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31 March 2017updated 24 Oct 2017 9:00am

Why are Russian teenagers throwing ducks and trainers in the air?

Anger is mounting. 

By Aliide Naylor

On Sunday, as tens of thousands of disgruntled Russians took to the streets to protest high-level corruption, a picture emerged on social media of two demonstrators in St. Petersburg, dressed in hats and thick coats, with little yellow rubber ducks squatting on their padded shoulders. Further images showed larger ducks resting on the bonnets of police cars, surrounded by scattered coins, and one woman even carried along a live duck sitting contentedly in a woven basket.

Amid the greys and blues of post-winter Moscow and riot police uniforms, the streets were similarly peppered with flashes of yellow. Inflatable or balloon ducks, rubber ducks of all sizes, duck hats, placards bearing the bath toy and “Dolan Duck” memes all did the rounds, according to footage from the event. One young boy who looked less than 15-years-old had a pink sign pinned to his bike. In its corner was the same chubby yellow symbol, with a short beak and a beady eye, accompanied by the words “продай дачи, построй дороги” (“sell summer houses, build roads”).

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Ducks were adopted as a symbol by oppositionists and their allies after an anti-corruption investigation into Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wealth. The investigation claimed that through a network of charities, Medvedev managed to hide deals and accrue assets such as yachts, vineyards and and mansions, one of which, apparently has its own duck residence (Medvedev denies the claims). 

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“These kinds of funny and absurd details, are as funny and absurd as the image of Medvedev,” said artist Artem Loskutov, the brains behind an annual absurdist apolitical march called “Monstration”, who attended the Moscow demonstration on Sunday (without any ducks). “If you’re laughing, you’ve already won,” he said. “It’s a mockery of power.”

However, there’s a more practical reason too. Attendees, especially at an unsanctioned protest, were reluctant to carry placards. Objects were a way of avoiding carrying overt written statements. “For any posters, people were detained,” said Loskutov, “So some brought running shoes.”

Trainers tied together by the laces were flung over lamp-posts and metro entrance signs in reference to high-end Nike trainers allegedly bought by Medvedev. “Internet shopping actually held the key to Medvedev’s empire,” claimed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the video. “His purchases are not limited to footwear. The checkered shirt that Medvedev wears along with the trainers can also be found among his orders.”

Loskutov recalled an incident in the city centre.“On Pushkin Square I saw someone throw trainers onto a tree and it caused an approving noise from people in the area, applause,” he said. The practice spread.

“One woman had these trainers kind of cut out of cardboard, painted to look like Medvedev’s trainers, and on them was written ‘a thief should sit in prison’,” said Guardian journalist Alec Luhn, who was detained at the protest. 

After initial details emerged in mid-September, Russians took to social media to mock the minister.

“The same duck that lives on the territory of Medvedev’s estate”.

Medvedev’s spokeswoman termed the allegations against him “propagandistic attacks,” Reuters reported on Monday. The same day, presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov praised the work of the security forces, stating: “Essentially what we saw yesterday in several places – probably especially in Moscow – is a provocation and a lie.”

Tens of thousands of Russians from Moscow to Vladivostok swarmed city streets on Sunday as part of unsanctioned protests against corruption – the largest and most widespread of their kind since 2011.

However, people at the scene noted a marked difference in participant age. This time, the crowd appeared to be of a younger generation. “A lot of young people, schoolchildren, students, 14-20 years old,” said Loskutov. “For them it is still a novelty. Among these people there is more optimism than among the older generations.”

The journalist Luhn was arrested after approaching a police van containing protest organiser Alexei Navalny, despite showing police his foreign accreditation. “There were 17 [of us] – they took us to a police station on the outskirts of Moscow.” He said that two were underage “both young men,” and the majority of those people were “in their late teens or early 20s.”

“There was another young man who was asking in the police van if people thought he was going to be kicked out of university for being arrested at the protest,” he said.

Fourteen-year-old “Platon” marched in Moscow. “I can’t do anything else now, but I can show my point of view,” he said. “I think it is the only way to make the situation in our country better.” He cited corruption, the lack of democracy and freedom of speech as key reasons behind his attendance. “There were a lot of teenagers,” he said. “I didn’t carry any symbols, but my friend carried a poster with an inscription, ‘Mededev, give our money back’.”

“I was really afraid, but I knew my parents wouldn’t be angry if police took me,” he added.

Sixteen-year-old “Maria” expressed similar sentiments. “I blame them [Putin and Medvedev] both the same because they’re the head of government,” she said. 

“The media is absolutely silent about everything that’s going on … it makes me confident that we should change our government. I’m not scared at all, I want ‘the freedom.'”

While the protests were directed towards Medvedev, “Platon” said that to him, the specific person didn’t matter. “Everyone involved is responsible,” he said. “Anyone in the government could stand up and do something.”

While police reported an attendance figure of 8,000 at the Moscow protests, officials in the past have been known to severely underestimate attendance levels.

Police arrested hundreds of protesters in Moscow. Official figures said 500 arrests, while independent human rights watchdog OVD-Info put the figure closer to 1,000. “Riot police broke into the crowd of passers-by, took people with posters and carried them to the bus,” said the artist and protestor Loskutov. He termed the number a “record in recent years”.

The opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Navalny was sentenced to 15 days in prison on Monday and handed a 20,000 ruble (£280) fine. He is already serving a suspended sentence for fraud and embezzement – charges which he has termed politically motivated. He plans to run for president in 2018.

Navalny tweeted from court on Monday that “The time will come that we will be judging them (only honestly).” A statement on his website later added that Putin and Medvedev were trying to close his fund to fight corruption, and that 20 of its employees, including Navalny, had been “arrested or detained”.