Armed with a cell phone and a selfie stick, blogger Igor Grishin set out to fight corruption in his hometown northeast of Moscow by following in the footsteps of imprisoned Russian opponent Alexei Navalni.
With his blog, Grishin, 25, is trying to save the historic buildings and parks of Korolyov, a city of 200,000 people located six kilometers from the capital, Moscow.
The city is named after Sergei Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program, and is home to the Russian Mission Control Center. It is small, but important for the spatial memory of the country.
Strolling through the city, Grishin points out multicolored buildings – between two and four stories high – that were built between 1946 and 1953.
Soviet scientists such as Sergei Kryukov, a ballistic missile engineer, and Konstantin Bushuyev, who participated in sending the first satellite, Sputnik, into space lived in them.
But the historic district is currently in jeopardy, with plans to demolish it to build new gray housing blocks. A project Grishin is determined to fight against.
“I love Korolev. I was born here and I want to defend what I love,” he says, as he walks through the city streets.
But in Russia, where criticism of the authorities quickly falls silent, Grishin is already feeling pressure from the police.
Together with their comrade-in-arms Roman Ivanov, the duo have tried to raise their voices in a country where independent media have recently suffered a deep crackdown.
Following Navalni’s arrest in January last year, the authorities are putting continued pressure on journalists, bloggers and opposition activists. Many of them fled abroad.
Ivanov, who worked as a journalist for 20 years, says he was fired from a state TV 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 cafe in the city.
“Journalism has been replaced by propaganda,” he assures AFP.
Ivanov created his channel in 2019 after joining the protests against the former mayor of Korolyov, accused of profiting from his ties to property developers.
In his videos, with some 5,000 followers, he criticizes local officials and accuses them of electoral fraud. He also denounces the poor infrastructure and development plans that, according to him, will destroy historic buildings.
The mayor’s office did not respond to AFP’s request for comment.
For Ivanov, Navalni is a “talented organizer” and admires his team’s investigations, which through YouTube videos shed light on the wealth of Russian elites.
“In our city practically all media are financed by the administration. What we are left with is the Internet and social networks,” says Grishin.
He is the editor-in-chief of the popular blog “Official Korolyov” on the popular Russian social network VKontakte.
But not even the internet giants are immune from state control.
Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have been repeatedly sanctioned for failing to delete content at the request of Russian authorities. Apple and Google were forced to remove Navalni’s app from their online stores.
Ivanov says his posts have mobilized residents and “saved four parks that would have been demolished to make room for shopping malls.”
Another victory that he claims is the fall of Mayor Alexander Khodyrev in October after being accused in the independent daily Novaya Gazeta of falsifying election results.
But these bloggers do not escape the radar of the police, who at the end of October searched their homes and seized their phones and computers.
Grishin is accused of having been involved in a fight while monitoring local elections and Ivanov faces charges of disclosing pre-trial information in one of his interviews.
The latter believes that the authorities want to “scare activists.” Grishin sees “a revenge” from the ousted former mayor.
In another Moscow suburb, bloggers Alexander Dorogov and Yan Katelevsky, who also reported cases of corruption, have been detained since July 2020 for alleged blackmail.
Dorogov, who faces 15 years in prison, said during a November court hearing in Moscow that his work had been removed from the internet to protect authorities.
“Our YouTube channel was removed to hide facts that we publish there: bribery and corruption in funeral companies, police, investigators and prosecutors,” he said.
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