Putin's Unruly Children A New Generation Aims to Revitalize Russia
Part 2: Vera: The Dissident
Vera Kichanova, 20, has put her passport into a new cover that hides the double-headed eagle of the czars. The cover bears the image of two hands breaking a chain. Vera, who sports a pageboy haircut, wants to prevent Putin from being elected president a third time.
She is sitting in Eat & Talk, a café near the Kremlin and a gathering place for journalists and members of the opposition. The café offers Internet access, cheap wine and pencils with which guests can scribble their plans onto paper tablecloths. Vera is typing on her laptop. She started writing for a local paper at 14, and now she works for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper critical of the Kremlin.
In January 2009, a nationalist killer shot Anastasia Baburova, a journalist at the Novaya Gazeta, to death just a stone's throw south of Eat & Talk. That was the day Kichanova decided she wanted to write for the paper.
Anna Politkovskaya, a celebrated Russian reporter who exposed human rights violations in Chechnya and was murdered in 2006, studied in the journalism department at Lomonosov Moscow State University, where Vera is also a student.
The department, known as the "Jourfak," has been training journalists for more than 60 years, but it has never become a stronghold for advocates of press freedom. In fact, the establishment still uses the university's classical building as a backdrop for demonstrations of power. President Dmitry Medvedev was applauded when he walked up the steps of the column-lined atrium in October 2011, even though he had just been mocked online for having deferred to Putin and abandoned plans to run for a second term. Smiling blissfully, Medvedev waved to the crowd and praised the place's special energy.
The Kremlin had organized the event. Hand-picked activists from pro-government youth groups were seated in the crowd and following the instructions of a TV host who had instructed them that they had "to smile and clap after every response."
Secret service agents stopped ordinary Jourfak students at the entrance. Vera was arrested. "She is a mediocre student with a fondness for causing trouble," Yassen Zassoursky, the 82-year-old who has headed the journalism department as dean and then president since 1965, would later say.
Indeed, Vera regularly joins protests in Moscow and, in the evenings, she organizes debates for the unregistered Libertarian Party of Russia. She dreams of a country in which "drunk police officers no longer attack citizens."
The rebellion against Putin is also a generational conflict. It began with mass demonstrations triggered by the reportedly manipulated parliamentary election in December. It pits cosmopolitan youths against their parents and grandparents, who have been worn down by crises and wars. Valuing the stability of the Putin years, they have so far avoided getting involved in politics.
Vera says she sometimes asks her parents: "Where were you when the president took over the NTW television station in 2000?" Putin had the opposition station, controlled by oligarchs at the time, taken over by the energy company Gazprom. NTW has been broadcasting the Kremlin's propaganda ever since. NTW journalists interviewed Vera after Medvedev's visit to the Jourfak, but the interview was never aired. Whenever she comes home late at night after attending a protest and once again being interrogated by the police, she opts not to tell her mother the truth. Instead, she says she was "out dancing."