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'Bums, Freaks, And Gypsies': How Pro-Kremlin Media Depict The Moscow Protesters

Riot police detain a protester in Moscow. State media have sought to portray the demonstrators as radicals or misfits.

More than 50,000 people joined a rally for fair elections in Moscow on August 10, biting back concerns about arrests and police beatings to show up for what turned out to be the largest anti-government demonstration in Russia since 2011.

Who were they? Depends on whom you ask.

Supporters of those who demonstrated on August 10 and on previous Saturdays see them as beleaguered citizens battling peacefully against the latest rollback of democracy in Russia -- decisions by electoral officials to bar independent and opposition candidates from the ballot in the September 8 elections to the Moscow city legislature.

State TV and pro-Kremlin media -- from large outlets to little-known websites -- are painting a different picture, using the media under its control to discredit the rallies as a gathering of tattooed youth, senile retirees, LGBTQ activists, communists, and assorted fringe groups -- along with a sprinkle of foreigners on a mission to undermine Russia.

"Bums, freaks, and gypsies," was how one Russian-language site billing itself as a news agency referred to the people who came to the most recent rally on Sakharov Avenue. Another website's headline said that "gypsies, transvestites, and bums turned the opposition rally on Sakharov into a freak show."

Prominent publications used more careful wording, but the apparent message was negative, with content suggesting the demonstrators were a motley lot of misfits bent on subverting what President Vladimir Putin has hailed as "traditional" Russian values, sowing chaos, and handing the Crimean Peninsula -- seized by Moscow in 2014 -- back to Ukraine.

The official government newspaper, Rossiiskaya gazeta, published photos showing protesters holding signs calling for revolution, the return of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- a vocal Putin foe who lives outside Russia -- and restoring Kyiv's control over Crimea. It also gave prominence to pictures of demonstrators carrying rainbow-colored flags that represent advocacy of equal rights for LGBT people.

It's unclear whether the protesters can wrestle any political concessions from Putin and the ally in charge of Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Electoral officials have allowed a handful of candidates from the liberal Yabloko party to run in the Moscow City Duma elections, but many see that as an effort to sow deeper division in the fragmented opposition.

The prospects depend in large part on whether the protest leaders can attract more citizens to their cause and reach a critical mass, says Maria Snegovaya, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis who is currently in Moscow. Falling living standards over the past few years have created fertile ground for the potential growth of a larger protest movement, she says.

"The turnout was probably more than the authorities expected. They are worried the protests will keep growing," says Snegovaya, who focuses on Russian domestic politics. "Everything is up in the air."

Those worries seem to have spawned efforts to discredit the demonstrators, with state-run and pro-Kremlin media leading the charge.

'No Real Protests'

One of the suggestions in state media reports was that young people who attended the August 10 rally came not to protest but to hear their favorite musicians perform at the two-hour event. Media outlets published photographs of teenagers and young adults with colored hair, dreadlocks, and tattoos.

Russian rap acts Face, Oxxxymiron, and Krosvostok, as well as musical duo IC3Peak, were among those taking the stage at the permitted rally on Sakharov Avenue in Moscow.

Russian rapper Oxxxymiron
Russian rapper Oxxxymiron

Izvestia, a prominent pro-Kremlin newspaper, said that the main speakers at the rally "weren't politicians, but musicians," failing to mention that many of the former were in jail.

Many opposition politicians, including those barred from the elections, were jailed in the days leading up to the rally. Police detained the current protest movement's most vocal figure, would-be candidate Lyubov Sobol, hours before the start.

"Many of the rally's participants admitted they came to listen to their favorite artists," Izvestia wrote, a theme that was promoted on state TV evening news and in Rossiiskaya gazeta. "The majority of the people attending [the rally] had no idea it was organized by unregistered candidates for the Moscow City Duma under the slogan 'For fair elections in Moscow,'" the government paper claimed.

"This is absolutely a classical tactic, which has been used many times during other protest periods. The state is trying to convince the public that there is no real protest -- that this crisis is artificial and has nothing in common with the people," Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst who heads a consultancy called R.Politik, tells RFE/RL.

State-run television channel Rossia 1 led its evening coverage of the protest with images of rappers, Roma, and LGBT rights activists. It asserted that protesters brought their elderly parents and children and that many of the protesters were not from Moscow, claims that in many cases were untrue.

Photos in the Kremlin-friendly tabloid Komsomolskaya pravda featured protesters carrying Ukrainian, communist, and LGBTQ flags while its videos seemed to focus heavily on ethnic minorities, elderly people, and young men in white face paint.

"I was surprised to observe visitors from the south, who, it seemed, did not quite know where they were. Somewhere in the crowd gypsies were singing," a Komsomolskaya pravda reporter wrote, using the Russian word for Roma. "Someone waved a sign [saying] 'Khodorkovsky will come and bring order' -- just what we need," he added with evident sarcasm.

Police detain an LGBT activist during a protest in Moscow.
Police detain an LGBT activist during a protest in Moscow.

Like the detentions and police violence that have been unprecedented during this wave of protests, analysts say, these portrayals of the demonstrators are aimed at deterring others from joining their ranks.

Polls indicate the majority of Russians want neither a revolution nor the return of Crimea to Ukraine. An April survey by the independent Levada agency found that 59 percent of Russians had a negative attitude toward gay people.

By focusing on LGBT rights activists, state media is attempting to portray the protesters as people who are against what are touted as traditional Russian values, Snegovaya says.

...Or 'Foreign Plot'?

Meanwhile, efforts to cast the protests as a a foreign plot persisted.

Zvezda TV, which is run by the Defense Ministry, seized on the detainment of a Russian attorney possessing a U.S. passport to discredit the protesters, as did lesser-known Russian websites.

Video posted on social media showed the lawyer, Tatyana Brennik, telling other detainees in a police van to list any items that were taken from them in the police paperwork before they signed it, and explaining that they had the right to contest their case within 10 days.

Anton Tsaplin, who claimed to be in the van with Brennik and posted the video on his page on the VKontakte social network, described those instructions as helping detainees "fool the police" and "avoid responsibility."

Tsaplin is the leader for the city of Nizhny Novgorod of a Russia-wide "patriotic movement" called Brotherhood of War, according to social-media posts. He claimed to be visiting Moscow to attend the Krosvostok concert, an assertion that would fit with the state view that the people at the protest were mainly non-Muscovites interested in music.

Tsaplin blocked an RFE/RL correspondent who sought to contact him for comment.

Stanovaya says the Russian authorities have created demand for such videos and photos and many activists seeking either government work or a promotion are ready to offer their services to the state. "There are people willing to help the government with the current crisis and receive in return future opportunities," she says.

Russian clients of Brennik -- who has helped mothers recover their children taken by their former husbands -- called her a "hero" for her work. "She is a Russian lawyer with more than 20 years' experience with an understanding of international rights.... Because she is a U.S. citizen, the yellow press is writing everywhere that she is supposedly sent to interfere in the Moscow City Duma elections. But that is all a lie and invention by the police and media," one Moscow client wrote on Facebook.

Mark Krutov of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report
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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.