Young Russians Turn Away From the West

When the Berlin Wall collapsed, most young, educated Russians aspired to what could broadly be described as Western values: democracy, free speech, anti-imperialism. Teenagers were infatuated with Western music and clothes (all the more attractive because they were forbidden), while older Russian intellectuals echoed their Eastern European dissident colleagues in calling for a reckoning with the past, the turning of a new leaf and building an open society. Everything about Soviet society, from its clothes to its ideas, seemed drab and clunky compared with the vibrant, thriving West.

What a difference a few years make. Central and Eastern Europe have slipped largely into Europe's cultural and political fold. But in Russia, thanks to a decade of anti-Western fervor propagated by the Kremlin, a new generation is growing up strikingly out of sync with the West. "Back in the perestroika years, young intellectuals sincerely believed in certain things, like freedom of speech and transparency of the state," says Maria Lipman, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The generation who grew up in the Putin era have a completely different mentality. Modern pro-Kremlin youth groups are so well fed by the state that they've grown faithful as tame dogs." The result is a generation that not only buys into the Kremlin's world view, but is also deeply distrustful of anybody who thinks differently.

Denis Volkov, of the Moscow Levada Center, has studied the attitudes of Russia's youth toward the West and its values and uncovered a scary picture. Over the past decade, numbers have been falling. A poll last month showed that 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have a "negative" attitude towards the U.S., not far behind those over 55, a Soviet-era generation that has long been steeped in anti-Western propaganda. And in a kind of demented historical throwback, Stalin is once again in favor. More than half the older crowd said they felt "positively" about the Soviet leader, while more than a quarter of young people agreed, up from just over 15 percent at the turn of the millennium. A generation after their forebears hankered after blue jeans and tapes of Western music, young Russians now wear the same clothes and listen to much of the same music as their Western counterparts. But while they may look more Western, there is a deep and widening divide in their attitudes, according to the Levada Center's statistics.

The rollback of pro-Western attitudes is largely a direct result of a concerted state policy aimed at shaping the hearts and minds of Russian youth, led by Putin and executed by his chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov. Across Russia, state-created youth groups are stepping up efforts to shape the hearts and minds of Russian youth by organizing camps, congresses, and talent competitions, just like the Komsomol, the youth branch of the Soviet Communist Party, did once upon a time. By no means are all of them sinister, but they are all political. The youth-led Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and 2004 came as a deep shock to the Kremlin, which suddenly feared that a similar grassroots revolution could destabilize Russia. In response, Putin's regime unleashed the mind-warping assault, says Stanislav Belkovsky of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute, who worked with the Kremlin on promoting pro-Russian candidates in the 2004 Ukrainian election.

Surkov and other top Kremlin ideologues quickly ordered a slew of anti-Western television propaganda casting George W. Bush's campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East as an attack on Russia. Surkov characterized Ukrainian democracy as chaotic and the Georgian leadership as corrupt. He also created several state-funded youth groups, such as Nashi ("Ours") and the Young Guards. At the height of the regime's paranoia about the possibility of an Orange Revolution in Russia, circa 2005 to 2006, these youth groups numbered up to half a million members and dominated campuses with a strongly nationalistic, anti-Western philosophy. "Putin's television anti-Western propaganda has done its dirty business," says Lipman. "Young Russians are cynical people who believe that Russia is surrounded with enemies, that the West does not want Russia to grow stronger." The last generation of liberals now tend to be older, people who are now between 25 and 35. Everybody younger, says Lipman, "is a proud patriot who dislikes the West."

Ella Panfilova, an adviser to President Dmitry Medvedev on human-rights issues, underscores the problem. "The state should not participate in youth movements at all," she says. "Most young people in Kremlin-organized youth movements still have a Cold War mindset. It is not right for Russian authorities to divide young people into those who are members of Nashi and the rest."

The political journey of Andrei Tatarinov, 21 years old, is a perfect microcosm of many of his generation. In the early 2000s, while still at school, he was an opposition activist and went to street protests that were violently dispersed by police. He quit in 2006 because, he says, human-rights campaigner Lev Ponomarev "hurt my patriotic feelings" with his talk of returning the Kuril Islands to Japan and allowing foreign oil companies access to Russian energy reserves. Both ideas are considered treacherous by Russian nationalists. Now Tatarinov is the political leader of the Young Guards youth group, and part of United Russia, the official pro-Kremlin party that dominates the Duma. He is unabashed in his stance. "We do not tolerate anti-Russian talk," Tatarinov says. "Everybody who wants Russia to grow weak is our enemy."

And the Young Guards are on the move. As proof of their zealousness in weeding out any hint of Orange revolutionaries, on Oct. 15 the Young Guards organized a picket of liberal governor Nikita Belykh's offices in the northern Russian town of Kirov. The governor's crime, according to the Young Guards, was to have been the former leader of one of Russia's main opposition parties, the Union of Right Forces. Furthermore, Belykh had raised the suspicions of local Young Guards activists by inviting Western-leaning Russians as guests to regional conferences. "Belykh is friends with people who financed the Orange Revolution," says Ruslan Gatarov, 31, who helped to organize the Oct. 15 protest. "He invites Orange-type guests like [human-rights campaigner] Ilya Ponomarev to his region. We have a saying in Russian: 'Tell me who your friend is, and I will tell you who you are.' " Even appearing to be too pro-Western, it seems, is a dangerous sin in the eyes of the Putin youth.

Nationwide hysteria about the threat of an Orange Revolution may have died down, but the Kremlin's youth movements are still busy. Recent Young Guards camps at Lake Seliger and in 10 other regions focused on getting young people to present new technology and business projects. The winners were tech schemes with a Russian twist, such as a computer operating system called Russian Windows and a photo program called Russian Photoshop. "We have to be prepared for the day America turns off the Internet for us, and have our servers covering our own Internet," says Tatarinov. "Now we have a chance to collect all the best ideas on how to modernize Russia and send them directly to the president."

Paranoid as the Young Guards projects may sound, they're undoubtedly popular among young people who see that getting involved with a Kremlin-sponsored project is the best path to professional advancement. "Most young people today are career-focused," says Lipman. "They know that [state-owned companies like] Gazprom and Rosneft are the best employers, and the closer you get to the state, the more chances you have to get a job. It does not matter to them much what the ideology is."

Earlier this month at a Kremlin-organized youth camp at Selias, near the southern Russian town of Astrakhan, a crowd of several hundred young people waited around a stage—for a politician. They'd come for a free concert, the social life, and for the chance to be noticed by visiting Moscow political hotshots. "Hello, Selias! Do you feel lucky to be here?" yelled Sergey Markov, a member of Parliament from the Kremlin-created United Russia party, running onto the stage in baggy cargo pants and a sweatshirt. "You're in the right place at the right time! We'll choose the most talented [of you] here, and the best ones might even come to Moscow to work for me!" Selias is a strange combination of talent competition and ideological boot camp. Experts and consultants meet with young people in six large tents to help them develop projects in fields such as youth, municipal, or regional policy; technology; or local tourism. Most important, the organizers bring government cash and can dispense development grants of up to $3,300.

Russia's dwindling number of Boris Yeltsin-era liberals find such attitudes scarily reminiscent of Soviet-era groupthink. A recent campaign mounted by Nashi activists in Moscow against a dissident journalist likewise shows that the Kremlin-backed youth groups are growing more powerful than ever, and that they're repeating the kind of harassment of independent thinkers common in the 1970s. Last month Alexander Podrabinek, a political prisoner under Brezhnev, wrote a story criticizing war veterans for praising the U.S.S.R. without acknowledging the Soviet Union's harsh repression of dissent and use of gulags. In response, Nashi activists picketed outside Podrabinek's apartment building, threatened his life, and publicly challenged him to leave Russia if he didn't like it. When presidential human-rights adviser Ella Panfilova stood up for Podrabinek and labeled Nashi an "extremist organization," she was quickly slapped down by United Russia and by Putin himself, who dismissed Podrabinek's article as "hooliganistic."

"Moscow's politics is now concentrated on finding the most talented young people in the regions who will be able to save Russia from economic crises," says Evgeny Nizhnik, 31, a charismatic youth leader who has been involved in youth politics since 1991. "Chaos, cheap drugs, alcoholism, and racism were the result of unlimited democracy in the 1990s. Russian youth needs a strong grip in order not to get lost in chaos." Of course, another side effect of that strong grip is to prevent dangerously independent thoughts that could challenge the Kremlin's hold on power. It's a sad outcome for those who hoped to see a young generation use the new freedoms won after the fall of the Berlin Wall to embrace liberal values.

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