MOSCOW -- The film, shown at Vladimir State University earlier this week, pulled no punches: charismatic opposition leader Aleksei Navalny is a nationalist, a corrupt criminal, and worst of all, a Nazi.
The university students, however, were having none of it, hooting at the presenters trying to convince them of the perils of trusting Navalny and the opposition in its battle against the Kremlin.
“Is it really OK for you to be comparing Navalny with Hitler?” one student is heard asking in a cell phone video posted online. “You say we don’t know anything about the man, but what do you know about him?”
Last month’s massive nationwide protests attracted throngs of young Russians, a move that attracted the attention of many veteran observers of Russian protest movements, and stoked speculation that a coherent opposition may be coalescing around Navalny.
That fact appears to have also stoked concern for the Kremlin and its allies, judging by the growing number of incidents at schools where teachers call on young people to shun opposition activities and the so-called “fifth column.”
The video shown in Vladimir, and another slickly produced one anonymously posted on YouTube, suggest also that Russian authorities are opening another line of attack against Navalny.
The latter video, titled “Hitler 1945/Navalny 2018,” zeroes in on Navalny’s well-known nationalist tendencies: in particular, his attendance several years ago of Russky March, an annual nationalist parade in Moscow attended by right wing, anti-immigration Muscovites and xenophobic, racist ultranationalists.
Amid climactic music, the clip ends with an image of Navalny morphing into a dead Nazi soldier engulfed in flames as the narrator proclaims Navalny to be "doomed" because "a political corpse starts to decompose as soon as he raises his arm in a Nazi salute."
On the same day the video was posted to YouTube, the independent channel TV Rain cited four unnamed officials as saying the Kremlin had decided to launch a coordinated campaign to discredit Navalny.
After the video was posted, Navalny supporters took to social media networks to scoff at the logic of comparisons with Hitler, and the clip's conspiratorial tone.
“Hitler had a moustache, Navalny doesn’t: he shaved specially so no one would guess he’s Hitler. What more evidence do you need?” one Twitter user, Boris Fogel, posted.
Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and writer, posted a parody video in response, comparing Navalny with Gandhi.
Another Twitter user wrote mockingly: “Navalny observes fasts. Do you know who else doesn’t eat meat? HITLER!”
Valery Solovey, a Moscow-based political analyst, criticized the authors of the smear video.
"Stupidity or treachery? The campaign against Navalny is an absolute fail. ALL the possible mistakes have been made. NOT ONE single correct step was taken."
Russia’s famously-fractious opposition has been targeted by smear campaigns in the past, many of which have been effective.
One year ago, Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who is now an opposition leader, was secretly filmed having sex with his assistant. The video was broadcast on the national NTV station, causing divisions in Kasyanov’s party ahead of parliamentary elections.
As of April 20, the YouTube video comparing Navalny to Hitler had garnered about 1.5 million views. The vast majority of responses, however, were negative: 11,000 “liked” the video, while 10 times as many -- 113,000 -- “disliked” it.
Opposition supporters with a cutout figure depicting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev participate in an anticorruption rally in St. Petersburg on March 26.
By contrast, a film Navalny’s organization made about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev -- asserting that Medvedev used charity and nonprofit organizations to collect donations from oligarchs and state banks -- has garnered 19.45 million views since being posted on YouTube on March 2.
TV Rain’s sources said the decision to smear Navalny was taken because of the success of the Medvedev video, which has dented his popularity in recent weeks.
Navalny has said he intends to run for the presidency next year and is hoping he can overturn an earlier criminal conviction which currently rules him out of the race.President Vladimir Putin is expected to do run -- and to coast to victory.
On April 19, meanwhile, Medvedev denounced the allegations leveled in the Navalny film, telling the lower house of parliament that they were the “absolutely lying product of political rogues."
He did not name Navalny.