Russia is now the third-hardest-hit country in the world when it comes to confirmed cases of COVID-19, trailing only the United States and Brazil. As of last week, it had reported more than 379,000 infections and more than 4,000 deaths. Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin has said he thinks 2% of the city’s population (or about 250,000 people) have likely been infected, and there is widespread concern that the real numbers (as opposed to the ones coming out of the Kremlin) are even higher than reported. Between poor hospital safety and lost wages, Russians are increasingly outraged over the government’s mishandling of the crisis. Health care workers in Russia are 16 times more likely to die from coronavirus than those in countries with similar infection rates, and until the month of May, the country had announced little in the form of meaningful financial relief for individuals and families. Yet with much of Russia still under lockdown and social distancing guidelines in place, taking to the streets to protest has not been an option. At least, not in the traditional sense.
However, Russia’s streets, as they exist in online maps and navigation apps, have actually been quite full — with angry protesters represented by pins and comment boxes where handmade signs might once have been. Last month, Russians began using the mobile app Yandex.Navigator, a kind of Russian version of Waze that usually features information about potholes and traffic conditions, to voice their frustrations with the lockdown and the government’s response to the pandemic. Using the app’s “Conversations” tool, people tagged themselves at important civic locations across Russia, like government buildings and historical monuments, and posted comments about food shortages and unemployment. These “virtual rallies” on Yandex.Navigator began popping up across the country on April 20, beginning in the city of Rostov-on-Don, where users dropped pins outside the local government office to protest restrictions on travel permits and to express their anger about the lack of financial support for unemployed citizens during the lockdown. “There’s no work, no way to pay off my debts. What are we supposed to do?” one user wrote, alongside more colorful comments. The online protests spread, with similar “virtual rallies” taking place in Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and other Russian cities. It’s not clear how they originated, but at their height, hundreds of comments appeared on local maps.
Dr. Ksenia Ermoshina, an associate research professor at the CNRS Center for Internet and Society (CIS) in Paris who writes about online civic engagement in Russia, participated in one of these virtual rallies. Ermoshina was in Saint Petersburg at the time and tried to tag herself in Moscow’s Red Square as a digital crowd was gathering by the Kremlin. At first, it worked, but then she noticed that Yandex was cracking down. “After the first hour, I was not able to put a geotag in Moscow anymore. They changed the functionality [of the app] and removed the option for remote geo-tagging.” To many, this was not much of a surprise: Yandex, Russia’s leading tech giant, has close ties to the Kremlin. According to Ermoshina, users began pushing back in real time, downloading new VPNs to outfox the app. Still, moderators were quick to delete any new comments. These moderators, Ermoshina says, are now being referred to as “digital riot cops.” “Instead of using tear gas and water cannons, they use code,” she said. “They change scripts for how the maps work. They digitally ‘disperse’ the crowd.”
By the time virtual protests reached the Siberian cities of Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk the following day, Yandex was aggressively deleting comments across the country. In response, users turned to the smaller navigation app 2GIS. Some made light of the situation: in Krasnoyarsk, one user cautioned another to maintain social distancing and not drop their pin so close.
Since the initial April 20 action, other organizations in Russia have begun using this tactic to draw attention to broader issues and problems exacerbated by the lockdown. SotsFem Alternativa, a women’s-rights group, organized a virtual rally on May 15 to call for anti–domestic violence legislation and to protest the delaying of abortion procedures during the pandemic. The group instructed users seeking to participate in the rally to log on to the 2GIS and Yandex.Navigator apps and drop a pin at the Nadezhda Krupskaya monument in Moscow. (Krupskaya, who was married to Vladimir Lenin, was an advocate for women’s issues.) According to the group’s page on VKontakte, a Russian social media site, at least 100 users showed up. “The hospitals are overwhelmed?” wrote one participant. “In nine months, the orphanages will be too.”
So far, the biggest threat to these protests has been censorship. А spokesperson for Yandex told the business newspaper Vedomosti that “messages not pertaining to road conditions or containing profanity are always moderated and deleted.” However, journalist Maxim Edwards cautioned that while “there are no legal obstacles per se to today’s ‘online rallies,’” Russian law obliges tech companies to maintain records of user data and to provide them to security services upon request. And as the apps require users to register before posting comments, they are not entirely anonymous. Considering Russia’s recent history of detaining and arresting opposition activists, including those operating virtually — last year, the government passed a bill criminalizing “online disrespect” — organizers are rightfully concerned these actions may feel safer than they truly are.
Nevertheless, they are an indication that the pandemic has brought new actors into the political fold. According to Moscow-based political writer Ilya Budraitskis, the coronavirus epidemic and its economic effects have made people “much more interested in news, in the distribution of information, and in politics.” As an example, he points to the videos and images that Russian medical workers have been posting online — including photos of salary stubs featuring mere fractions of the bonuses promised by the government. After those images went viral, over 116,000 people signed a Change.org petition calling for medical workers to receive hazard pay and necessary personal protective equipment. “In Russia, we have more than 3 million people who are employed in the health care system,” Budraitskis said, “so you can imagine how many relatives, families, and friends they have to redistribute these kinds of online statements.”
While the demonstrations seem to have fizzled since Yandex began heavily moderating the Navigator software, they did attest to the desire for a visual signifier of the pain many Russians are experiencing during the pandemic. Still, Ermoshina says there is something uniquely powerful about these map-based protests. “When you see all these dots, you can evaluate how many people are touched by a problem. The map is a very powerful tool,” she said. “The map is proving something.”