Do Lego Men Have Freedom of Speech Rights? Russian Authorities Fear The Coming Toy Revolution


Widespread protests in Russia that began early in December continue as crowds take to the streets to speak out against unfair elections and widespread fraud endemic to Russian elections.

Though the governments in most major cities in Russia have approved requests and allowed many of these protests to occur (protests do, after all, have to be approved of by authorities in Russia before they can happen), in the Siberian city of Barnaul authorities repeatedly rejected activists’ requests to hold a sanctioned protest. Activists responded by getting creative and creating a new kind of opposition protestor to get the attention of the Russian government: their childhood toys.

Using small dolls, Lego men, and teddy bears, activists built a miniature, staged protest. But Russian police soon cracked down, and courts have said that the toy demonstration is illegal, as the toys aren’t people and thus don’t have rights.

Though a clever and mostly comical way to prove a point, the overreaction of the Russian authorities turned the toy terrors into an unnecessarily larger issue, helping the protesters to prove their government has become an oppressive authoritarian force.

Russians are not the only ones who have attempted to think outside the box to demonstrate their discontent with government. Activists from countries around the world have certainly employed unique methods of protest, some comical (squirting milk straight from a cow at riot police), and others just gross (a woman hanging herself by fishing hooks for 15 minutes). Looking at the outcome of many of the attention-seeking methods, there seems to be a reason that large-scale protests, by and large, stick to the standard marches, signs, and human walls. These other off-the-wall antics have pretty poor records of success (one group protesting for fairer fathers’ rights in custody battles planned to kidnap the 5-year-old son of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is among the quickest ways to discredit your organization), and though they certainly attract attention, fail to have their desired effect. Barnaul’s crusading toys may be an exception.

Rather than ignoring the protest, allowing it to run its course and fade quickly from the news cycle, the police treated the “paratoyal activity” as an actual threat, taking detailed notes, writing down what each placard said and filming a video of the plastic toys. Police asked prosecutors to investigate the legality of the protests featuring Lego men, plastic penguins, and a handful of their cousins. Given that part of the purpose of the toy protest was to show the absurdity of the Russian government’s handling of organized opposition, the police played right into protesters’ hands. They went even further when authorities actually took the time to rule the protest illegal and make a statement clarifying that toys are not citizens of Russia (especially imported ones, their spokesman noted) and the toys are not even people (surprise) and thus do not have the right.

Though it may be an overreaction to rule on the rights of toys, if Russian authorities did allow such a protest to happen as a sanctioned event, they would be granting plastic objects greater rights of expression than their own real citizens. What was a clever – though otherwise fairly unmemorable protest – is now a nationwide story and a role model for protesters in other cities.

Several other cities around Russia are now submitting requests to hold their toy townhalls, mainly due to the absurd reactions it garnered. In one sense, the paranoia amongst government officials is understandable, given the size and scale of protests over the past several months; it’s becoming clear that Putin’s decade-long grip on power is eroding and the Russian people are demanding more than blatant fraud and election tampering from their government. But the extreme reaction of the authorities will only highlight the absurdity and paranoia of those in power and add fuel to the protest fire.

Gatherings of children’s plastic playthings across Russia leading police to spend their day treating the cast of Toy Story like menacing threats would be a fantastic way to highlight how bad things have become in Russia, as well as providing an entertaining news story for the rest of us to read about.

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