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The Roads Not Taken

By Dmitry Babich Russia Profile 04/10/2006

Many More Paths Offered for Today’s Youth

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in January 2005 provoked a strange incident near the building that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) inherited from its Soviet predecessor, the KGB, on Lubyanka Square in Moscow. A few days before the inauguration of new Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, four teenage girls placed a suspicious package near the entrance of the infamous building. When an FSB agent wearing a regular police uniform opened the package, he discovered greetings from an unnamed “independent organization of homosexuals” and two lbs. of “subversively” orange-colored mandarins.

The four girls were detained and brought to the duty officer of the headquarters, but were ultimately let go with the suggestion that they take the package to the U.S. Embassy, which, the officers suggested, was more enthusiastic about all things orange. Bolshoi Gorod magazine, in looking into the events, discovered that the idea first occurred to 16-year-old Anastasia Karimova, a student member of the youth section of the Union of Right Forces party (SPS). “I was guided by my favorite saying,” Karimova told Bolshoi Gorod. “Even gods are powerless before stupidity.” Before joining the SPS, Karimova said that she had explored a number of other parties, and had even been “ardent” supporter of President Vladimir Putin a mere two years ago. “Youth politics is a great way to communicate with your peers,” Karimova said. “The smartest guys are involved in politics now. This is a new phenomenon. This is different from just a year ago.”

This phenomenon is certainly a departure from the late Soviet times.

“Perestroika was not only a revolution from above, it was also a strong popular movement,” said Lev Shemayev, one of the leaders of Democratic Russia, the popular anti-communist movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. “But there were very few young people involved. The majority of those taking part were engineers, doctors and teachers between 30 and 50 years old. In the 1990s, opposition to the government was from the right and consisted mostly of the older generations that had been hardest hit financially and psychologically by the decade’s reforms. The young people sort of slept through it all.”

Semyon Charny, a Moscow historian who studied the social movements of the late Soviet period for the Russian State Humanities University (RGGU), thinks that the passivity displayed by the youth at the time can be explained by a lack of experience.

“I looked at the secret reports which were sent to the party bosses in the 1970s and 1980s on the hooliganism of soccer fans,” Charny said. “The party bosses, and even the KGB people, were shocked and talked about the ‘negative political implications’ of the fights between Russian Spartak Moscow fans and Ukrainian Dynamo Kiev fans. Why? Because soccer games were the only outlet for rowdy behavior in public that was even semi-legal. If even this small valve produced a semblance of mass riots, the party and the KGB saw it as an indicator of a sort of fever within society as a whole.”

There was only one outlet for political expression, and this expression was rather different from what the soccer fans were getting up to. The Soviet Young Communist League (Komsomol) came to symbolize much of the cynicism, corruption and tedium associated with the second half of the rule of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. This might be one reason why “Komsomol” is essentially a bad word for members of youth political organizations today. Even communist youth groups, themselves labeled as Komsomol, stress their difference from their once-monopolistic predecessor.

“Our Komsomol is not the successor of that of the past,” said Igor Malyarov, the former leader of the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). “And the new party under [KPRF Chairman Gennady] Zyuganov is not the same party as that under [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev. The KPRF is the party of the former rank-and-file Communist Party members, whom Gorbachev held in great contempt and did not listen to.”

Instilling Patriotism

The tradition of not listening to the “base” is still very much alive in Russia, and the strategy of some youth movements is built on fighting what they label an unresponsive and irresponsible state. One charge against the present regime is that it increasingly looks to the young to demonstrate their patriotism while offering little in return a criticism also heard in Soviet times. One example was the negative reaction on the part of opposition party youth groups to the publication of the Program for the Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens, signed into law in June 2005.

The program attempts to instill patriotic values through portraying national symbols in the media and arts as well as developing patriotic sports clubs and summer camps. The idea behind the program is that Russian patriotism can no longer be taken for granted, but must be reinforced by all segments of society that touch upon the lives of young people including the arts, education and business.

For some groups, however, the contents of the report were another opportunity to criticize the current government, and the presidential administration in particular.

“I have nothing against patriotism, but who is going to teach me how to love my motherland?” Roman Dobrokhotov, a member of the Central Council of the My (We) youth movement, asked at a discussion about the new concept when the report was released. “Who? The people who ruined Russia’s strongest oil company and [former Yukos CEO Mikhail] Khodorkovsky? I don’t want these people to teach me patriotism.”

The program came in for just as much criticism from the other, more nationalist side.

“I am a great patriot, and it is hard for me to see imitations of patriotism,” said Sergei Shargunov, a young author and leader of the youth wing of the Rodina party. “Our authorities capitulate to the West on all foreign policy issues and the country is full of homeless children. In these conditions, the country’s leadership has no right even to talk about patriotic education.”

The authors of the program reject the criticism: “The idea that the state wants to force everyone to love it in a Soviet way has deeply ingrained itself in the conscience of the Russian people, including the young,” said Vladimir Grebenyuk, the head of the Russian State Center for Military History and Culture, one of the authors of the project. “This program does not force the young to do something. It just outlines what the state should do and can do to help the young express their love for their motherland.”

Not all of the young, however, want the state to help them express themselves, preferring the multitude of alternate options to the beaten path of state-sponsored patriotism, religion or social activities.

“There is no place for the state in matters like believing in God or loving one’s motherland,” said Ilya Yashin, the leader of the youth wing of the Yabloko party, which presents itself as a “social-liberal” alternative to the ruling regime in Russia. “As [19th-century Russian satirist Mikhail] Saltykov-Shchedrin said, if state officials start talking about patriotism, it means they want to steal something.”

Yashin and his group first came to public attention in 2003, when they defaced a memorial plaque to Yuri Andropov, former Soviet leader and head of the KGB, located on the wall of the same Lubyanka building where Karimova left her oranges, earning Yashin the title of Russia’s youngest newsmaker. The opposition’s hopes for a speedy politicization of Russian youth reached their peak in 2005, in the aftermath of the “Orange Revolution.” When the chances of a remake of the Ukrainian scenario in Russia shrank, so did the media’s interest in Yashin. Some of the young leaders, however, believe that time is on the side of opposition youth leaders.

“The revolution will come in two years, at the time of the next presidential election.” said Pyotr Miloserdov, the leader of the “Khvatit!” (“Enough!”) movement. It will come because there is no social mobility there is a lot less now than there was before the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

The Benefits of Perestroika

History offers some support for Miloserdov’s assertions. At the end of 1980s, the young, while deeming the mass anti-communist protests to be pointless, actively took advantage of the new chances the reforms presented in the sphere of business. In fact, the lack of opportunities for the young in the period preceding perestroika provided one of the bases for launching the reforms.

“There was a kind of career crunch in the Communist Party before 1985,” said Pavel Voshchanov, a former political columnist with Komsomolskaya Pravda, the official media outlet of the Komsomol in Soviet times. “The people who came to the Komsomol to make a career had to wait for years before they moved up inside the hierarchy. And, even if they did move up, they could only get what the average person in a Western country already had a three-bedroom apartment, a car and a VCR. And they wanted to live like Arab sheikhs. These people advocated for change.”

If the purpose of perestroika was to break this crunch, it succeeded brilliantly. By the mid-1990s some of the former Komsomol careerists did live like Arab sheikhs. The best known case is that of Yukos’ Khodorkovsky, who started his business in the Komsomol. He used one of the few business opportunities that the Komsomol offered in 1985 and 1986, the Youth Centers of Scientific and Technical Innovation (NTTM). Under the pretext of developing technical prowess, young people could get into business selling VCRs, which were all the rage in the 1980s. By 1989, Khodorkovsky was the owner of Menatep bank. Like many other Komsomol members looking to climb the ladder of success, he admitted to being indifferent to politics or humanitarian issues at the time.

The roads to wealth were few but, if you took the right track, could get you far. Mikhail Fridman, now the head of Alfa Group, started his business scalping theater tickets on a large scale as a student in the 1980s. By 1997, Khodorkovsky and Fridman were two of Russia’s billionaires.

But most of the opportunities had dried up by the end of the 1990s. “The 1990s were a magic time in terms of opportunities,” remembers Boris Nemtsov, who became Russia’s youngest governor in 1991 and went on to serve as deputy prime minister from 1996 to 1998. “I was appointed to the position of the governor in Nizhny Novgorod because, during the coup of 1991, I happened to be near Yeltsin. You could start a successful business from scratch. You can’t do it now. That is why predictions of a revolution are not so far-fetched.”

The pro-Kremlin political campaign specialist and analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, himself a dissident in his youth, has assumed a counterrevolutionary stance with age and proximity to power. “We live in a country with a political past that put a sort of embargo on the word ‘revolution’,” Pavlovsky said. “For the same reason, a sort of embargo on talks about racial superiority has been imposed in some European countries. The young have many roads before them. But there is a big stop sign on the ones leading to new social upheavals.”

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