Following the nationwide protests in support of Alexei Navalny, a counter wave of pro-Putin flash mobs have appeared on Russian social media featuring workers, sports teams, and students. While they have been presented as spontaneous messages of support for the Russian president, some participants have reported being tricked into making the videos.

On the 28th of January, a video went viral of employees at Yekaterinburg-based retailer Sima-Land taking part in a flash mob in support of President Putin. Meduza reports that political party United Russia saw the video and sparked the trend by recommending for further demonstrations to be recorded elsewhere.

The video, of employees in military style uniforms marching and chanting 'Putin is our President', reportedly drew comparisons to North Korean parades.

A week later, Sima-Land struck again. This time, employees chant slogans while making lines in the snow that spell 'Putin is our President' when seen from above. Both videos were paired with patriotic pop-songs. Sima-Land owner, Andrei Simanovsky, denied any comparison to the Navalny protests, expressing that the stunts were a gesture of goodwill. Yet, not all his employees agreed.

Interviews with local Yekaterinburg media revealed that the first video was filmed without prior warning that there would be a pro-Putin message. In the second video, participants’ own footage revealed awkwardness and half-hearted chanting. An anonymous interviewee reported pressure to take part, not for fear of immediate dismissal, but of losing the company’s favour, often leading to one leaving of one’s 'own accord'.

Sima-Land’s patriotic working culture includes the national anthem at the beginning of the workday, and questions about patriotism in their job interviews.

Tricks at universities

After Yekaterinburg, other flash mobs started appearing on social media, some from universities. Many of these videos came accompanied by stories of participants being misled.

According to student publication DOXA, Students at Kutafin Moscow State Law University were tricked into appearing in a pro-Putin flash mob under the pretence of a patriotic video in support of Russia’s leading role in fighting COVID-19.

They claim that the student council received a message inviting 50 students, but instead of the original message, they were told to recite from a whiteboard. The script again ended with the phrase 'Putin is our President'. Filming took place in a Moscow hotel on the 5th of February, Mediazona asked the management for comment but received no response.

Elsewhere, students at the State Institute of Arts and Culture in Belgorod reported being tricked into participating in a flash mob that they believed was honouring Defender of the Fatherland Day. The video featured students waving flags in the assembly hall to the Lyube song 'For You, Motherland'.  It was posted to Instagram by the regional deputy Ivan Konev, but later taken down.

Curiously, the video, still available on the Belgorod Telegram channel, had appeared to have been altered. The phrases 'Putin is our President', and 'Vladimir Vladimirovich, we are with you' were added later, not having been said by the students.

As a result of the backlash from angry parents, the vice-rector Natalya Baranichenko stepped down after a meeting where she apologised to the students, and explained that the institution was fulfilling a social order.

According to tv-station Dozhd, the meeting with Baranichenko was also published on the city Telegram channel, where she said that a video like this would not have caused the same reaction six months ago.  In the same meeting, the institution rector Sergei Kurgan argued that the students had not been 'forced with sticks' to participate.

Reports from Volgograd

On the 6th of February in Volgograd, city Duma member Andrey Gimbatov posted a video on Instagram. It shows citizens of Volgograd marching, lighting the way with their phones, to the same Lyube song in front of The Motherland Calls statue. At the end, the message appears 'We are with you, Vladimir Vladimirovich'. Students, workers and ambulance personnel took part.

Ambulancewerkers, studenten en arbeiders namen zonder het te weten deel aan een patriottische videoclip (bron Znak)

The clip shared was part of a longer video with footage from around Volgograd. According to Dozhd, some of the video’s sections, filmed at the Zenit sports complex, and the Krasny Oktyabr metallurgical plant, may have been filmed well in advance or have been open source footage.

Once again, anonymous interviewees tell of being tricked. A teacher explains how she, and her colleagues were unaware that the video would be in support of Putin. The message passed down to their bosses only told of a patriotic video to Lyube’s song. Without specific information, they believed that the video would be in commemoration of Victory Day for the Battle of Stalingrad. This was supported by another interviewee, who claimed he was asked outright to participate in a video for the Stalingrad Victory Day.

View of State Media

Government newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta presented the demonstrations as genuine messages of support for Putin, calling the participants 'simply caring citizens'. They drew attention to further recent flash mobs.

The social media accounts of a Barnaul factory, inspired by Sima-Land, filmed workers standing at their machines and marching through the shop floor with Russian flags. General Director Artyem Shamkov explained the importance of reminding people of the positive things happening in Russia.

In the Tatarstan snow, drivers from the KAMAZ-master racing team used trucks to write the slogan 'Putin Team' in a video published by the Republic’s President Rustam Minnikhanov.

Similarly, Khabarovsk’s national champion Bandy team SKA-Neftyanik posted a video featuring clips from their matches with the words 'we are the reigning champions of Russia. We are for a strong president'.

According to Meduza’s source, the recommendation to replicate Sima-Land’s flash mob went to the regions where the possibility to mobilise large groups of workers or students was biggest. It was thought that the videos would show the support of ordinary people for Putin. In spite of this, it is reported that the stunt was ended due to unfavourable results.

In a press conference, Dmitriy Peskov, Putin’s Press Secretary, denied that the Kremlin had any hand in planning the flash mobs.

pro poetin flashmobs volgogradPro-Putin flashmob in Volgograd (picture Andrey Gimbatov Instagram)