Anti-government protests are on the rise in Russia. The unrest appears to be prompted, in part, by opposition leader Alexey Navalny's internet-driven campaign against Kremlin corruption as well as his lofty bid for the Russian presidency in 2018.
The sudden surge in protests seems to have caught nearly everyone by surprise — not so much for their numbers but because of their demographics. Of the tens of thousands who turned out across the country, most protesters were Russians in their late teens and early 20s.
Few would argue that President Vladimir Putin's reign faces immediate risk. However, the sudden political awakening of a generation that grew up under Putin's rule has triggered a debate: has the Kremlin's vaunted state propaganda machine "lost" its sway over internet-savvy Russian youth?
“We all joke that by 2024, the country will be ours,” says Alyona Khlestunova, a 23-year-old in the university town of Tomsk in western Siberia.
A coordinator with Navalny's local campaign office in Tomsk, Khlestunova was among those who helped organize a March rally against government corruption, where she says an estimated 1,100 people participated.
Khlestunova is amused by the shock — among both the opposition and Kremlin suppporters — at her generation's sudden coming-of-age. “They didn't want to see us,” she says.
Khlestunova says she and her friends stopped watching state media “years ago.” But they also largely steer clear of Facebook — the preferred platform of Russia's liberal opposition.
“Honestly, I hate Facebook,” says Khlestunova. She and her contemporaries grew up trading opinions on native Russian social media platforms like Vkontakte or its secure spinoff app, Telegram, she adds.
But communicating on different platforms didn't prevent the protest from being Tomsk's worst kept secret. University professors and even high school teachers spoke against students joining the rally — arguing that the protesters were helping Russia's enemies by promoting fascism and fomenting civil war.
The classroom demonstrations, which were captured in leaked videos from Tomsk and other towns across the country, seem to have only emboldened students' convictions, however (or maybe their curiosity).
Sergey Chaikovsky, an 11th grader at the local Tomsk high school, recorded one of the demonstrations. Born in 1999, the same year that Putin came to power, Chaikovsky grew up more or less a supporter of the president. He even once attended a pro-Kremlin youth forum. As he got older, Chaikovsky says he became exposed to contrasting views of the country online.
Navalny's blog, in particular, was a revelation. Chaikovsky has become increasingly disgusted by allegations of corruption among Russia's political elite. Fundamentally, Chaikovsky says he's now convinced that power, in any hands, eventually corrupts.
“Seventeen years with one man in charge is just too long,” he says.
The March anti-corruption protest was his first, but it's already causing rifts at home.
“My mom thinks you should just keep your head down and do nothing,” Chaikovsky says. Mostly, he admits, she worries about him getting arrested.
Several of his friends have already been called in by the FSB security services for questioning, and it has emerged as a point of pride.
“Look I got a summons! I'm a political criminal now too!” Chaikovsky jokes. “We treat it with sarcasm.”
The youth "awakening" seems to have caught Russia's more seasoned opposition off guard.
In Irkutsk, a city in eastern Siberia, Alexey Petrov, 41, made his way to the rally in March expecting “the usual suspects”: a crew of pro-democracy activists his age. Perhaps, he thought, there might also be a smattering of students who'd attended his university lectures on civil society — at least until pro-Kremlin activists forced him from his professor's post at the university.
“Irkutsk isn’t a protest town,” Petrov says. “And Navalny isn’t nearly as popular as he is in Moscow.”
And yet, “There were hundreds and hundreds of young people, all smiles, giving speeches, reading poems, and just talking about their problems,” he says. “We haven't seen anything like it since the last protests of 2011.”
Petrov says more than anything, the scene reminded him of his own generation 20 years ago — before Russians his age became jaded about politics.
“'There's that professor who's always saying there's no civil society in Russia,'” Petrov remembers hearing someone say over his shoulder.
And looking at the crowd of young faces, Petrov had to laugh and admit: he'd gotten it all wrong. This wasn't the caricature of Putin-era millennials obsessed with their gadgets and indifferent to politics.
“They are the new civil society. They've grown up!” he says.
Not everyone is convinced. Igor Iliukhin, a 29-year-factory worker and member of Moloday Gvardia, a pro-Putin youth group in the town of Karpinsk in the Ural Mountains, is among those who eye the new protests skeptically.
He argues this new generation is simply too young — or too incurious — to recognize the gains Russia has made under Putin's leadership.
Iliukhin points to his childhood in the economically depressed 1990s, under former President Boris Yeltsin, as a reminder of the cost of weak leadership in the Kremlin. Iliukhin recalls the era as one of political chaos, dinners with little or no food, and his parents fighting over the constant lack of money. “I know hard times,” he says.
He argues that all changed with Putin's arrival to power, and this new generation of protesters have only reaped the benefits.
“They don’t really understanding what they’re demanding. They're used to thinking life will always get better, because that's all they know,” he says. “What they don't realize is that life can be a whole lot worse.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has struggled to come up with a strategy to reengage younger Russians who've drifted away from the president. The bill recently introduced to restrict internet access to Russian teens has been shelved by lawmakers, for now. And amid wide recognition that state television is failing to connect with younger audiences, there are reports the Kremlin is revamping its media strategy to engage its "lost youth.”
If early signs are any indication, it's a work in progress. Last week, students at a local university in the city of Vladimir were herded into an auditorium for mandatory viewing of a new, slickly produced video comparing Navalny to Adolf Hitler.
When students derided the video as Kremlin-sponsored — an accusation Putin’s spokesman has denied — professors told the students they understood nothing about what it meant to be a patriot.
Students promptly posted the whole exchange on YouTube.
Yet another meme born.