Its paintwork of planets and spaceships suggests galactic goals. “Hear us!” orders a yellow command spray-painted on one side. But with a gigantic Russian flag floating from its rooftop wing and “We are Sergei Furgal” signs covering most windows, the purpose of this Mitsubishi van is clearly terrestrial.
This is the “Furgalmobile,” a symbol of the three-week-long massive protests in the Far East Russian city of Khabarovsk to restore to power the region’s former governor, 50-year-old Sergei Furgal, now facing charges in Moscow for allegedly organizing the murder of several businessmen.
An ordinary ice-cream truck before the protests, the vehicle, moving slowly through Khabarovsk's streets, has recently evolved into a type of political Good Humor van. But instead of ice cream, it has dispensed music – such as Soviet rocker Viktor Tsoi’s Peremen! (Change!) --- and recorded slogans demanding the release of “the people’s governor.”
On July 25, the “Furgalmobile” led marchers in what some independent media outlets estimated was the city’s largest demonstration to date, numbering in the tens of thousands.
Three days later, its owner and driver, Rostislav Buryak, had been sentenced to eight days in jail on charges of blocking traffic during a public event or demonstration.
The “Furgalmobile” can no longer rally protesters.
For fans, scores of whom gathered to protest Buryak's sentence, that is no ordinary event.
The city’s daily demonstrations over Furgal have evolved into a face-off over regional rights with the Kremlin. The ex-governor’s supporters charge that Furgal, a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), was detained and dispatched to Moscow in mid-July simply because the Kremlin fears his popularity. The criminal charges he faces carry a potential life sentence.
Many Khabarovsk residents see the Kremlin’s selection for his fill-in, lawyer Mikhail Degtyaryov, another member of the LDPR, as an outsider and interloper, analysts say. His claim that foreigners organized the protests has been largely met with scorn.
In a July 28 video statement from Khabarovsk’s Central Regional Court, the “Furgalmobile” driver echoed that rebuff. He argued that Furgal had worked for the public good, gaining “the people’s love,” and causing the Kremlin to see him as a potential challenger to President Vladimir Putin.
Since his own incarceration, Buryak has gone on a hunger strike. An appeal of his prison sentence failed. The Khabarovsk Regional Court ruled on July 30 that his van, which uses a right-hand steering wheel, must be restored to its original appearance and its front passenger door moved to the right side. Otherwise, its registration will be canceled, the judicial-rights watchdog OVD-Info reported, citing a RusNews livestream from the court.
Khabarovsk officials have not commented on the ruling.
Compared with other large-scale, unauthorized demonstrations in Russia, the city’s police have not yet violently detained hundreds of people – a reticence that some observers took as fear of the public response.
But the arrest of Buryak and the July 31 detention of YouTube blogger Aleksei Romanov, who regularly covered the protests, suggest that any tolerance may be starting to fray.
Buryak’s arrest was not his first clash with Khabarovsk officialdom.
On July 18, traffic police stopped the “Furgalmobile” outside the city’s Lenin Square, where protesters were gathering. After checking his registration papers, police noticed an unpaid fine, which Buryak claims he then paid. He alleges that the officers next threatened to take away his driver’s license and registration papers and impound his van.
After protesters gathered outside the building where Buryak was located, the matter was resolved, and the “Furgalmobile” returned to its mission. Police issued no official comment.
A married food-equipment engineer with children, Buryak purchased his Mitsubishi Fuso Rosa in 2017 after watching the U.S. film Chef, about a fired restaurant chef whose life is transformed once he begins working out of a food truck.
“I decided that I’ll have a cafe, that I’ll make people happy,” he told RBC.ru.
The publication reported that Buryak, then using the last name Smolensky, had had previous problems registering his van and receiving permission to work in Khabarovsk.
He apparently does not expect his problems to end soon. During his July 18 fracas with police, he predicted to supporters that municipal officials “will never let me work anymore in the city.”
But Buryak, scheduled for release from prison on August 5, insists he has no regrets.
“I’ll be able to look my friends and many acquaintances honestly in the eyes,” he said in his courtroom video, “because I went all the way.”