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November 19, 2017
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Election protests in Russia. Source: euronews.com.

What's the first colour that comes to mind when thinking about Russia? Probably red: the colour of the historical flag of the Soviet Union; the Red Army formed by the Communist government after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution; and the red stained streets of "Bloody Sunday" in 1905, when soldiers of the Imperial Guard shot hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in Saint Petersburg. More than a century later, Russian protestors have a different face and white, not red, is the colour that represents them. 

One of the hip, young faces of the 
Russian protests. Source: rt.com.

Hundreds of thousands gathered for the Moscow street demonstrations that began in December 2011 and continued until after the presidential vote on March 4. Many protestors wore white ribbons as peaceful symbols of protest against Vladimir Putin's third mandate as Russia's president and the alleged gerrymandering involved in his election. From young students parading white ribbons on their backpacks, to socialites showing off the white knots tied to their chic, brand-name purses, all had a common interest in expressing their political leanings through their outfits and favourite designer labels.

What started as the largest demonstration for greater democracy in Russia since the early 1990's (after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989), seemed to develop into a cultural event, where fashion played a role as a way for protestors to show their political opinions. "We Russians are famous for being unpredictable. Sometimes we are expected to express our political views and instead we start a new cultural flow," says Irina Lis, a 26-year-old fine arts and photography masters graduate. The "white protestors" were asking for fairness and honesty from the government and while they were at it, they also took a chance, in a peculiar way, to be heard more than ever.

From young students parading white ribbons on their backpacks, to socialites showing off the white knots tied to their chic, brand-name purses, all had a common interest in expressing their political leanings through their outfits and favourite designer labels.

Generally, the young and old from the lower and middle classes were setting trends with white protest ribbons while sporting valenki boots (the typical inspired Red Army felt boots), fur coats and bearskins. Fashion on the Barricades, a website established by Georgian-born designer and political blogger Aleksandr Arutyunov, suggested that there were obvious sartorial preferences according to political sympathy. Blue clothes, Rolex watches, Pierre Cardin and Prada accessories denoted supporters of Putin's United Russia party; dark colours, particularly brown, represented people for Russia's Social Democratic party; a smart, casual style in green for the fans of Yabloko (Russia United Democratic Party) and classic red for those of the Communist Party. Regardless of different dress codes, all of Putin's opponents were united by their white ribbons, symbolising their call for fair elections.

On Fashion on the Barricades, one can find a few protester style tips for aspiring revolutionaries. The hippest demonstrators were usually young people, sporting t-shirts and tank tops featuring Putin surrounded by a frame of roses, men in classy trousers, women in designer fuchsia boots and sheepskin coats, purple-flowered headscarves and neon green sunglasses.

"Dressing differently increases your chances to be seen and heard," says Julia Dale, founder of The Russian Fashion Blog. "Protests may be trendy but they have nothing to do with fashion. In fact, it is a rather dangerous kind of activity. Police in Russia can be quite unfriendly and protesters have to keep in mind the possibility of being arrested, this applies to celebrities as well, no matter what they wear." When a well-known Russian journalist, blogger and socialite, Bozhena Rynska, was arrested in December 2011 during the very first protest in Moscow whilst wearing an expensive fur coat, her friend Ksenia Sobchak, one of Russia's biggest celebrities, wrote in her Tatler magazine column, "Bozhena equally suffers for the fate of her motherland as for the fate of her fur coats."

Julia Nikolaeva

Julia Nikolaeva's MBFW Russia designs.
Source: canada.com.

During the latest demonstrations, it was clear that fashion was as relevant to the election as the opinion polls. Sobchak, who is the daughter of Putin's late friend and former mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, restyled her outfit to speak out as a leader of the opposition. She dismissed her usual colourful, extravagant look to don four-inch leather heels and grey, black and white down coats. The mood of mass discontent and societal tensions was even reflected in some austere collections at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia in March. References to current affairs were quite obvious in designer Julia Nikolaeva's collection: models wore classic dark blue jumpers, long skirts and brown glossy, textured raincoats, climbing piles of newspapers and throwing boxes around as a sign of revolution.

Russia is undergoing a "colour change" from red to white. Coming out of the Communist era, the country no longer wants to be considered as only respondent to Eastern European culture; the people are open to the cultural influences of the West and want to be a part of it. Through fashion, the white ribbon protests were a resounding sign that the Russian people are aware of their power and freedom of expression under a democratic system and they know how to use it. 

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