize — Putin, Kadyrov, Chaika and United Russia — are tied to the federal security services. Though this may well be a coincidence, the security branches' responses to the posters, and whether or not they become the subject of future posters, will be worth watching. 

The same is true of the protest posters' content, which so far has spanned the many grievances of the Russian population. Putin's corruption and reverence for Stalin, Russia's weak economy, the annexation of Crimea, and the manipulation of elections have all become targets of the poster guerrillas. As the country prepares to hold its first parliamentary elections since the widely disputed votes of 2011 and 2012, such political statements could increase as protesters try to spread their message and the Kremlin moves to stop them.

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