Russia Is a Political Hazard Zone

And yet tens of thousands of people showed up. Even more surprising was the fact that the Sunday outburst was triggered by, of all things, a documentary. Oblivious to Russia’s seeming protest fatigue, an activist group called theAnti-Corruption Foundationworked for more than a year to piece together evidence that Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister and former president, has had many luxurious properties and high-end goods put at his disposal by rich businessmen.

The residencies, vineyards, farm, and yacht detailed in the film belong, on paper, to other people or charity foundations supported by large donations. Medvedev, the film argues, uses the properties on a regular basis.

Alexei Navalny, the leader of the group and an activist politician who built his reputation on exposing high-level corruption in Russia, published hisnow famousdocumentary in early March. As of this writing the number of users who have opened the video on YouTube is approaching 16 million. The video’s reach matches Russian state-run television’s most successful productions and is by far the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s most successful piece of investigative reporting to date.

It was not obvious that the film would attract much interest, let alone cause people to take to the streets. Even some Navalny supporters thought originally that the film’s power to rattle the public was limited.

Prior to the film Medvedev was hardly public enemy number one (some even accused Navalny of serving an anti-liberal agenda because the hard-liners in the Kremlin normally hate Medvedev). Russians are used to tales of corruption, and links between the properties and the person of the prime minister are elusive. Evidence of Medvedev’s regular use of the residences, if proven, would probably amount to multiple conflicts of interest: at least one of the properties’ owners is a top manager at a large bank whose business might benefit from the prime minister’s decisions. And in Russia a conflict of interest is not a shocker.

Much has been made by the Russian chattering classes about the fact that Medvedev was the wrong target. And he should not worry anyway: President Vladimir Putin has always made a point of resisting public pressure. An exposure by activists has served many officials and governors as a writ of protection of sorts: if Navalny is attacking you, Putin will defend you, at least for as long as your story is in the public eye.