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Toys For Democracy: In A Siberian City, Activists Find A Creative Way To Protest

Protesters use toys to hold a "nano demonstration" in the Siberian city of Barnaul.
Protesters use toys to hold a "nano demonstration" in the Siberian city of Barnaul.
BARNAUL, Russia -- Attending an antigovernment demonstration in the Siberian city of Barnaul can quickly land you in jail.

When an estimated 100,000 took to the streets in Moscow on December 24 with no interference from the police, some 20 people were detained in a much smaller protest there.

Consequently, activists in Barnaul have come up with a creative way of expressing their dissent without getting arrested -- they let toys do the protesting for them.

On January 14, activists displayed hundreds of teddy bears, Transformer toys and Lego figurines bearing anti-Kremlin slogans in the city’s main square.

The toys brandished mini-placards reading: “We want clean elections,” and “Putin: don’t confuse the peoples' interests with your own interests,” and “Our patience is not endless.”

Dubbed by organizers as a "nano demonstration," it marked the second protest of its kind. The first took place on January 7, which is Christmas Day on the Orthodox Christian calendar.

Olga Artamanova, a student and one of the organizers, spoke to RFE/RL’s Russian Service. She claimed the idea was born out of peoples' frustrations with the authorities and the difficulty they have publicly expressing their dissatisfaction in this remote city where little dissent is tolerated.

“We really want to get to a situation when they [the authorities] finally listen to us," she said, "so that we can have fair elections and so that they allow us to hold public demonstrations which they are legally obliged to do.”

Police photographed the toys and wrote down the slogans but arrested no one. Local activists called that a triumph and indicated that they plan to continue using the format.

'Finally Our Youth Has Woken Up'

Andrei Teslenko, another one of the organizers, maintained that the use of toys in the demonstrations does not detract from their seriousness.

“The gathering that we are having here reflects the politics in this country," he said. "We have microscopic freedom of expression, a microscopic number of mass media outlets, unintelligible rulers and an unintelligible opposition.

"The first gathering we had was to test the waters -- to see the reaction of the authorities and the mass media. Thankfully this gathering has had wide resonance and people have found out about us.”

The demonstrations are reminiscent of recent stealth protests in Belarus -- where dissent is quickly repressed -- in which people would engage in otherwise innocuous activities like clapping in public or setting their mobile phones to ring at a specific time to express opposition to the government.

The success of the "nano demonstrations," which were mainly organized by students, has impressed the city's older generation of opposition figures like Sergei Mamayev and Viktor Rau, both of whom attended Saturday's protest.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, Mamayev praised the newfound activism of Russia's youth, which has been visible since the disputed December 4 parliamentary elections:

“Finally our youth has woken up," he said. "If the youth has started to protest, how can the authorities ignore this.”

RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth contributed to this report

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