In late January, Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny was imprisoned following his return from Germany. Navalny, who had been transferred to Berlin in a coma after a poisoning incident he blamed on Russia’s Federal Security Service, was immediately arrested upon arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetevo international airport.
In response, Navalny’s supporters called for mass rallies, leading to a wave of protests in cities throughout the country on January 23. Thousands were arrested in the unsanctioned events.
On February 16, a local TV station in the Siberian city of Nizhnevartovsk ran a story about a police presentation at a school. Video showed teenagers in a gymnasium wearing riot gear and holding metal shields while being pelted by volleyballs thrown by their fellow pupils.
At one point, two of the “police” ran out and snatched a teenage “provocateur,” dragged him behind the shield wall, and carry out a mock arrest.
The video, which also circulated on social media, sparked speculation that the police presentation was meant to dissuade young people from attending opposition protests.
The local Ministry of Internal Affairs denied that the demonstration had any connection with the recent wave of protests.
“The schoolchildren were told about the exploits of the police, about the qualities that law enforcement officers should have in order to serve,” the ministry told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
“In the gym, the children were shown shields, clubs. And then the children were offered to throw balls so that they themselves could check how strong the shields were,” the ministry said. “No political background. Was not, it has nothing to do with the rallies."
The statement is misleading because it ignores critical context: Russia’s record of manipulative efforts to keep young people away from anti-government protests.
As covered by local media, the volleyball exercise was clearly about politics.
“Politics have reached Russian schoolchildren as well. The opposition, which is densely filling its ranks with the youth, can be envied,” a TV commentary said, as quoted by The Moscow Times.
“The police, which represent the state, are taking the initiative into their own hands. This clearly shows how to defend the country's national interests.”
It's happened before. As Interfax noted in its report, in December 2019, police in the federal subject of Tatarstan conducted similar exercises at schools in which students were trained on how to disperse protesters. Those exercises were investigated, and their organizers were fired from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Nizhnevartovsk experienced its own local opposition protests on January 23, and several arrests were reported. Some minors were among those detained.
When an earlier wave of Navalny-led protests spread across the country in 2017, observers noted the relative youth of many of the demonstrators, and the authorities were alert as well.
Independent Russian media and human rights watchdogs cited an increase in harassment and intimidation of schoolchildren and university students by both security services and school administrators.
The authorities’ tactics included scheduling important exams, nature walks or field trips on days that protests were set to take place. In one case, a school director warned a 15-year-old student that the Federal Security Service (FSB) might investigate him. Since 2017, Russian lawmakers also have discussed the possibility of holding parents accountable for their children’s participation in protests.
Pro-Kremlin media routinely portray Navalny and his supporters as exploiters of naive children and Navalny himself as a sort of “pied piper.”
In 2017, authorities paid former Leningrad vocalist Alisa Vox $35,000 to record a music video aimed at persuading young people not to get involved in politics.
More recently, Kremlin state media have claimed the relative youth of the pro-Navalny protesters shows they are gullible and easily manipulated.
In February, the opposition said it would suspend mass rallies to preserve strength for upcoming parliamentary elections. Nonetheless, on February 14, supporters of Navalny held a silent protest, during which they stood outside their homes holding flashlights.