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In Russian Cities, Mock Gravestones Are Sounding Putin's Death Knell

In April, activists placed a mock headstone opposite the famed St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
In April, activists placed a mock headstone opposite the famed St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

Yet another mock gravestone bearing the name and image of President Vladimir Putin has appeared in Russia -- this time in the southwestern city of Voronezh.

"Incredible thief and liar. Political corpse," read the accompanying text featuring Putin's surname, initials, and birth year, and listing 2019 as the year of death.

Images of the installation appeared on June 5 on the Twitter account of Agit Rossia, a group that calls itself a "federal channel of agitation, news, and street protests in Russia." A subsequent post by the group attributed the pictures to an anonymous sender.

It was far from the first such stunt in recent weeks. Since March, mock gravestones with Putin's face have been spotted in at least eight cities, part of what seems a coordinated protest campaign.

The first appeared in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, in Tatarstan, on March 10. Two activists were subsequently detained for alleged involvement.

The Naberezhnye Chelny "monument" to Vladimir Putin
The Naberezhnye Chelny "monument" to Vladimir Putin

Soon after that a mock gravestone emerged in Moscow, and a third in Berlin. On April 3, activists placed one opposite the famed St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, garnering widespread attention.

Agit Rossia has taken responsibility for at least some of the gravestones. In an interview with Meduza in April, spokesman Grigory Kudryavtsev said the group was created to "fill a niche" left behind by the lack of street protests in Russia.

"The movement is a community of people of different ages and political views. They're united by a common desire to fight against dictatorship and totalitarianism, and Putinist propaganda," he told the news website.

Kudryavtsev explained that Agit Rossia activists prefer to remain anonymous and most are not acquainted.

Perhaps the movement's most brazen protest action came in December 2018, when activists stuck up posters across the subway system in St. Petersburg depicting Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Christmas hats offering New Year's greetings. "Our gift to you is a rise in prices, a rise in utility bills, a rise in gas prices, a raising of the retirement age," the posters read, alluding to some of the most controversial policies introduced by the Russian government in recent months.

The Kremlin has introduced a number of laws over the past year aimed at raising the cost of dissent, but it is unclear what the official reaction, if any, to the Putin headstones might be.

In March, users of VK, Russia's Facebook equivalent, reported that the social-media platform was removing images of the mock gravestones from its pages.

A spokesperson for VK told Meduza at the time that the images were being removed because the website had received complaints they were "deceiving" some users. The origins of the complaints were unclear.

The trend comes at a time when the approval rating of Putin and his government is slipping, and the proportion of Russians who profess a willingness to protest appears to be on the rise.

And it's not just Putin who is being targeted. In some places, it's the ideals and principles that his opponents claim he's placed in jeopardy.

In Yekaterinburg, overnight from June 4 to 5, journalists from the local news outlet teamed up with artist Romoi INK to paint three very different gravestones onto walls across the city.

One "buried" freedom of religion, listing as the year of "death" 2013, when Putin signed legislation that bans language that offends the feelings of believers. The second gravestone rang a death knell for freedom of assembly, citing 2012, when restrictions on protest were introduced.

And the third bade farewell to freedom of expression -- 2019 brought laws mandating punishment for disseminating "fake news" and language expressing disrespect toward public officials, state organs, and symbols.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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