Russian Smear Attempt Backfires

by Nathaniel Botwinick

An attempt by pro-Kremlin authorities to smear Russian blogger Aleksei Navalny failed this weekend when the photo was shown to be a hoax.

Another photograph, showing Mr. Navalny with a man wanted by the police in Russia, the exiled financier Boris A. Berezovsky, appeared in a newspaper distributed on Saturday by a pro-Kremlin group in the major provincial city of Yekaterinburg, according to residents. The caption said that Mr. Navalny “never kept secret” his ties to Mr. Berezovsky.

Mr. Navalny said it was a fake, and his assertion was supported when the original, unaltered photograph appeared on Russian Web sites. That, in turn, set off a flurry of parodies using altered photographs, including the image of the alien, all seeming to highlight the outdated nature of some Russian propaganda.

While it is depressing that Putin’s supporters are still trying to smother opposition like the Soviets once did, it is comforting that the fraud was revealed so quickly. As Mr. Navalny said, “Vladimir Putin and his team do not understand the Internet.”

The image appeared to keep with a long and rich tradition in Russia of using photomontage as a political instrument. Altered prints routinely appeared in Soviet magazines.

Within hours of the newspaper’s distribution at an ice sculpture festival in Yekaterinburg, 850 miles east of Moscow, the real photographer came forward in a blog post to declare that the image had been doctored. The chain of events illustrated how the Internet and crowd-sourcing are transforming Russian politics, tilting the equation in favor of activists like Mr. Navalny.

The photographer, Alexey Yushenkov, who was not involved in the later alteration, posted the original photograph and a series of shots just before and after, helping to establish their authenticity.

Taken in May in the studio of the radio station Echo of Moscow, the photographs showed Mr. Navalny standing beside not Mr. Berezovsky but another Russian businessman, Mikhail D. Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets and a candidate for president — someone not considered a discrediting associate.

More on the Internet’s ability to protect freedom here.