In Russia, Dissent Has the Power of Youth
Mikhail Obozov was in grade school when thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow and helped bring down the Soviet Union. The repressions of the Communist era are like old family stories, droll and sad, told over the kitchen table.
“Of course I don’t remember it, but I imagine it like the book by George Orwell, ‘1984,’ ” the 21-year-old engineering student said. “The repression of personality. People being brainwashed, turned into state ideologues. Actually, you can draw a lot of parallels between this novel and the situation in Russia right now.”
Alarmed at what was happening under the government of President Vladimir V. Putin, Obozov this month launched a student group called Marching Without Putin. One night last week, Obozov and dozens of students and other young activists joined the pensioners who have been swarming Lenin Square here for weeks to protest cutbacks in their social benefits.
Many of the youths said they were angered by bus fare increases, a possible end to military draft deferments and the erosion of democratic freedoms in Russia. Across the snowy square, they bellowed anti-Putin slogans and calls for the government to resign.
“There is no real democracy in Russia, and people who try to resist the power of the authorities are thrown into prison. That’s why young people want to have real political rights. People are learning to resist, and that’s good,” said Alexander Iskrinsev, 20, a law student.
Although turnout was modest, the significance of the St. Petersburg protest and smaller demonstrations in other cities was potentially great. Popular revolutions in nearby Ukraine and Georgia were driven not by traditional political opposition parties, but by large groups of well-organized youths willing to occupy the streets.
The young protesters also did not shy from directing their venom directly at the president. Out of fear, decorum or both, Putin’s name usually goes unuttered in public expressions of political opposition in Russia.
“We shouldn’t look for scapegoats. The main person who deserves all the blame is Mr. Putin, and every new day of Putin as president pushes citizens farther from a normal life,” Maxim Reznik, the 30-year-old head of the pro-democracy Yabloko party in St. Petersburg, said during Tuesday night’s protest here.
The handful of student protests do not yet suggest that a youthful opposition is building here comparable to those that toppled Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze and Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.
“What Russia’s youth movements lack is proper organization,” said Alexei Makarin of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “In Georgia and Ukraine, it was much more than a casual Internet chat among friends who decided to set up a political organization and go someplace ‘without Putin.’
“On the other hand, given the presence of some sort of organizing center and appropriate funding, the same situation as in Ukraine or Georgia could take shape in Russia. It cannot be ruled out at all.”
Here in St. Petersburg, youthful activists say a popular uprising in Russia probably would be more turbulent than the “Velvet Revolution” that brought down the Communist government in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia in 2003 and the “Orange Revolution” that started in Ukraine in November, though at least half a dozen Czech students were on hand for the protest Tuesday in what they said was a show of support.
“We support the events in Ukraine. At the time it was happening, some young people started setting up orange tents on Nevsky Prospekt as a demand for change. But they were immediately surrounded by men in plainclothes, and the tents were removed,” activist Obozov said.
“We are not for bloody revolutions or cataclysms. We are looking for normal democratic development. But if they continue their suppression of all possibilities, I’m afraid some bloody variation of events is possible,” Obozov said. “In Ukraine, everything went down peacefully. It won’t be like that in Russia.”
Democracy advocates say young people, many focused on education, jobs and amusement, have been largely absent from the move to build democracy in the post-Soviet era.
“It’s not so easy to explain to all these young people, who are 18, about all the tragedies,” said Ekaterina Genieva, who for years supervised the Soros Foundation’s civil society-building efforts in Russia. “They say, ‘We want to have normal lives. We don’t want to hear about all those Soviet horrors.’ ”
She called the recent appearance of youthful protesters an “excellent” sign. “When we hear that somebody raised his voice saying, ‘This is wrong,’ it’s very good,” she said. “Because we need new forces. We need young people to stand and speak. More than that, we need somebody who is not infected, or buried under all this weight of our tragedies.”
Thousands of youths have rallied around Putin and supported his aggressive assertion of Russian national interests. Marching Together, the 50,000-strong youth organization from which Marching Without Putin wryly took its name, has held large rallies celebrating the president’s victories. It advises its recruits, some of whom get free pagers and gym discounts, to read classics of Russian literature and visit the sites of great Russian battle victories.
Alexei Kuznetsov, 24, the group’s public relations director in St. Petersburg, discounted and downplayed the efforts of the anti-Putin activists.
“I don’t think the number of people here is very big,” he said. “Look. There are 4.5 million people living in St. Petersburg, and by my account, 2,000 people are here. Marching Together can field up to 20,000 to participate in a march or a rally.
“We are a democratic country, and they have a right to chant their slogans, but sociological polls show that the majority of people support the president. When he came to power, a lot of people connected their hopes with him, and since he hasn’t lost much of his trust in the last five years, it means he has lived up to his expectations.”
The Putin government touched a raw nerve with students when it reduced their public transportation subsidies along with those of pensioners. Other students opposed the government crackdown on the Yukos oil company, which they saw as suffocating their future job prospects along with the Russian economy.
Still more anger was raised by announcements that college students no longer get automatic draft deferments, a crucial issue for young men hoping to avoid service in Russia’s war against separatists in the republic of Chechnya.
“First of all, we students don’t want to fight in Chechnya, and secondly, we don’t want to serve in the army in order to build vacation homes for generals,” Obozov said.
He found wide agreement with his views in chat rooms on the Internet, and Marching Without Putin was born. So far, it has done most of its work via its website, www.noputin.com, gathering several hundred supporters in cyberspace. But Obozov hopes the initial two rallies in St. Petersburg will spark others across the country.
This month, the dean of his faculty at a local technical institute and an official with the municipal youth department approached Obozov and his colleagues. The official also phoned the students’ parents and warned that their political activities could bring problems at school, Obozov said.
“He asked us not to touch on the war in Chechnya, and not to touch on Putin personally,” he said. “He asked us to be more moderate, not to create problems for ourselves and others.”
“It’s not that we live in a police state,” said Sergei Shedov, 21, a computer programming student and a co-founder of Marching Without Putin, “but we think that everything is going in that direction.”
In Moscow, www.skaji.net, or “Say No,” was launched by a group of students as another Web-based opposition force that challenges young Russians to reject the benefits reduction law and the “unprofessional government.” The site has a map pinpointing more than 80 Russiancities in which there have been protests against the new benefits law.
“We show that Russia is burning. Really, there is a big, big problem in this country. But if you tune in to the first [government-run television] channel or second channel, you will never know about it,” said Skaji.net creator Alexander Korsunov, 22, a graduate student in political science.
The website, he said, is an attempt to reach people in the 20-to-40-year-old range who have had no access to full information through the government-controlled broadcast media, and who have been ignored by traditional political parties because they don’t vote.
“There is a tremendous power out there: students. In every country, they have always been the most socially active,” Korsunov said. “The question now is whether anyone will be able to gather them up and put them in some direction. Who will it be?”