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

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?

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."

Lena: The Putin Girl

Some 370 kilometers (230 miles) west of Moscow, Lena Zanitskaya is making her way through the mud in her high heels on Lenin Street in Smolensk, a provincial city near the border with Belarus. The 20-year-old, who will soon graduate with a degree in mathematics, heads the local chapter of the pro-Putin youth group Young Guard and hopes that Putin will never fall from power.

The Kremlin may have lost the battle for the hearts of young people like Vera Kichanova in Moscow, but the 300,000 members of youth groups loyal to the Kremlin still form a well-organized, nationwide reservoir of support. When Lena sits at her desk speaking on the phone with politicians and government officials, a life-sized cardboard cutout of Putin is looking over her shoulder. Someone has written the words "Putin, our hero" on the cardboard figure.

Putin is a "role model that our youth can look up to," Lena says, adding that he has brought a new, patriotic spirit to the country. "In the past, many people walked around in T-shirts displaying the US flag," she says. "Today, they are proud of our country and wear Russia's flag or a picture of Putin on their chests."

Lena herself is wearing fishnet stockings and earrings made of pink teddy bears. Although she still lives with her parents, she dreams of a political career in Moscow, preferably with a job at the White House on the Moskva, the seat of government. After completing an internship in the Smolensk district administration, she earned what all activists in the Kremlin youth hope for: the attention of the political establishment. Now, when she walks through Smolensk, the governor's Land Rover sometimes pulls up next to her. He rolls down his window and asks if she'd like a ride.

Putin abolished direct elections for provincial governors in 2004, and the Kremlin has appointed them ever since. Under pressure from the recent protests, he now intends to reinstate the elections. But Lena questions whether her country is ready for this. "Realistically," she says, "any villager can run for the job. Is this right? Governing a region is a challenge. But our president can appoint governors who are qualified for the job." She feels at odds with democracy.

Lena was born on March 20, 1991, in a garrison town on the Amur River, which marks Russia's border with China 6,000 kilometers east of Moscow. Her father was a soldier. When asked what she remembers from that time, she says, "I remember the months of waiting for his pay. And my mother, who had no money to go shopping." Putin, she adds, cleaned up these shortcomings. Now everyone is paid on time.

Still, the cadres in Putin's United Russia party are now being denounced as "scoundrels and thieves" who have managed to secure privileges for themselves. Lena was sitting in the audience when they nominated Putin as their presidential candidate in September. The Kremlin had bused her and thousands of other young activists to Moscow. She was glad to be going to Moscow, but when people at the university ask her why she fights for United Russia, she has no answer. She can only say, "There is no alternative."

Taissa: The Child of War

Taissa Jemalayeva, 20, demurely pulls a headscarf over her hair, though one designed by Louis Vuitton. The young Muslim woman from the Chechen capital Grozny wants to become a fashion journalist. She is a university student, but she also writes for Slukh khodyat -- Rumors, a lifestyle magazine for Chechnya's archaic society. In it, women can find tips on modest headscarves, and men test reports on handguns.

Putin's rule has left deeper marks in Chechnya than anywhere else in Russia. He had his troops attack the capital of the predominantly Muslim republic in 1999/2000 and, in 2004, he ordered the rebuilding of the city. But, these days, secular Russia is in danger of losing its battle against radical Islamists gaining strength in Chechnya.

Chechnya declared its independence two months before Taissa's birth on Nov. 11, 1991. Moscow sent troops to the republic three years later, and 25,000 people died in the battle to capture Grozny alone. At the time, relatives took Taissa to neighboring Dagestan. She still remembers fleeing Chechnya and seeing bodies along the roadside. There are no photos of her as a child. "No one poses in front of ruins," she says.

Taissa is walking through a shopping arcade on Grozny's main boulevard, which is now called Putin Prospekt. Luxury brands such as Burberry and Pierre Cardin are sold here, just as they are in the more hedonistic Moscow. Nevertheless, quotes from the Koran and devout verses written on the walls admonish Chechens to obey God. One also reads: "And anyone who puts his faith in Allah must love kings and sultans, and must bow to their commands."

Ramzan Kadyrov is Moscow's local sultan. Human rights activists accuse him of torture and murder. But the Kremlin values him because he assumes a tough stance toward Islamist rebels who are fighting to establish a theocracy in the northern Caucasus region. Russia has waged two wars over Chechnya, but thanks to Kadyrov, Moscow's soldiers are no longer engaged in house-to-house combat.

Taissa is also fighting a tenacious, daily battle -- but hers is for every centimeter of skin she can expose. She has just pulled her sleeves to a point above her elbows that the guardians of public morals will still allow. But she can no longer attend lectures at the university without a headscarf and a long skirt. Moscow's governor supports a strict course of Islamization.

Taissa would like to live like the fashion-conscious, self-confident young women in Moscow and the West, and she wants to be beautiful.

"Sometimes I think of emigrating," she says. And sometimes, she says, she inadvertently dials 911, the emergency number she remembers from American films, on her cell phone.

Svetoslav: The Neo-Nazi

Svetoslav Volkov has broad shoulders and a soft spot for Germany. A black sweater made by Thor Steinar, the clothing label based in the eastern German state of Brandenburg that is popular among neo-Nazis, covers his tattoo. He has the German words for "Loyalty is my honor," the motto of Hitler's Waffen SS, tattooed on his forearm.

The 20-year-old grew up where he says Russia "was the most criminal in the 1990s." Lyubertsy is a bleak neighborhood of prefabricated apartment blocks outside Moscow's city limits. The mafia committed robberies there and controlled nightclubs and entire factories. A plaque in front of his building commemorates the victims of one attack. Svetoslav and his mother witnessed the murders from a playground nearby.

Svetoslav doesn't smoke or drink, and he is very active in sports. He pursues a philosophy called "straight edge." He is part of a new generation of neo-Nazis in Russia who are not as conspicuous as the skinheads of the past -- and more eloquent. They preach armed conflict against the state. Their main enemy, Svetoslav says, is the Russian Federation. "The goal is to seize power," he says, and, to that end, he and others like him dress up in combat gear and practice shooting with hunting rifles in a forest near Moscow.

These men dream of a different Russia, one that is nationalistic, Slavic and doesn't include the Caucasus, which has been part of Russia since 1864. Svetoslav calls this the "separation of existences." He incites hatred against Muslims and distributes a brutal video on the Internet. It depicts a Chechen man slitting the throat of a Russian woman. "Dedicated to the tolerant and the patient," Svetoslav has written under the video.

At protests in Moscow, the black, yellow and white flag of the nationalists can sporadically be seen fluttering next to the banners of the liberal opposition. But if free elections were held nationwide, the right-wing nationalist would probably prevail rather than the democrats favored in the West.

Marat: The Roof-Climber

Marat Dupri, the "roofer," is sitting on the edge of a roof overlooking the Moskva River. On the other side, the Russian flag is flying above the White House, the headquarters of the government. Putin has an office on the fifth floor. Marat says the prime minister is the "most honest of the candidates" in the presidential election. But then he rails against the "thoroughly corrupt government establishment" that Putin has spawned.

Marat sometimes dreams of living in Switzerland because "everything there is so well-arranged and orderly." But then he talks about the sadness that overcomes him whenever he leaves Moscow. He is torn between conflicting desires to emigrate from and remain in Russia, and between such widely divergent political role models as the imprisoned oligarch Khodorkovsky and Prime Minister Putin.

Another new aspect of the Putin generation is that it doesn't feel like it has to make a decision right away. "We no longer live under the heel of the Soviet Union, which imposed its positions on every citizen," Marat says. "Today, we have free choice."

What's more, he makes it absolutely clear that he refuses to allow anyone to deprive him of his right to make his own decisions.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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