Russia’s ‘Moral Entrepreneurs’ Enforcing Public Drinking Ban by Violence

Activists from a Russian group called Lev Protiv clashed with partying soldiers during celebrations of a holiday honoring Russian airborne forces on August 2 and demanded that they respect the ban on public drinking in parks. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched YouTube videos of the clashes, which show activists preventing people, sometimes violently, from drinking. The so-called self-defense group, which claims to be “moral entrepreneurs,” received government funding in 2014 and 2015.

“Why are you drinking here?” a man with a camera in hand asks a group of people who are visibly upset.

One of the people he is addressing has the blue uniform and beret that Russian paratroopers wear.

“You have no right to film us,” a woman yells at the cameraman.

Every year, members of the Russian army flock to public parks, drink in hand, to celebrate Paratroopers’ Day. And every year, activists from a group known as Lev Protiv come to Gorky Park in Moscow in an attempt to end the celebrations, which they consider immoral, as shown in this amateur video broadcast by the Russian media outlet Ren TV:

This video, posted online on August 2, 2021, shows an activist from the Lev Protiv group (wearing a white shirt and holding a camera) demanding that partiers stop drinking in Moscow’s Gorky Park. A soldier in uniform says that they are celebrating because it is Paratroopers’ Day. The soldier makes a valiant attempt to explain that everyone drinks on holidays, but the activist simply replies “You must not drink.”

While public consumption of alcohol is prohibited in Moscow, it is generally tolerated on this special holiday.

The Lev Protiv (“Lion Versus” in English) movement was founded in 2014 by Mikhail Lazutin when he was 18 years old. The young man, often dressed in a suit, is usually front and center of any Lev Protiv foray into tobacco or alcohol.

It is not the only Russian group to use aggressive vigilante methods to influence social behavior. There is also StopXam (“Stop Idiots”), whose members put giant stickers on badly parked cars, and Hrushi Protiv, a group of women who take action against supermarkets that sell expired products.

On their YouTube channel, which has more than 1.86 million followers, Lev Protiv activists share videos of their raids, which are edited and annotated with dramatic music that highlights tense moments. Fights often end in violence, as in this video posted by the group on October 14, 2020.

This video, posted on the Lev Protiv YouTube channel on October 14, 2020, shows Mikhail Lazutin trying to take a bottle of alcohol from a young man. Another tries to ease the situation by telling the man, “Don’t do that, he’s trying to provoke you.” But the situation worsens and a fight breaks out.

‘The paradox of vigilantism is that these people break the law in an attempt to maintain order’

Gilles Favarel-Guarrigues is co-author of the book “Proud to punish: The world of extrajudicial vigilantes” (originally, in French: Fiers de punir: Le monde des justiciers hors-la-loi). He has been studying Lev Protiv activists for the past seven years and has witnessed some of their raids in Moscow. He told the JowharObservers team about how this controversial group operates:

Lazutin developed the group in 2014, when vigilantism was on the rise in Russia. There were young people from all over the country who took the law into their own hands. Each group had its own small cause: to fight alcohol consumption, corruption within the police, prostitution, the sale of expired products or the sale of drugs without a prescription in pharmacies. Vigilante movements were really common in Russia in the 2010s.

From the beginning, [Mikhail Lazutin] wanted to become an influencer on YouTube. He certainly believes in living a clean life and trying to show young people the ravages of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. He’s an expert in putting together a citizen watchdog project and a fairly lucrative source of income.

In this video, posted on the Lev Protiv YouTube channel on August 4, 2021, Mikhail Lazutin shows the cameraman a group of children near a group of soldiers who are drinking. He approaches one of the groups of soldiers and, after wishing them a happy Parachute Day, Lazutin asks them to put away their bottles of alcohol. They do it calmly, apologizing.

The main source of income for the Lev Protiv movement comes from advertisements on its YouTube channel. According to expert Gilles Favarel-Garrigues, the majority of subscribers to this channel are interested in videos showing fights and humiliated people:

Your goal, during each raid, is to have as many aggressive interactions as possible. The fact that they arrive with cameras with powerful flashes and a team of thugs adds to the tension in the interactions and increases the likelihood of a fight breaking out. You will never see a Lev Protiv member throw the first punch, but they do their best to provoke people who are already drunk. They can then use the excuse of self-defense, which gives them the legal right to physically defend themselves if they are attacked.

The paradox of vigilantism is that these people break the law to maintain order. It is incredible, then, to see how much they talk about “the law” in their interactions. When people say that they do not have the right to film their faces, they will respond by citing the exact law that they believe gives them the authority to do so.

It is difficult to place this movement on the political spectrum. During an interview with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which he shared on his YouTube channel, Lazutin says that he is following the lead of Maksim Martsinkevich, a notorious neo-Nazi known for beating people he believed to be pedophiles or homosexuals, although he now sees that period as a mistake of his youth. Today, Lazutin’s most popular video shows him taking on neo-Nazi skinheads.

Lazutin then worked with the vigilante group StopXam, whose founder is a former member of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement. According to the Russian media outlet, Lev Protiv received 12 million rubles (about 140,000 euros) from the Russian government in 2014 and 2015. Gilles Favarel-Garrigues says this influenced his position over time:

At the time, his videos were pretty pro-government. They were closely aligned with the Russian government’s vision of a good civil society. They portrayed themselves as active citizens with a project related to respect for the law, so that people could breathe easier in the parks, so that no one drank near the playgrounds, something useful for society. But since government funding ran out, his speech is more critical of the government, and one of his targets these days is the police.

During their raids, members of Lev Protiv often call the police, but then criticize the officers for being late, accusing them of being negligent.

This video, posted on August 2 on the Russian social media platform Vkontakte, shows Russian special forces arresting Mikhail Lazutin, the founder of Lev Protiv.

On Parachute Day in Moscow, special forces intervened in the altercations and arrested Lazutin. His followers took the opportunity to post a video of the arrest on YouTube.

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