Rallies in Absentia in Quarantined Russia:

Re-enacting the Space of Appearance in Augmented Reality

Elena Gapova
This paper presents a case study of rallies in absentia which took place in Russia during the quarantine of 2020 on the platform Yandex.Navigator Created by tech giant Yandex and similar to Google Maps, it allows users to check in at a particular geographic location and post comments, as if one were physically present. On April 20, 2020, multiple users in major Russian cities simultaneously checked in at symbolically significant urban sites like Red Square in Moscow and demanded the declaration of a national state of emergency and the compensation of financial losses. Due to the functionality of the digital tool that was used to create the augmented reality of a video game, participants re-enacted the “space of appearance” (the term by Hannah Arendt) where bodies in their plurality put forward claims to those in power by performing their message. This interpretation draws on the concepts of public space, performativity, and virtual/augmented reality to suggest that it is productive to think of this rally in terms of the heuristic potential of the case. The rally can be seen as a generic case of virtual gatherings that might be sustained with the help of digital technologies creatively repurposed for political uses in an increasingly digitised world.
rally in absentia; augmented reality; space of appearance; performance; video games; virtual mobilisation; Russian Federation; quarantine.


Contextualising Rallies in Absentia

Augmented Reality: Re-enacting the Space of Appearance

Performing the Message




Suggested Citation


When new communicative technologies – defined as a diverse apparatus of hardware and software that makes it possible to create and communicate messages – became available and, importantly, affordable to the larger public, it was obvious that the world’s populace got a powerful new tool. This was especially true when cell phones, an everyday device that currently permits the application of not just speech and text, but also visual and audio material to create content, ushered in a plethora of new ways to render meaning, facilitate activist interventions, and incite assembly. While this social mobilisation function became apparent more than a decade ago, when the Arab Spring was metaphorised as the first cell phone revolution (see Frangonikolopoulos 2012), it is only now, during the Covid era, when the pandemic has affected social interaction in major ways, that new technological possibilities have become crucial in sustaining social life. In spring 2020, national governments worldwide were first to resort to unprecedented measures to confront the spread of the virus, imposing quarantine and lockdowns on their populations, leaving the streets and public spaces of cities and towns emptied. Much social interaction, including civic activism and political protests, had to move online, while users were constantly exploring and devising new communicative possibilities that became available with the ICT evolution.

This article focuses on one demonstrated case of quarantine-related online protest: the ‘rallies in absentia’ (митинги in absentia) that took place spontaneously in several major Russian cities on April 20, 2020, after a strict lockdown had been announced by the government. Physically limited by quarantine rules but eager to be heard, protesters exploited some features of a Russian navigation application similar to Google Maps, called Yandex.Navigator, to demonstrate resistance and deliver their message (Fig. 1, 2).

A Twitter message by the user Solia about the rally in Rostov-on-Don. The message reads: “Introduce the state of emergency, we have no food left, no work”.
A screenshot of the rally in Krasnodar by user Typodar. https://twitter.com/typodar/status/1209380857510793217

The paper does not delve into the political claims and causes of this protest, except for a brief contextualisation of the case. Rather, the forthcoming analysis is quite formalistic: it concerns the creation of meaning (in a linguistic/semiotic sense) or, more concretely, it is the communicative and visual mechanisms through which it creates its message and conveys it to a broad audience. A related question is how this form of protest operates, what it is, and how it acquires the quality of being political. This analytical perspective is driven by the idea that the form of this autonomous event has heuristic significance for understanding how, under certain circumstances, the public sphere can be re-created online. If one thinks of the communicative techniques that have been made available with new media as a ‘language’ of sorts, which is what McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message” suggests, then this case can provide insights into the ‘grammatology’ of the sign system that sustains ICT’s meaning-making.1 A ‘deconstruction’ of this grammar consists of three parts. First, information is provided about the ‘rally in absentia’. Second, the rally is examined as a collective performance of a public gathering, or ‘space of appearance’ made possible by some specific features of Yandex.Navigator. Finally, the non-linear content creation at play in some new media forms is explored. I argue that this protest event is different from ‘normal’ virtual mobilisation done through the release of linear textual, visual, or audio information and calls for action. Rather, it is inadvertently pre-programmed by digital technology that makes use of both texts and images (maps) and, importantly, creates simplistic virtual worlds/augmented realities in which agents can re-enact ‘real’ action in a video game.

Contextualising Rallies in Absentia

The word ‘rally’ normally means a mass gathering with the purpose of political protest or support for a cause; as such, it requires the simultaneous presence of multiple actors in the same physical location. One of Hanna Arendt’s conceptualisations of the political is that of “the space of appearance” where people make their presence explicitly (“Erscheinungsraum”, Arendt 1958). From this point of view, a ‘rally in absentia’ seems to be a contradiction in terms: how can one rally if one is not actually there? However, rallies in absentia did take place ‘in’ several major Russian cities (Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, S. Petersburgh, Nizhnii Novgorod, Krasnodar, and others) on April 20, 2020, a couple of days after the strict lockdown had been instituted throughout the Russian Federation. Thousands of enraged citizens virtually ‘gathered’ in Moscow’s Red Square and in front of government buildings or other sites of state power in urban locations to protest against the strict self-isolation regime and demand benefits and reimbursements for those who had suffered financial losses because of pandemic shutdowns. The gatherings were ‘performed’ via the Yandex.Navigator and Yandex.Karty (maps) applications run by Yandex, a high-tech giant and, essentially, a Russian version of Google.2 The applications that can be accessed freely via a cell phone or a computer at www.karty.yandex.ru are similar to Google Maps, with one difference: they have a check-in and comment function. Thus, these tools allow “drivers themselves to report on the traffic situation on roads in real time” (Edwards 2020) by checking in at a particular location and posting a brief comment of warning (Fig. 1, 2) that shows up on the screens of other drivers (or any clients using the application). Comments are supposed to be traffic-related, but technically they do not have to be: sometimes drivers make ‘civic commentaries’, shaming officials for poor road conditions or other issues.

On April 20, 2020, several thousand virtual (or real?) drivers who checked themselves in simultaneously at some politically significant locations on the digital map, posted brief comments demanding compensation for the losses they had sustained because of the lockdown and made other claims as well. According to the BBC Russian Service, which was one of the first to report on the rally, it started spontaneously, first in the city of Krasnodar (Fig. 2) in the south of the Russian Federation and then went viral, as users in other cities became aware of what was going on and began to virtually ‘assemble’ in plazas and squares of their urban areas by checking in and commenting on digital maps (BBC 2020). From that point on anyone who used Yandex.Navigator could not help but see the ‘gathering’ on their phone screens. Figures 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are the screenshots of the rally as it appeared on cell phones at several moments throughout the day, as users were checking in on a digital map and posting hundreds of comments at the same time. Those read, for example: “We require a national state of emergency! The government shall resign!” or “Respect human rights and freedoms!” Most demands, however, were economic rather than political. Commentators lamented: “[We have] No money to pay our loans! What are we supposed to do?” One message declared: “Feed my cats, and I will stay home” (BBC 2020). As thousands of clients were checking in at the same time, and the ‘rally,’ due to the functionality of the tool, was visible to those ‘driving by’ or using the application. Yandex moderators, sometimes called “Yandex police”, mass-deleted the comments, as this massive subversive performance did have a disruptive quality and affected the functionality of the tool, but new ones would pop up.