As Russia's State Media Deflects Alexei Navalny Protests, Voice of America Amplifies Them

Kremlin mouthpieces and Russia's Washington-backed media spun competing narratives of what was behind the country's biggest protests for years.

Voice of America, which is funded by the U.S. government, and helps to produce the Russian-language Current Time TV, was among the many international-backed outlets covering Saturday's protests, their aftermath, and their causes.

The account by Russian state media claimed that the west, and in particular the U.S., stoked the demonstrations for jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

This version of events was pitted against the international media's reporting, including Voice of America's, which focused on how opposition to President Vladimir Putin was being solidified.

More than 3,000 people were arrested in dozens of cities during the protests, which follow Navalny's arrest at a Moscow airport as he arrived from Berlin, where he had been recuperating from a Novichok poisoning attack that he says was ordered by Putin.

Russian policemen arrest a protester
Russian policemen arrest a protester on January 23, 2021 in Moscow, Russia. The Kremlin says the protests were spurred by the U.S. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Current Time TV reported that more violence had been directed against police than previous protests, which signified a ramping up of anger against the Kremlin.

It also carried vox pops from those beaten by officers and reported how young people "came of age" in the protest movement, pointing to TV footage that showed "Russians no older than their mid-30s accounted for much, if not most, of the turnout."

But Moscow sees American fingerprints all over the protests and this was reflected in state media coverage, which in many cases described Navalny dismissively as a "blogger."

Russian government paper Rossiyskaya Gazyeta defended the actions of the security forces, saying that "experts noted the restraint of the Russian police."

Suggesting that the police officers were more sinned against than they had sinned, the paper noted that criminal cases had been opened into those arrested for violent acts against their detainers.

"The organizers of unauthorized actions continue to 'whip up passions' by spreading fake information about victims," the paper said on Monday in the piece headlined "So the snow doesn't turn red."

It also said that Russia's investigative committee had opened up a criminal case into the "inclusion of children in illegal protests".

This builds on a line pushed by the Russian authorities last week that the video-sharing app TikTok had been used as a tool to inspire underage protesters.

However, Current Time TV countered the idea that children were being encouraged to take up the cudgels of the anti-government movement, by citing a study that showed the median age of the protesters was 31 and that only four percent were minors.

Man injured in Navalny protests, Moscow
An injured man protesting against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on January,23 2021, in Central Moscow, Russia. Over 3,000 people were arrested across Russia during the demonstrations. Mikhail Svetlov

Anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova told the outlet it was a "myth" that Navalny's group is encouraging minors to go to rallies: "This mythology is designed to demonize Navalny (he is killing our children) as well as suggest that the rally cannot be taken seriously."

Kremlin critic Leonid Gozman told Current Time TV that the authorities "wanted violence," which they had provoked, because in his view "they are clearly preparing a repressive response in the future."

"They need to declare something like a state of emergency, they need to declare that there's an effort to take over our country... or some kind of coup organized by the Americans or whoever else," he said.

Many had been inspired to take to the streets following a video report from Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) seen by tens of millions on YouTube called "Putin's Palace," which allegedly cost $1.35 billion.

Donald Jensen, director of the United States Institute of Peace, told Voice of America's Russian service that the Kremlin is "nervous" about the democratic credentials of the new U.S. president, Joe Biden.

"Washington is becoming a convenient pretext for accusations, although in reality it has very little to do with what is happening, " Jensen said. "This is a question for Putin and the Russian people, and it is clear that a significant minority of Russians are unhappy."

Voice of America was in the spotlight earlier this month for effectively demoting a reporter who questioned former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he praised American freedoms and condemned repressive regimes like China and Iran, CNN reported.

But in Russia, nothing exemplified conflicting narratives more than the case of 54-year-old St Petersburg woman Margarita Yudina, who was kicked by a riot policeman after she challenged the arrest of a young protester.

"Why did you grab him?" Yudina told officers in full riot gear before she was given a boot to her stomach, reportedly leaving her unconscious and requiring intensive care treatment.

After the video went viral and fearing bad PR, Russia's interior ministry promised an investigation and state-funded media outlets such as RT reported how she was visited in hospital by the officer involved, who brought flowers and apologized.

"Everybody is alive. The flowers are so nice... It's fine," she said, in the video that was run by other Kremlin-friendly outlets such as REN-TV.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Russia's security council, Nikolai Patrushev, compared the Navalny protests over the weekend with the unrest that led to the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014 in an interview with the weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakti.

When asked about demands by some politicians in Ukraine for Kyiv to sever ties with Moscow until Navalny is released, Patrushev said: "The West needs this 'leader' to destabilize the situation in Russia, for social upheavals, strikes and new Maidans.

"What this can lead to we see in the example of Ukraine, which in essence, has lost its independence.

"This 'activist', has repeatedly grossly violated Russian law, engaging in fraud on an especially large scale.

"And as a citizen of Russia, he must be held accountable for his illegal activities in accordance with the law," Patrushev added in the interview published on Tuesday.

The graphic below provided by Statista shows the length of time Vladimir Putin has been in power in Russia.

Putin Power Statista
Vladimir Putin's reign in Russia. Statista