I once knew a businessman named Sergei from Severodvinsk, the Arctic port where Russia builds its nuclear submarines. Sergei used to be involved in the slot-machine business, a fast way to come into money and unwanted friends from the underworld. In Russia’s rough-and-tumble transition from communism to capitalism, a man did what he had to do. But when Sergei tried to clean up his business a few years ago, he found that the local officials were more extortionary than the crooks. He sold what he could and moved to Finland, where he bought a company that builds yachts.
Sergei was smart, funny and articulate. In many ways he reminded me of my friend Misha, a Siberian who runs a rail-cargo company in Vladivostok. Misha plans to send his daughter to study in Austria and eventually retire there with his wife. Sergei and Misha, both in their forties, are enterprising, successful – and completely apolitical. In other post-communist countries, their peers are running the government. In Russia, the best and the brightest who came of age in the 1990s are planning to flee. Those who aren’t so fortunate, like billionaire oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 48, are in jail.
When Putin designated Medvedev as his successor, many Russians wanted to believe that a generational shift was taking place at the top.
When Vladimir Putin designated Dmitry Medvedev as his 42-year-old successor to the presidency four years ago, many Russians wanted to believe that a generational shift was taking place at the top. To the rest of the world, Medvedev presented a fresh, unfamiliar face of Russia. He embraced the internet and its attendant gadgetry, pledged friendly relations with the West and condemned the repressions of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In his second year in office, Medvedev called for the remaking of Russia, including a war on corruption, the building of a high-tech economy and reform of the criminal justice system. Modernization became the catchword of his presidency.
Khodorkovsky, who had come to see himself as the conscience of the nation, offered Medvedev some unsolicited advice from his jail cell. In a commentary published in the Moscow daily Vedomosti in October 2009, Khodorkovsky warned that “Generation M” – consisting of entrepreneurs, managers, engineers and intellectuals – would only succeed in modernizing Russia if given more political freedom.
Over the subsequent two years, Russian liberals’ hope in Medvedev’s modernization drive gradually withered and finally died. On September 24, Medvedev announced that he would step aside so Putin could run in the March 2012 presidential election. It became obvious to everyone that the only purpose of Medvedev’s presidency was to help Putin meet a constitutional restriction on three consecutive terms.
“Step out of the internet into ‘reality’ and break out of the shell of habit and servile behavior. Stop telling yourself that nothing depends on you. Things do depend on you!”
In a prophetic follow-up commentary in Vedomosti in October, Khodorkovsky urged Generation M not to despair and to form a new “modernizing class.”
“It’s necessary to learn to step out of the internet into ‘reality’ and break out of the shell of habit and servile behavior,” Khodorkovsky wrote. “It’s necessary to stop telling yourself that nothing depends on you. Things do depend on you!”
Two months later, Moscow experienced its biggest anti-government demonstration in 20 years.
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Most of the organizers behind the protests in Moscow are representatives of Khodorkovsky’s Generation M. The reason they even had permission for the first big rally on December 10 was because their modus operandi was to constantly petition the city to hold demonstrations. Before the December 4 parliamentary elections, no more than a few hundred die-hard Putin foes ever appeared at these protests, which usually ended with riot police swinging their truncheons.
After reports over blatant vote-rigging followed the elections, an entirely new group of people appeared on the street, providing the critical mass to turn the demonstrations into a popular phenomenon. They were the children of perestroika (rebuilding), Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s ill-fated attempt to reform the communist system 25 years ago.
Medvedev and Khodorkovsky talked about the process of modernization. But Russia’s young urban elite already was modern.
Medvedev and Khodorkovsky talked about modernization as a process, but Russia’s young urban elite already was modern. Russia’s iGeneration is addicted to the internet, speaks English and considers vacations in New York or Goa completely normal. The iPhone, the ultimate consumer attribute of an open society, clashed with Putin’s closed political system. It was the contradiction between free global citizen and disenfranchised Russian subject that drove young Muscovites to take to the street.
Medvedev failed in his job as a bridge between generations. Putin, 59, still can’t grasp the significance of the protest movement because he doesn’t go online himself. Last week, Putin said on national TV that he didn’t have time to use the internet. In 2007, he told Time magazine that he had never written an e-mail.
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The other day I caught up with my friend Max Trudolyubov, 40, editor of the opinion page at Vedomosti. I asked him what he thought had changed in people’s heads.
“Protesting has become fashionable,” Max said. “I never imagined that our whole ‘glamorous’ society would get involved. So many years they consciously ignored politics, Putin and television. Now protesting is the mainstream.”
“Protesting has become fashionable. I never imagined that our whole ‘glamorous’ society would get involved. So many years they consciously ignored politics, Putin and television.”
Alexei Navalny, the 35-year-old anti-corruption blogger and hero of the Moscow protest movement, first grabbed people’s attention last year with allegations of a $4 billion fraud during the construction of a trans-Siberian oil pipeline. Journalists at previously apolitical city magazines Bolshoi Gorod and Afisha began to take notice, Max said. Together with progressive internet projects like news site slon.ru and TV channel Dozhd, they planted the seeds of protest among a generation that didn’t buy newspapers or visit their quaint web sites. Youthful media helped make politics cool again, Max said, taking the place of Generation M papers like Vedomosti, Kommersant and Novaya Gazeta.
“The oldest people in that crowd are 35,” Max said. He paused as the words sank in. For a moment we felt like old men.
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Alyona Popova, the omnipresent, vivacious head of the protest movement’s virtual press center, told me to meet her in Bulka, a sleek café in downtown Moscow with long wooden tables and big windows. The background music was a mish-mash of genres – string quartet, jazz, Madonna – that somehow all fit the environment. When I walked in, most of the customers were hunched over their laptops.
Popova, 28, has created her own web platform as a place for high-tech start-ups, female entrepreneurs and social activists to come together. As we talked, she literally hyperlinked my notebook, scribbling down the web addresses of her various projects.
In September she decided to run for the Duma on the party list of social democratic Fair Russia – the only party that had a chance of getting into parliament besides Putin’s United Russia, the Communists and the nationalistic Liberal Democrats. Even though Fair Russia won a record 13 percent of the vote, the result still wasn’t high enough to give her a seat in the new parliament.
“The older generation was very patient. Young people are impatient; they live at high speed.”
Popova confessed that she had never voted in the past. But this time she decided to become directly involved because of her civic involvement via the internet. Popova said Fair Russia deputies Gennady Gudkov, Oksana Dmitriyeva and Ilya Ponomaryov were examples that it was still possible to do politics in Putin’s Russia.
Popova was born and raised in Yekaterinburg, the industrial city in the Urals where the last czar was executed and Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, rose to power. Politics was always discussed at home, she said, and her parents, engineers, went to all the pro-democracy rallies during perestroika.
Her grandmother’s generation is obsessed with economizing, Popova said, while her parents belong to the generation of “New Russians” with their yachts and villas. Her own generation could be characterized as “the generation of logic,” she said. She drives a Mazda, lives in a normal-sized apartment and doesn’t need “Dolce & Gabbana” scrawled down the front of her top.
“The older generation was very patient. Now, young people are impatient; they live at high speed,” she said. Vague promises of reform 10 or 20 years down the road don’t work anymore.
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Maria Baronova, 27, says she personally was transformed by Navalny. A chemist by education who translates technical texts from English into Russian, she now volunteers her time as a spokeswoman for the protest movement. I interviewed her in a taxi at 3 in the morning on Wednesday after Navalny was released from prison for participating in an anti-government protest.
Baronova said she met Navalny six years ago when she was a student at Moscow State University. As an activist for the liberal Yabloko party, Navalny showed up at events organized by the Oborona (Defense) youth movement founded by opposition leader Ilya Yashin. (Together with Navalny, Yashin was arrested after the first protest against vote-rigging on December 5 and sentenced to 15 days.) The student gatherings were only “half-political” and more of an excuse to party, Baronova said. Navalny didn’t stand out; at the time he seemed to Baronova like “an ordinary clerk.”
When Baronova graduated, she went into business dealing with lab equipment. She watched most of her university classmates pursue their careers abroad. Like other Muscovites her age, she willingly took part in Russia’s consumer boom – itself a sort of protest against the gray, modest conformity of communism. She and her friends worried about mortgages and car payments and vacations on the beach somewhere.
“We paid kickbacks and never thought about the morality of it. And then Navalny explained to us that kickbacks are bad and immoral, that we’re stealing from ourselves and helping plunder the country,” she said. “We started to live differently.”
“We paid kickbacks and never thought about the morality of it. Alexei Navalny explained to us that we’re stealing from ourselves and helping plunder the country. We started to live differently.”
When Baronova voted in the December 4 elections, she said she witnessed blatant ballot-stuffing. Many of the workers at her neighborhood polling station were her former school teachers. She tried to file an official complaint with the local election commission, but it wasn’t accepted. When Baronova finally got home that Sunday night and turned on her computer, she saw that the internet was full of reports of vote-rigging.
The next day, Navalny called on his web followers to come to a protest at the Chistye Prudy Metro station permitted by the city. The last time Baronova had attended a rally she was 7 years old, when her mother took her to a demonstration celebrating the failed anti-Gorbachev coup in 1991. Now, she felt, was her time.
After riot police started beating peaceful demonstrators, including her, she didn’t have second thoughts about joining the movement. Now there are 10,000 volunteers like her, Baronova said. Some are involved with security at tomorrow’s big rally, others are making stickers and flyers. Many participants are dipping into their personal savings to contribute to the movement.
Old friends flew in from Germany and England just to attend the December 10 protest, Baronova said, and now many are considering a return to Russia on a permanent basis.