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Fathers and sons: a generational gap in the Russian opposition?

As Putin’s new government beds in and shows its teeth against the protesters, Dmitry Travin takes a look at the generational differences among the opposition. Life experience makes many of the older generation more weary of street protest, yet on other fronts people are beginning to speak with one voice. 

Something interesting is happening in the Russian protest movement. It is not so obvious as to be a hot topic of discussion in the Russian media, but I think it will turn out to be a more significant development than the current favourite subject for discussion: how many people took part in this or that rally. 

What is happening is a quiet and gradual change in the group of people who are perceived as the organisers of the street protests. The leaders of the best known opposition group, the People’s Freedom Party (abbreviated as ‘Parnas’) – ex-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, ex-First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and ex-First Deputy Speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov - are putting their efforts into reviving their party. Multi-billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a candidate in the Presidential election in March, is also busy creating his own ‘Civic Platform’ political party, though without much to show for it so far. Former Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin has set up a Civil Initiatives Committee, more to bring together experts in different fields to inject new ideas into government policy than to constitute an opposition group. Oksana Dmitrieva, a leading figure in the ‘official’ opposition ‘Just Russia’ Party, has not gone down well on the streets; at one rally in December the crowd greeted her speech with calls for her resignation. And Eduard Limonov, head of the National-Bolshevik party, is critical of any protest that he doesn’t lead himself.   

'The fifty–somethings are uneasy about protest, even though some of them grudgingly declare their backing for the cause and even provide the protesters with practical support. In contrast, the thirty-somethings are in their element on the streets.'

All these well known politicians are being eclipsed by people who a couple of years ago would never have been seen as potential leaders of a nationwide protest movement. The most prominent of these are communist Sergey Udaltsov; lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny and former leader of the democratic ‘Yabloko’ party’s youth section Ilya Yashin, as well as ‘Just Russia’ MPs Ilya Ponomaryov and Dmitry Gudkov, who are much more radical than their party leaders. Ksenya Sobchak, the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, a leading democratic politician of the 80s, is also active in the opposition.

The question is: what do the figures who are on the wane and those who are in the ascendant have in common? Is it their political outlook? Up to a point, yes. Among the people who are distancing themselves from active protest are many moderate liberals who six months ago probably didn’t expect to see so many hardline nationalists and radical left-wingers in the crowds on the streets. On the other hand, the liberal Yashin is getting steadily more involved. And Navalny, despite his self-declared nationalism, is generally committed to liberal values. So political standpoint is not the deciding factor.

The deciding factor

Let me put forward my own hypothesis about this. I believe it is all about different generations with different attitudes to street politics. The people who are withdrawing from protest activity are generally in their fifties. The people who are replacing them are in their thirties. To some extent it is a question of younger people having more energy, and being more prepared to endure bad prison conditions, ignoring the possible risk to their health. But I don’t think it’s all about that. My feeling is that the fifty–somethings are uneasy about protest, even though some of them grudgingly declare their backing for the cause and even provide the protesters with practical support. In contrast, the thirty-somethings are in their element on the streets. They enjoy protesting so much that they think about little else than overthrowing the present regime. So far their motto seems to be, in Napoleon’s famous phrase (which Vladimir Lenin also loved) ‘Fight first, think afterwards’. Possibly some of them will have constructive ideas afterwards. But that will be afterwards…when they get round to being constructive.


While old stalwarts such as Vladimir Ryzhkov (left) have been putting efforts into party formation, the youthful Ilya Yashin (right) has emerged as a radical leader of street protests. Photo (c) Ria Novosti / Vitaliy Belousov

Protest cannot by definition get bogged down in the details of constructive politics. That’s the essence of protest – its goal is to destroy the status quo, to overthrow the current regime at any cost. Protest always has the same enemy – whoever is in power at that moment. Whoever the protesting masses disagree with, for whatever reason. The masses believe that any alternative to the current regime will be an improvement, that things as they are can’t go on any longer. 

'The differences in outlook and actions between one generation and another can usually be put down to their experience of life. Or to be more precise, to the nature of the society where they spent their formative years.'

For the generation who are in their fifties (or at least those of them who are politically conscious), the world of course looks very different. These people are more concerned about who will replace the present government: right or left, populists or free marketers, nationalists or internationalists. Fifty-year-olds first try to work out what alternative they are proposing, and then start proposing it.

It’s not that they are cleverer than the thirty- somethings. I don’t believe that for a moment, and I don’t write this in the spirit of some ‘grumpy old geezer’. The differences in outlook and actions between one generation and another can usually be put down to their experience of life. Or to be more precise, to the nature of the society where they spent their formative years.

The fifty-somethings  grew up in the Soviet Union, a place where shortages were endemic, where even the most basic goods were hard to come by in the shops, and where ideological pressures were incomparably worse than in Putin’s Russia. A country where they couldn’t take away your foreign travel passport (as happened recently to Ksenya Sobchak), for the simple reason that nobody had one. You were only given one when the regime decided you could go abroad.

The generation gap

A fifty year old, providing of course he is a reasonable and responsible person, cannot regard Putin’s regime as an absolute evil, because despite their obvious disagreements with this system, they know all to well that things could be much worse. And if they fear that radical leftist or nationalist protest will go beyond reasonable bounds, they are unlikely to support it. They’d rather put up with Putin.

A thirty-year-old sees things very differently. Not because the younger generation has no concept of the dangers of which their older fellow protesters are so aware. But they are more relaxed about the risks and more inclined to move on, since they don’t see the old problems as having much to do with them. For a young person, there is no sense in just marking time and holding onto the present regime out of fear that the wave of protest will provoke a return to the Soviet system.  As Russians like to say, ‘You take no risks, you drink no champagne’. 

'Now the protesters are beginning to speak with one voice. Ideological differences are fading into the background. What remains is what unites everyone. Here and now. And this universal aim is to put an end to Putinism.'

 Although I am a member of the fifty-something generation, I pretty much share the thirty-something’s reservations. I feel that the Putin regime is not the greatest of evils, but at the same time I understand the logic of the young, since I remember the generation gap between the ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’ of the 70s, although of course the sources of disagreement then were not the same as they are now.   

For those who lived through the Second World War, any talk of reform was of secondary importance, although the cleverer ‘fathers’ naturally wanted to see a transformation of the Soviet regime. For them there was only one thing that really mattered: to avoid another war. As for us ‘sons’, intellectually we of course understood the horrors of war, but since, thank goodness, we had no experience of war ourselves, we were more interested in possible reform and felt an attraction for western consumer society, of which our only experience came from the cinema.

The movement is finding a common purpose

Agreement is growing within today’s street protest movement that the most important thing is to get rid of Putin. Six months ago the situation was very different. Some people went on the streets to demand fair elections. Some hoped to provoke the regime into making fundamental changes in its economic policies. And some imagined that this was the way to wring an improvement in benefits and pensions out of the government. Now the protesters are beginning to speak with one voice. Ideological differences are fading into the background. What remains is what unites everyone. Here and now. And this universal aim is to put an end to Putinism.   

'In another ten or fifteen years, today’s thirty to forty-year olds will be the dominant force in economics, politics and the media. And by that time they will have had the chance to accumulate plenty of reasons for discontent with the regime.'

The protest movement is still weak. But the regime gains new opponents with each day that passes. Apart from a general dislike of the system, people challenging the regime are united by innumerable personal grievances, often the result of unprovoked hostility from officials or the police. The fifty-somethings also continue to reflect, debate, evaluate. The thirty-somethings come together for concrete actions. In another ten or fifteen years, today’s thirty to forty-year-olds will be the dominant force in economics, politics and the media. And by that time they will have had the chance to accumulate plenty of reasons for discontent with the regime.  

Perhaps Putinism will survive its current problems and hang on for quite a long time, thanks to high oil prices. But its long-term prospects are not good. Because with time, the people to reckon with will be those for whom the main enemy is this regime.


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