TikTok Inspires Russian Youth to Protest Against Vladimir Putin and Back Alexei Navalny

TikTok is being used as a crucial tool in a call to action against the government of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, following the arrest of his harshest critic.

Russian authorities are sufficiently worried about the millions of views that videos in support of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny are getting, that they have appealed to the video-sharing app to clamp down on posts that urge young people to attend protests on Saturday.

Navalny was arrested in Moscow on Sunday after he flew back from Berlin where he had been recovering from a Novichok nerve agent attack he says was ordered by Putin, although the Kremlin denies any involvement.

Jailed for 30 days on charges of violating a suspended prison sentence for fraud in a 2014 case he says was politically motivated, his case has captured the imagination of many Russians who use the popular app and are clamoring for change.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny i
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a police station on January 18, 2021. He has called on people to stage mass protests on Saturday against President Vladimir Putin. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/Getty Images

Adding to a sentiment Navalny has been promoting that Russia's elite may not have the best interests of its people at heart, was the release this week by his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) of a video that claims Putin has a palace and property on the Black Sea coast worth $1.35 billion.

TikTok videos with hashtags "Free Navalny" and "23 Jan" show pupils swapping portraits of Putin with those of Navalny in classrooms and calling for people to take to the streets throughout the country on Saturday.

One viral clip liked more than half a million times is by a TikTok user Neurolera who suggests that anyone who gets arrested should pretend that they are American to avoid further detention. She even offers American pronunciation tips for phrases that "can save your life" such as "I left my passport at the hotel."

Another viral clip from a user called annyskaa says "Let's go for a walk in the centre on 23rd January." The video shows a young woman holding a book with a series of captions that explain how she is reading about how citizens' rights are guaranteed. A caption then say "But wait! In Russia things happen differently" and refers to Navalny's arrest.

Another video shows a girl putting an image of Navalny on a classroom wall while the video captions read "It is possible to be against the authorities without opposing the motherland."

The country's communications watchdog, Roskkomnadzor, has ordered TikTok to remove videos which call on schoolchildren and students to attend the Saturday's protests which are expected to be the country's biggest since 2018. Newsweek has contacted TikTok for comment.

Momentum is growing against Putin and the protests against the government which are set to take place across dozens of cities pose a real problem for the Kremlin. Parliamentary elections are due to take place in September in which Navalny wants to target the ruling United Russia party.

On Friday, Navalny's spokesperson Kira Yarmysh tweeted that she had been arrested and detained for nine days, but reiterated a call for Russians to take to the streets. Authorities have also detained other Navalny aides, including his campaign manager Anastasia Panchenko and activist Lyubov Sobol.

The Russian Prosecutor's Office warned of an internet crackdown to "restrict access to illegal information" and said in a statement that police officers "are focused on taking preventive measures, and if there are grounds, bringing the perpetrators to administrative responsibility."

Russian opposition politician and vice-president of the Free Russia Foundation, Vladimir Kara-Murza, said that Navalny's arrest and detention were not surprising and Russian authorities would continue their clampdown even if it poses a PR problem for Putin.

"The authorities want us all to give up and run— that would be the biggest gift to the Putin regime," he told Newsweek.

"But we are not going to do that because there are a lot of people in Russia who support our view, who reject Putin and Putinism, as we saw with the display of public support for Navalny this week."

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

Putin Statista Power
Statista