Inspired by Navalny, Russian bloggers stand up to corruption
Armed with only a phone and selfie stick, blogger Igor Grishin has set himself the task of fighting corruption in his hometown beyond Moscow, following in the steps of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Grishin, 25, has leveraged his blog to save historic buildings and local parks that would otherwise have fallen victim to developers in Koroloyov, a small but important town for Russian and Soviet space history.
But in Russia, where criticism of the authorities is quickly silenced, Grishin is already feeling the pressure from the police.
“I love Korolyov. I was born here and I want to defend what I love,” says Grishin, walking through the small town just six kilometres (4 miles) outside the Russian capital.
The town of just over 200,000 people is named after Sergey Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space programme, and houses the Russian Mission Control Centre.
Strolling through the town, Grishin points out around two dozen multi-coloured buildings — each between two and four storeys high — that were built between 1946 and 1953.
They were once home to Soviet scientists like Sergei Kryukov, a ballistic missiles engineer, and Konstantin Bushuyev, who was involved in sending the first satellite, Sputnik, to space.
But there are plans to demolish the historic district to make way for high-rise blocks — dull and grey — plans that Grishin is determined fight against.
Inspired by Navalny
With his comrade-in-arms Roman Ivanov, the duo have been trying to speak up in a country where independent media have recently suffered a far-reaching crackdown.
After Navalny’s arrest in January last year, authorities ramped up pressure on journalists, bloggers and opposition activists, with many forced to flee abroad.
Ivanov, who worked as a journalist for over 20 years, says he was fired from a state-run television channel last May after he started a YouTube channel called “Honest Korolyov”.
“My boss called me to fire me because, according to him, I shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me,” he says sitting in a town cafe.
He tells AFP that in today’s Russia: “journalism has been replaced by propaganda”.
Ivanov created his channel in 2019 after joining protests against Korolyov’s former mayor, who was accused of profiting from ties to property developers.
In videos for his 5,000 subscribers, Ivanov criticises local officials pointing to electoral fraud, poor infrastructure and development plans that would destroy historic buildings.
The Korolyov mayor’s office did not respond to AFP’s request for comment.
Ivanov describes Navalny as a “talented organiser” and says he respects the opposition leader’s investigations put together by a team that probes the wealth of Russia’s elites in slick YouTube videos.
Russia on Tuesday added Navalny and a number of his allies to a list of “terrorists and extremists”, as authorities further clamp down on the opposition.
“In our city practically all media are financed by the administration. What we have left is the internet and social networks,” Grishin says.
He is the chief editor of a blog called “Official Korolyov” hosted on Russia’s popular social network VKontakte.
But even internet giants are not immune to state control.
Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have all been repeatedly fined for not deleting content at the behest of Russian authorities. Apple and Google were all forced to remove a Navalny app from their stores.
Ivanov says their publications have mobilised locals and “saved four parks which would have been torn down to make room for shopping centres”.
Another victory he cited was the ousting of mayor Alexander Khodyrev last October after he was accused of falsifying election results by the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper.
However, the bloggers’ efforts have not gone unnoticed by police who came in late October to search their homes, taking away their phones and computers.
Grishin is now accused of being involved in a fight while monitoring local elections and Ivanov is facing charges of revealing pre-trial information in one of his interviews.
Ivanov thinks that authorities want to “scare activists”. Grishin sees the moves as “revenge” from the ousted former mayor.
In another Moscow suburb, bloggers Alexander Dorogov and Yan Katelevsky — who also probed corruption — have been in detention since July 2020, on charges of blackmail.
Dorogov, who faces 15 years in prison, told AFP in court in Moscow last November their work was taken offline to protect officials.
“Our YouTube channel was deleted to hide facts we published there: bribes, corruption among funeral companies, police, investigators and prosecutors.”