Foreign Policy Blogs

Toy Story: Revolt of the Little Guys

“Political opposition forces are using new technologies to carry out public events” lamented an exasperated Russian police chief yesterday.

What are these insidious technologies? Twitter? Talking spy rocks (wait, those are British!)? Putin’s beloved nano-particles?

Wait, he was getting to that. The protesters are “using toys with placards at mini-protests”, he concluded.
That’s right: toys.

Protesters in Siberia have circumvented the ban on demonstrations by assembling a series of dolls, teddy bears and action figures in the snow, complete with miniature anti-government placards.

“They tried to tell us our event was illegal – they even said that to put toys in the snow, we had to rent it from the city authorities,” one protester told the Guardian.

Sure, the authorities’ overreaction to such a diminutive problem appears at first sight little exaggerated. However, it’s worth remembering that the Kremlin has always been most vulnerable against miniature threats.

Throughout the Cold War, Soviet air defense, guided by the mantra “if in doubt, shoot it down”, managed to successfully repel hundreds of flying Western intruders, no matter how big or sophisticated from U2 spy planes to entire civilian airliners. Yet all of the Air Force’s myriad defences proved utterly prostrate in the face of a small Cessna that landed right in Red Square in 1989.

But the fear of the Miniature Threat goes even further back. Which post-War Soviet schoolboy could have avoided learning the song “Little Button” about how an ordinary Russian boy who finds a tiny, lost button lying in the street, notices its unfamiliar, foreign design, and uses it to track down an enemy spy.

In its playful ingenuity, the Toy Protest is in close competition with the Belarussian Applause and Silent Protests, in which protesters turned applause and then silence against the Lukashenko government.

But the toys also carry an alternative, unwitting allegory – that the anti-government protests themselves remain a tiny affair in the national scheme of things, a plaything of the Westernised Moscow and St Petersburg based middle classes.

  • Maxime

    Hi Vadim,
    I enjoy reading your posts.
    I just wanted to underline that the FT published two interesting articles today (weekend edition): one on the new Twitter policy when dealing with authoritarian regimes; the other, a review of four recent books on Russian politics and its strong man, Putin. You will find them interesting.


Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs