Putin's Unruly Children: A New Generation Aims to Revitalize Russia

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Russia's young people are growing up with more freedom than ever. Twenty years after the end of communism, the first post-Soviet generation is transforming the country -- whether the once and future president likes it or not.

It's just before dawn at the Kremlin, and Marat Dupri is about to climb a monument to Czar Peter the Great. The 20-year-old with brown, curly hair is wearing a green, plaid jacket and blue gloves to fight the icy wind. He is standing on the bank of the Moskva River, facing the 98-meter (321-foot) colossus of dark, gray steel.

Marat and his three companions sneak past video cameras and guards. They call themselves "roofers," daredevils who climb Moscow's heavily guarded roofs and towers in search of the best views and the biggest thrills. Marat starts climbing the rusty ribs on the back of the monument.

The Russians call Peter I "the Great" because he brought more changes to his country than almost any other ruler. He wanted to give Russia a European face, but he did so with ruthless brutality and violently suppressed the uprisings of starving farmers. Tens of thousands of forced laborers died building his capital, St. Petersburg.

Born on Oct. 25, 1991, Marat is a child of change. He came into the world when the country his parents had known was dying. They told him stories about the Soviet days, when food rations and hunger were commonplace, and about the water that was dripping through the ceiling of the Moscow hospital while his mother gave birth. At that time, it had only been two months since tanks had rolled through Moscow, when hardliners in the Communist Party and from the ranks of the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, staged a coup against the reformer of the day, then-President Mikhail Gorbachev.

When the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, Marat was 12. Today, he admires Khodorkovsky for "having gone to prison for his convictions." The judiciary is not independent, he says. The verdicts against people like Khodorkovsky have been fixed, he adds, which is why he is now studying law.

Marat takes a seat on the bronze shoulders of Peter the Great and waits for the sunrise. It's one of those moments when he feels "like the freest person on earth," as he will later say. The red stars on the Kremlin towers, reminders of the former communist superpower, glow at his feet.

Children of the Putin System

Since the days of the czars, there has been an unwritten rule in this country: Russia is reformed from above. Stalin sold the farmers' harvests to pay for factories and industrialization, allowing 3.5 million people to starve in Ukraine alone. Gorbachev's perestroika gave the country more freedom, but it didn't know what to do with it -- at least not at the time.

Current Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin has stripped the oligarchs of their power and given Russians a system of state-controlled capitalism. At first, they were grateful to him because the system brought them modest prosperity, although they still had no political say.

Marat and others his age were barely 10 years old when Putin became president at the end of 1999. They can hardly remember his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. They are children of the Putin system.

Never before has a generation of Russians grown up with as much freedom as Marat's. Socialism is something it only knows from textbooks, while it sees the cult of the masses and deference to the authority of the Communists as foreign concepts.

In 1993, when Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on the parliament building and pushed through a new constitution that granted the president virtually unlimited power, Putin's unruly children were still in diapers. When their parents lost their savings in the 1998 Russian financial crisis, they had just started going to elementary school.

They grew up with irreverent American cartoon series like "South Park" and "The Simpsons." They use iPads, they love smartphones, and they go online every day. Most have more in common with youths their age in Europe and the United States than with their own parents. Indeed, the lines are beginning to blur between East and West.

No Longer Afraid

In 2012, many of Putin's children have grown out of poverty and now belong to a new middle class. Their memories of the hardships of earlier years are as faded as other impressions from their childhood days.

The Kremlin still uses state-run TV to drive home its propaganda about how Russians should be thankful for the stability they enjoy under Putin. But Russia's youth hardly watches TV anymore. Instead, young Russians spend their time in the free worlds of the Internet, getting their information and organizing through blogs, Facebook and Twitter. For the first time in generations, an entire segment of Russians can steer clear of government propaganda, depriving the Kremlin of control over large parts of their lives.

This is something new, and it has already led to a change in values and a new view of society. As diverse as they are, Putin's children are no longer afraid. They stand behind their ideals. They dream of democracy and a free press. Some envision careers as politicians or fashion journalists, while others dream of a nationalist Russia. But does the Putin generation also have the strength to break away from the top-down paradigm in place since the czars -- and to change the country from below?

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