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The Virtual Revolution


Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (right) talks with environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova on Dozhd TV on December 20.

Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (right) talks with environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova on Dozhd TV on December 20.

The Kremlin-linked website Lifenews.ru on December 19 night posts wiretaps of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov's private telephone conversations, in which he made disparaging and crude remarks about environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova and other activists.

Within hours, Nemtsov issued an apology -- on LiveJournal. Shortly thereafter, Chirikova accepted the apology -- on Twitter. And today, the two appeared together in a show of unity -- on the online television station Dozhd TV.

One of the most interesting and striking things about the Nemtsov phone-tap scandal was that it played out entirely online. And one of the most consequential things about it was how quickly the opposition was able to dominate that milieu and seize the narrative.

It took very little time for the dominant meme to change from the Kremlin's preferred story line (Nemtsov is a boor! The opposition is divided! The protests are doomed!) to one more amenable to the opposition (The scoundrels are listening to our phone conversations! We need to stick together!).

In a recent discussion on The Power Vertical Podcast, Kirill Kobrin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service, made a very salient observation about why the Kremlin's efforts to discredit Nemtsov failed, just as did an earlier campaign to smear anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny:

[Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and his circle are afraid of the Internet. They have special hacker brigades who organized DDoS attacks against Ekho Moskvy and opposition websites. But if you want to use these people you must understand the limits of their role in politics. Using hacker brigades and bots destroys your own image. Remember when these hackers published Navalny's private emails? This failed. Everyone knows this was done by Kremlin hackers. They think the Internet is a tool. It is not a tool. It is an environment. If you use your environment as a tool the results will be disastrous, as we have seen.

Kirill's remarks, which were made on December 6, succinctly foreshadowed this week's Nemtsov scandal. The authorities (if you believe the overwhelming circumstantial evidence) used the Internet as a tool and arranged for the Nemtsov wiretaps to be posted on Lifenews.ru, which according to press reports is connected to Yury Kovalchuk, a longtime Putin ally.

Job done, right? Nemtsov will be discredited. The opposition will be divided. The protests will fizzle.

Not quite. The opposition, which literally lives in the ecosystem of the Internet, quickly dominated that environment. They were able to mobilize and rapidly take over the narrative.

Suddenly, Twitter, Facebook, and LiveJournal lit up with links as people learned that the wiretaps and their subsequent circulation violated Articles 137 and 138 of the Russian Criminal Code -- and that Nemtsov's lawyers have called on law enforcement to open an investigation.

Nemtsov's rapid apology and Chirikova's gracious acceptance of it quickly laid to rest any notions of a divided opposition. And their joint TV appearance on Dozhd TV was devastatingly effective. (But don't take my word for it. Watch it here).

The opposition's dominance of the Internet ecosystem is partially a generational thing. The youth are more wired and sympathize with the opposition. But it also crosses generations (Nemtsov is 52 and Chirikova is in her mid-30s) and was born of necessity. Shut out of traditional media, the opposition had no choice but to move online -- as did citizens who wanted independent sources of information.

We saw the results of this during the protests to save Khimki forest that brought Chirikova to national prominence. We saw it in the civic activism during the bungled attempt to contain raging forest fires in the summer of 2010. And we are seeing it now, as the phenomenon comes of age, in the aftermath of the disputed December 4 parliamentary elections.

The Kremlin has had some small online successes. Distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks by hacker brigades disrupted some opposition websites. They used bots to hijack hashtags associated with antigovernment protests on Twitter, briefly confusing would-be demonstrators. (h/t to my colleague Luke Allnutt at RFE/RL's Tangled Web blog for flagging these.) But at this point these things look like little more than nuisances.

But I wouldn''t be surprised if the Kremlin got much better at this game soon enough.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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