Rubber Duckies and Sneakers Flood Russia
Explaining the slogans and symbols of the weekend’s anti-corruption protests throughout Russia
On Sunday, March 26, anti-corruption protests took place across Russia, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. The largest demonstrations were in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but hundreds of Russians turned out in almost a hundred other cities. When looking at photographs from the demonstrations, or videos of the marches, there are a number of symbols and slogans that appear a bit out of place — why are there so many rubber ducks? Why did someone hang up some sneakers on a lamp post? And who is this Dimon guy?
Here, we will try to explain some of these reoccurring symbols, and give context to why so many young Russians dug out old sneakers from their closet and printed out photographs of ducks for Sunday’s anti-corruption protests.
Dimon Will Answer
The organizing hashtag for the nationwide demonstrations was #ДимонОтветит, or “Dimon Will Answer.”
Dimon is a diminutive form of the name Dmitry, referring to Russian Prime Minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev. In a 2013 interview with “Golos Rossii” (Voice of Russia), Medvedev’s press secretary dressed down Russian social network users for calling her boss “Dimon” online, instead of something more fitting of his position, such as “Dmitry Anatolyevich.” Predictably, this only led to more people calling Medvedev by the more familiar name “Dimon,” culminating in the title of the recent Alexey Navalny investigation into Medvedev’s corruption: “Don’t Call Him Dimon” (Он вам не Димон).
With this in mind, the hashtag makes more sense, but there are other shades of nuance involved. The call for “Dimon” to “answer” has two meanings — one works well even in translation. This is a call for Medvedev to face not just public scrutiny, but also “answer” the courts for his alleged corruption (Russian has the same phrase as English in someone “answering” for their crimes). But the other meaning is more literal, in which people are calling for Medvedev to give a response to Navalny’s allegations of corruption.
Thus, the hashtag has three central functions: referencing the corruption investigation conducted by opposition politician Alexey Navalny, rallying around the demand for Medvedev to publicly address Navalny’s allegations corruption, and calling for Russian anti-corruption authorities to investigate Navalny’s allegations.
Yellow ducks were a common sight in nearly every demonstration on Sunday, both in physical, rubber form and on signs.
This protest symbol is rooted in a 2016 investigation from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) into Medvedev, focusing on his massive dacha in Plyos, Russia.
There were many interesting details from this investigation, but the one with the most resonance was a house just for the ducks in a pond at Medvedev’s dacha complex.
This duck house spawned a great deal of mockery of Medvedev, where many joked that the prime minister’s ducks lived better than many ordinary Russians.
The organizer of the protests, Alexey Navalny, was photographed carrying around a pair of Nike sneakers in the Moscow metro, and later along Tverskaya while participating in a march.
Just as with the ducks, these sneakers are a symbol of Medvedev’s corruption that was revealed in an online investigation released by Navalny. In the recently-released “Don’t Call Him Dimon,” the linchpin of the investigation was Medvedev’s purchase of Nike sneakers and the receipt for them in a leaked email inbox published by the hacker collective “Anonymous International” (widely known by the name of their press secretary, Shaltai-Boltai). The address for these sneaker receipts led Navalny’s investigation to an individual who organized much of the alleged corruption surrounding Medvedev.
Navalny was not the only one who carried around sneakers as a protest symbol. In Moscow, some demonstrators threw sneakers up onto trees, leading to city workers climbing up trees to bring them down.
Others were up long enough to be photographed near the Kremlin.
And in some cases, demonstrators were arrested while carrying sneakers with them.
Down with the Tsar
At the St. Petersburg demonstration, many in the crowd chanted “Down with the Tsar!” (Долой царя, transliterated as “doloy tsarya”)
The contemporary meaning of this phrase is not difficult to interpret, but there is extra context to this chant when considering the place and time of the demonstration. The chants were taking place at Palace Square in central Saint Petersburg — a focal point of the 1917 revolution, 100 years ago.
The viral nature of Navalny’s investigations into the corruption of Kremlin elites has given birth to a new language of protest, where public displays of rubber duckies and old sneakers become subversive. In one case, police swooped in to seize a man holding up a rubber duck.
While there is some success in creating a new vocabulary of activism in the era of 86%, turnout for the 2018 elections will be a greater indicator of Navalny’s campaign against corruption, especially regarding his reach beyond his base of the urban youth. However, there are promising signs for him in the March 26 demonstrations, as the protests — and the ducks and sneakers that go along with it — were not just seen in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also in places such as Makhachkala, Dagestan, where 150 were arrested.
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