As he returned to Moscow after months recovering from a nerve agent attack, Alexei Navalny released a remarkable YouTube video – and with it, sowed the seeds for a new Russian revolution by meme
[Clip: Navalny’s crew on a boat by Putin’s palace]
This story begins with three men in Hawaiian shirt on a rubber dinghy. They’ve ditched their usual mobile phones, because they’re always tracked. They might as well be innocent holidaymakers who’ve gone out on the Black Sea for a ride.
[Clip: Navalny’s crew on a boat continued]
The intrepid trio, members of Alexei Navalny’s investigative team, are bobbing on the sea.
They launch a bright orange drone.
[Clip: Navalny’s crew launching a drone]
You can see on the horizon the top-secret billion dollar palace of President Vladimir Putin. Russians have heard the rumours. Soon they’re going to see it up close. It’s incredible that the men have got this far. Putin’s imperial folly has its own airstrip, border guards and checkpoints.
They try four times to launch the drone; they finally strike lucky. The footage they’re about to capture will galvanise tens of thousands of Russians to take to the streets in protest.
I’m John Kampfner, and in this episode of the Slow Newscast, I’m going to tell you the story of a YouTube video.
A film, made by a man who, just months earlier, is on the verge of death after the Kremlin’s secret agents insert deadly poison into the seams of his underpants in his Siberian hotel room.
[Clips: news headlines on Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment]
Alexei Navalny is on a mission to bring down Vladimir Putin – dictator, Tsar, with a penchant for luxury. Nobody knows how much Putin’s worth. He might be one of the richest men in the world. He’s got there by gathering a group who control extraordinary power and extraordinary wealth.
And now Navalny’s going to use social media to blow it wide open.
This is a story about power and greed, but it’s also about the information wars. In a country where speech isn’t free – who controls the internet?
But first, let’s meet our main character, Alexei Navalny: vlogger, activist, politician extraordinaire.
Arkady Ostrovsky: Alexei Navalny can be described in many ways and his role has changed. In one sentence, he is Russia’s main opposition leader. He is a man who has a vision and determination to change Russia. He is a man who has mastered the internet and broke the monopoly on information that the Kremlin had.
Arkady Ostrovsky runs coverage of Russia for the Economist magazine. Like me, he was based in Moscow for quite a few years. He’s charted the country’s journey from Soviet dictatorship, to a brief flowering of democracy and the chaos of the early 90s and onto the South American mafia-style authoritarianism we now see under Putin.
Arkady Ostrovsky: So I first came across him around 2008/2009 as a blogger, anticorruption blogger at the time, it was one of the sort of innovative tools used by Navalny to look into corruption.
John Kampfner: And what sort of impression did he give you then?
Arkady Ostrovsky: Sort of a guy next door. Somebody quite familiar. Sort of an ordinary man, an ordinary person. I knew he was not just a blogger, it was clear that he had political ambition, as somebody who is completely different from any Russian politician I had seen before. It was a very new type of a politician for a country where politics have traditionally been dominated by people from within the system.
This is very hard to believe now but up until about 2011, Navalny’s only presence was online. I mean, the media was dominated either by television or by traditional media. Navalny didn’t complain about the fact that he was blacklisted effectively, and was not allowed onto television programmes. Television ignored him, he ignored television. From the very, very beginning he decided that he was going to circumvent that monopoly by building up his internet presence. Certainly the first time he used it properly, when he’d started clocking up a lot of followers was when he started posting his videos.
[Clip: Navalny on Putin in one of his earlier videos]
Arkady Ostrovsky: The switch happened in sort of October, winter in 2011. That’s when he switched from being a blogger into being a leader.
What happened was Navalny called on all those who followed him on social media, all those who listened to him at all, to vote in the parliamentary election that year for any party other than United Russia, the Kremlin’s party, which he branded, almost accidentally, as the party of crooks and thieves. And that brand stuck, that label very much stuck, and people followed his advice and it was a slap in the face of United Russia and the Kremlin. And the slap was so hard and so loud that the Kremlin was forced to rig the elections, which in turn provoked big protests in Moscow, and other large cities.
Even though he never mentions him by name, Putin increasingly realises the danger that Navalny poses. He’s repeatedly arrested; his family is followed; his finances frozen. Then, last August, Navalny falls ill on an internal flight. If it hadn’t been for the smart work of the pilot and doctors, he wouldn’t have survived. He’s whisked off to Germany, where scientists confirm that he’s been poisoned by Novichok, the Kremlin’s favoured method of assassination.
[Clip: What is Novichok news segment]
Navalny spends five months in Berlin recuperating. He begins planning his return home to Russia. On 17 January he takes a flight back to Moscow. Arkady was on board, too, a couple of rows behind him.
Arkady Ostrovsky: I didn’t know at the time that the whole thing was broadcast live, streamed live, by journalists on that flight.
I mean, that’s another extraordinary thing is that Navalny turned his return into the biggest media event.
[Clip: Navalny boarding plane]
Arkady Ostrovsky: He was very focused throughout the flight. He put on his headphones and throughout the flight, he was watching Rick and Morty – an American sitcom.
After the plane lands, Navalny is arrested at passport control – and, of course, the whole thing is live streamed by the journalists who’ve travelled with him.
[Clip: Navalny at airport]
Arkady Ostrovsky: Again, this was extraordinary because, you know, when you’re actually witnessing it, you don’t think that, you know, a million or two million people are watching it at the same time.
Two days later, without warning and with Navalny behind bars, his team drops the video. They’ve produced brilliant investigations on corruption before but nothing remotely like this. Russian politics is about to be shaken to its core.
[Clip: Navalny’s team’s film – “hallo this is Navalny”]
Arkady Ostrovsky: That did come as a surprise. We now know that the film and the return of Navalny were very closely timed. That was kept in complete secret. Nobody knew it was coming. Navalny very, very clearly didn’t want to release that film while he was in Germany, he wanted to do it in Russia. It was a sort of a massive missile which he wanted to launch from within the country at the Kremlin. And it came, as you say, two days later when he was already behind bars and suddenly he lobs this massive rocket.
[Clip: Navalny film]
Arkady Ostrovsky: I remember sort of sitting in Moscow in the apartment which sort of looks over the Moscow river and the White House, where the government sits. And, you know, normal life sort of carrying on outside the windows, you know, traffic noise, police sirens. And watching this film and sensing the tension as if, you know, sensing the Kremlin silence, a deafening silence, and being surprised that I’ve just watched this film and so have millions of others and yet life seems to be carrying on as normal. How can that be? It’s that sort of moment.
Andrei Soldatov: It’s a very professional video and that’s the most fascinating thing about it.
This is Andrei Soldatov. His books, about the security services, networks of power and control of the internet, have got under the skin of the Kremlin.
Andrei Soldatov: I remember two years ago, I had a discussion with some folks at Facebook and they told me if your activists want to make something really popular on YouTube, the videos should be extremely short. Something like 40 or 20 seconds. And actually we see that a video is produced by Navalny and this particular film is the exact opposite of this approach. It’s nothing of being short. It’s actually almost two hours long. But nevertheless, it became very popular. It’s made very professionally, you can see all this 3D visualisation and the humour which is a very crucial part of Navalny’s appeal because just love how he jokes.
John Kampfner: Could you just tell me about the beginning of the film? Now, to people who are not particular experts on Putin, it seemed a strange way to begin by going into his past and talking about his KGB past in Dresden,
[Clip: Nalvany in Dresden]
John Kampfner: What was he trying to say in that segment?
Andrei Soldatov: Well, it’s actually, it was really remarkable because what he did in the beginning of his film, he showed some identity cards and some documents proving that some people, some close friends of Putin, they served with him in Dresden. And one guy, he never admitted that he was a KGB officer. And now, Navalny was standing there holding in his hand the ID card of this guy, and it became absolutely clear that he was a KGB officer. And I think maybe the hidden message here was that German authorities actually wanted to make sure to the Russian authorities that: well, we have this long memory and we have these documents of his records on Putin’s friends – people who actually remained very close to him.
It seems like a strange start to what’s supposed to be a movie about a secret palace. But this is a conversation in the shadows, about power. Navalny is telling Putin: “you know I know things that you would rather I didn’t know”. This section of the film – the first thing we see – is intended for an audience of one: the president.
But Navalny’s main audience is the Russian public. What he really wants to show them is back on that mysterious stretch of coastline where we started. Thanks to the drone footage, and floorplans sneaked out by disgruntled construction engineers, Navalny takes his viewers inside. Here’s Arkady Ostrovsky again.
Arkady Ostrovsky: The moment when Navalny’s guys go in this inflatable boat and launch their drone with a camera to fly over the most protected piece of property.
That in itself was extraordinary because it showed that in this day and age, there can be no secrecy. You know, they’ve gone past all the surveillance systems, all the radars, all the air defence, all the coastal guards, to film it. And it was a kind of, a bit of a James Bond sense to it, you know, here is – and the parody of it, here is a sort of two slightly clownish Navalny guys launching this drone and filming a secret palace as if one of Bond’s villains with underground tunnels. Just how senseless it is. Just how absolutely senseless this obsession with wealth is and how much it symbolises Putin’s years in power.
This is where the fun begins. The floorplans create an incredibly detailed 3D model of the entire palace. We’re taken on a personalised tour, into a marble bathing area – puzzlingly named on the architects’ drawings as the “aqua discotheque”. Then into the room where he can play with his little electric cars. Each piece of furniture comes with a price tag and jingle. It’s a monument to vulgarity. And we’re transfixed. On the extensive grounds we see a casino and a church – a great combination – several vineyards, helipads and even a subterranean ice-hockey-rink-for one.
[Clip: Ice hockey rink]
Andrei Soldatov: I think that Navalny’s people understood nobody can actually, expect you to remember, or even to watch the whole thing.
Obsessives like me might watch from start to finish. Many times. For everyone else there are the funny soundbites, artfully done. Pop-up animations, a cracking, mocking voiceover – many meme-able moments.
When a pole pops out of a stage in the private shisha lounge, what could it possibly be for? Not saucy dancing, surely? A giant, animated cooking shawarma appears on it instead – the only reasonable explanation. We head inside the games room where Russia’s great leader beats all his mates at Dance Dance Revolution. Gold-painted toilet brushes, from Italy (where else?) at a cool 800 Euros a pop, or perhaps a poop? That’s four times the monthly state pension. We see Vlad the Great styled as Louis the Fourteenth avec opulent wig, as lounge lizard reclining on his chaise longue, Gatsby style.
These little moments, when they’re cut out from the longer film, are a treasure trove of shareable viral content.
Andrei Soldatov: You can produce something very memorable like a song or maybe just a short video using one fascinating element from the film. And that’s exactly what actually happened. We got Russian rap singers producing videos using, for instance, Akvadiskoteka.
[Clip: Akvadiskoteka original song]
The best of the lot. The aquadiscoteka. Nobody, not even Navalny, has a clue what it’s supposed to be. But there are two of them, apparently. The video for this song features our hero-president breakdancing in the aforementioned jacuzzi. It too became a YouTube hit, coming in at six million views. Not bad. And it’s just one of many versions.
[Clip: Medley of other Akvadiskoteka]
Here’s Arkady Ostrovsky again.
Arkady Ostrovsky: He talks in the same language that the young people understand and get. He’s obviously older than a lot of his supporters, but that doesn’t matter. He still represents a generational shift in Russian politics and Russian politics have always moved by the shifts in generations.
The production values are high. The visuals are grabby. The tone is mocking. Ever since he’s come on the scene, in his blogs, videos – even at his own court appearances – Navalny uses simple, catchy phrases to get through to audiences who usually find politics complicated and boring. Putin’s party, United Russia, is now described by millions of people as “the party of crooks and thieves”. As for the president himself, thanks to Navalny, he’s come to be known as “the underpants poisoner”.
Arkady Ostrovsky: It’s a piece of entertainment that hooks people up. As Navalny always maintained, you know, fighting against authorities should be fun. And it’s a fun film. I couldn’t stop watching it. I had to write a story that day and I was cursing Navalny for launching this film when I was on deadline, but I literally, I just couldn’t stop watching it.
And that’s the brilliance of it. Navalny’s operating on a number of levels, but with the same goal. He makes people laugh. He makes them shout in anger. The absurd display of wealth he shows us at Putin’s palace cuts through. It speaks to everything that’s wrong – the nexus of money, status and power.
Catherine Belton: I mean in Russia you’re not respected unless you have access to these types of instruments. You know, I was told one story about a Russian oligarch who had to have the world’s biggest yacht because he was trying to cow a Hollywood mogul into doing business with him. I was told another story of a member of Putin’s presidential administration, he had to have a private jet otherwise no one would respect him and no one would talk to him. So to that degree, sort of Putin’s palace is… it’s a very public display of power. You have to live like that.
This is Catherine Belton, a former Moscow correspondent at the Financial Times, whose recent book on Putin and his wealth has become a global bestseller.
She knows as much as anyone about the minutiae of where it’s come from – the web of transfers, the shell companies, the state assets siphoned off by his friends on his behalf. She’s impressed with what Navalny has dug up.
Catherine Belton: He came up with fresh figures on how much money had been poured into this palace. He very clearly demonstrated the ongoing and continuing links to Putin.
So the first time these allegations were made about the money being diverted into a one billion dollar palace for Putin, we first heard of this in 2010 when a whistleblower named Sergei Kolesnikov escaped essentially from St. Petersburg, with a USB stick of documents. Kolesnikov was a financier working directly on funnelling the money directly into the building of the palace. But you know we didn’t really see the scale of it until Navalny’s investigation. Navalny very ably demonstrated how wealth was diverted from the donations for medical equipment. And also, after the first noise about it, in 2010, it was announced that a guy called Nikolai Shamalov, who is a former St Petersburg dentist, who happened to be very, very close to Putin, was essentially a front for Putin. And after these disclosures, there was a quick kind of a shifting of the story. Another businessman, another ally of Putin, announced that he’d bought the palace for $350 million and it was his and not Putin’s. But the other thing that Navalny found, he hunted through some documents and accounts relating to the company that supposedly bought the palace then and found that, in fact, it hadn’t been bought for $350 million. In fact, it had been bought for $350,000 and it was a completely fake deal, i.e. they were just shuffling around the front. It was almost as if the cover had been blown.
But the third, very key finding, that has kind of been quite overlooked is the fact that some of the big Russian state companies have also more recently been pouring money into the upkeep of Putin’s palace. You know, in any other country, this would lead to a kind of huge public inquiry. But in Russia, of course, nothing has happened. He found that the state pipeline monopoly had spent 4.3 billion rubles on kind of upkeep of the palace through essentially a fake contract to rent out the palace’s amphitheatre for 120 million rubles a month. And he also found that RussNeft, the state oil champion, was also paying out 40 million rubles per month in renting God knows what from the palace, that it didn’t even explain what it was spending the money on in the contract. So you see kind of public funds being poured into maintaining Putin’s palace.
The Putin money tree is complicated by design. Navalny’s slapstick and acerbic wit, might have detracted from the real story, but the genius of the film is that it hasn’t. The evidence is compelling. The message is ultra-serious.
Catherine Belton: The problem with the way that Putin has monopolised power is that he can access any company’s wealth. He and his allies in the security services basically can extort cash from any Russian businessmen whenever they wanted. So Putin actually has access to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of cash. Russia, despite the fact that its population doesn’t live very well, has tremendous wealth in raw materials and Putin can access it whenever he wants. But, you know, there’s only so many billions of dollars you can spend on palaces and yachts. So the rest of it is strategic. That’s a strategic slush fund that they can then use to try and undermine rival Western democracies.
So far we’ve seen the KGB links, the absurdity, the state within a state, and the billionaire cronies. Navalny doesn’t even spare the mistresses and their mums, and the wealth and power he’s gifted them. He does it all with a smirk.
Close to the end, this two-hour epic takes a turn. Navalny sharply switches tone: suddenly, he gets angry.
[Clip: Navalny’s call to arms]
He and his team haven’t spent all this time producing this documentary and compiling the charge sheet just to embarrass Putin. His message is: don’t just laugh at your leader. Get rid of him. He calls on citizens to take to the streets.
[Clip: Navalny’s call to arm continued]
In just over a week the video is seen by 100 million people around the world, including an estimated 70 million in Russia. Pretty much the entire adult population has been invited to revel in Putin’s humiliation.
In most countries, revelations far less damaging than these would spell the end for political leaders. Not in Russia. An opinion poll conducted shortly afterwards by a firm that’s reasonably independent and respected asked those who’d viewed the film whether their opinion of their president had changed as a result. Some 17 per cent of respondents said they now thought worse of him – not a lot in my book – whereas 77 per cent said it hadn’t changed their view of him. What on earth, I ask Andrei Soldatov, our digital expert, is going on?
Andrei Soldatov: We need to understand that still most of the Russians they, if not trust, respect Putin for what he did for the country, as they believe he did. And, they support him for his new national identity that he made the country great again, and feared by many countries and all that.
And in this logic, if you have such a strong man in the Kremlin, it’s quite, well, understandable if this guy also has a very big palace. The other way of explaining this is that, look, yes, we understand that these people are corrupt, but at least they’ve been stealing for 20 years so probably they got tired of that and they will not steal more. But the new people like Navalny they should be, by definition, more greedy because they are younger. They’re hungry and they actually want to come to power exactly for that – to steal more.
So probably it’s better to stay with the old guy.
What’s clear is that it’s going to be a long battle – and this battle is being fought mainly online. One thing I don’t understand is why Putin hasn’t tried harder to control the internet. Within months of taking power in 2000, he had crushed the one independent, and very feisty TV station, turning it into a Kremlin mouthpiece. The state has a small army of brilliant young techies and coders, who know how to hack. So why didn’t Russia go the way of China?
Andrei Soldatov: This comparison with China is not really helpful here because the Chinese internet was built right from the beginning with the added element of censorship and surveillance. And in my country for more than 20 years the internet developed absolutely free and unrestricted.
Mostly because Putin didn’t pay attention to the internet until 2011/2012 when we get the protests in Moscow and some other cities, and that was the moment he understood that maybe this thing, this technology, could put some danger to him. Because this is a way people and protesters can mobilise themselves and organise themselves and go to the streets to protest. And well we now have been living under some sort of restrictions on the internet for eight years.
John Kampfner: So what powers does he have to control the internet and what does he want to have?
Andrei Soldatov: We have filtering and we have lots of sites blocked by the authorities – that they know how to do. They are not that successful at blocking platforms. They have tried several times and so far they’ve been successful only with LinkedIn, which is not the most popular way to mobilise people and to take them to them streets…
John Kampfner: Yeah, it’s not very – LinkedIn is hardly very subversive is it?
Andrei Soldatov: No. They tried with some other platforms like Telegram and they just failed. They tried some other tricks, blocking videos and that kind of stuff. And again, they failed, but they became really good at using repressions to intimidate ordinary users. They have plenty of cases, lots of people got fined and sometimes ended up in jail just because they posted something, sometimes very innocent, something like a cartoon or maybe some joke about the church or about some officials. And because it’s so random, you do not actually understand what might trigger the government’s reaction. It sends a very strong message to ordinary citizens that it’s probably better to stay more cautious when you express yourself online.
John Kampfner: So they keep it deliberately vague in order to encourage a sense of the need to self-censor.
Andrei Soldatov: The problem is that it actually works only if you have political stability in the country. If you have some sort of crisis, these schemes doesn’t work.
John Kampfner: Why?
Andrei Soldatov: Because people – that’s the nature of the internet actually. When people see something, witness something, for instance, they see some policemen beating people on the streets, or we see some natural disaster or explosion, they feel an urge to, a desire, to share something online and they just forget about all this cautiousness, about all this government restrictions. And they start posting and sharing news and it might be videos. It might be text. And this is a problem for the Kremlin because when they need to deal with all of sudden millions of posts, they do not know how to cope with that.
And that’s just what’s been happening. Navalny knows how to inspire people, particularly the young. No sooner did he return to Russia and get slammed in jail than people came in their thousands onto the streets, not just in Moscow and St Petersburg, but in dozens of other towns across the country.
[Clip: noise from demos]
He’s done it spectacularly with the aid of this film – but not just this film, not just YouTube. For the best part of a decade, he’s used every digital platform going. Some of his ideas early on weren’t to people’s liking, but in recent years he’s polished his appeal. He’s got his message out on every social media channel available. His youngest fans have turned to TikTok, which has been crucial in spreading the word. One girl – in a video that’s now disappeared – gives a tutorial on how to escape arrest by impersonating an American.
[Clip: “I’m an American” TikTok]
In another, some tips on what to wear at the protest.
[Clip: “What to wear” TikTok]
Trainers or DMs? How many layers for the cold? What colour hat?
The Kremlin responded by ordering TikTok to remove the content. It’s a game of tech cat and mouse. Here someone catches and uploads a crowd of protesters dancing around the police, singing one of the “Akvadiskoteka” songs.
[Clip: Crowd sings Akvadiskoteka]
John Kampfner: How important is the younger demographic? The people who enjoyed the memes, who did their own TikTok posts, whatever, how important are they to his movement?
Arkady Ostrovsky: Oh, they are absolutely key to his movement. They are absolutely essential because Navalny’s story is a generational story. It’s absolutely essential to his politics. It’s essential to what he is trying to achieve in moving Russia from its imperial past and its imperial legacy towards a nation state. All his politics are addressed at that younger generation of Russians, under the age of 50.
Online agitation, resistance by meme, will continue, and for all its attempts, the Kremlin won’t be able to stop it. Yet for all his mastery of politics and the internet, for all the fervour of his supporters, Navalny languishes in jail. Nobody knows how long he’ll be there, or whether he’ll even survive it.
In the meantime, Putin remains firmly at the top. He has all the luxury and wealth anyone could ever hope for. Yet he too is trapped, with nowhere to go, dependent on brute force to keep him in power.
Whatever happens to Navalny, he has changed politics in Russia for good. His use of the digital space has opened up a new front; he has punctured the pomposity of Putin and the most powerful. He won’t give up.
In the new Russia, whoever holds the tech advantage may hold the key to power.
Produced by Gabriela Jones