Russian Internet revolution fuels protest
By Kathy Lally,
Moscow — Today’s young Russians connect with the world on their laptops instead of around the fabled kitchen table, where their parents sat in Soviet times, the only place they could speak openly and safely.
Their vastly different expectations have made these young Russians the vital force among the tens of thousands who have protested the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. Informed and motivated by blogs and social networks so far unfettered by government limits, they have emerged with the potential to confront the authorities and demand change. The months and years ahead will reveal whether they will achieve this promise.
Much of this under-40 generation calls itself apolitical — the authorities have given politics a bad name, and no leaders have emerged who appeal to these young Russians. But their independence poses an obstacle to the Kremlin, which relies on its control of the flow of information, primarily through television, to keep its rule unchallenged.
The government appears unsure how to handle them, and officials have periodically hinted at curbing the Internet. But Thursday, as he tried to portray himself as conciliatory toward the young and their concerns, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said restrictions would be technologically difficult and politically wrong.
With the number of daily users tripling in the past four years, the Internet has been booming in Russia, particularly among the young, offering them greater and greater space for dissent. Three in four Russians ages 25 to 34 go online every day, twice as many as among those their parents’ age, according to the Public Opinion Foundation.
Twenty years after the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991, this new generation knows more freedom than fear. These young Russians have made clear that their tolerance has a limit, and they are unafraid to call the government to account.
With more demonstrations planned for Dec. 24, the path ahead is far from clear. Putin remains far and away the front-runner in presidential elections scheduled for March; his United Russia party, declared the victor in the contested parliamentary elections, retains a majority — though much reduced — in the parliament.
But the sheer numbers of Russians who have turned out to protest in recent days have left even some organizers astonished.
In a Russia better known for cynicism and apathy, particularly since Putin first assumed his eight-year presidency in 2000, what emerges from conversations with some of these young Russians is a tone of confidence and strength.
Marina Litvinovich was as surprised as anyone when Russians turned out by the tens of thousands on Saturday to protest the Dec. 4 elections, even though she was among the influential bloggers who has dedicated herself to preparing her generation for that moment.
“Not a single person could have predicted what is happening now,” Litvinovich, 37, said. “My forecast was for 2013 or 2014, not before.”
Thin and intense, Litvinovich has made it her mission to document official wrongdoing and reveal it on her blog, thus depicting a very different Russia from the one seen on television, where Putin marches across the screens every night.
“All I need is a phone and the Internet,” Litvinovich said, sitting in a red-wallpapered coffeehouse, her laptop open, a pot of tea on the table and free WiFi all around. Her readers, most of them young, share her revulsion toward a system contemptuous of the law, bloated on corruption and indifferent to the individual.
Litvinovich recognized the power of the Internet early on. In her college years, during the heady democratic days of the 1990s, she was deeply involved in politics. She tapped her first computer keyboard in 1994 and went on to work for democratic candidates, giving political advice and building their online presence.
In 2006, when she was political adviser to Garry Kasparov, the chess king disliked by the Kremlin, she was attacked and badly beaten — she thinks because of her human rights work.
Only a few weeks ago, Litvinovich was lamenting that people were not yet ready to stand up, despite their familiarity with the government’s abuses and its shortcomings.
And then there the people were, out on the streets, informed by the blogs, summoned by Facebook, hurried along by Twitter.
“What did the Internet give us?” she asked. “It gave people the opportunity to get united, and people did it with pleasure.”
Her mother grew up fearing Stalin’s terror — the dictator had exiled Olga Morgunova’s grandparents to Siberia, along with their children. Millions of Soviet families bore the trauma of those times.
But Morgunova grew up unburdened by the collective suffering. She was born in 1989, two years before the Soviet Union collapsed, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and perestroika was making the political winds blow more freely.
When she heard about protesters gathering the day after the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, Morgunova knew she had to go.
She had never even considered going to a demonstration before, and she knew her mother back home in staid and pro-Putin Tula, a city of half a million 120 miles south of Moscow, would not approve.
But Morgunova, 22 and working full time as an IT manager while finishing her economics degree at night, decided she could no longer watch from the sidelines. She had never doubted that Putin’s United Russia party would outpoll its rivals, but she was shocked into action when the final count gave the party only about 50 percent of the vote, while election monitors reported ballot stuffing.
She called her mom. In Tula, United Russia won about 62 percent of the vote. Her mom shrugged it off as business as usual.
Morgunova thought otherwise.
“I don’t like politics at all,” she said. “But we’re tired of our government looking at us like a faceless crowd. I went to that first protest expecting a few hundred people, and there were thousands. We went not in favor of the opposition but because we were tired of the government.”
That first demonstration ended when hard-faced, well-muscled riot troops known as the Omon violently dispersed protesters and threw 300 in jail. When the melee started, Morgunova and her friends walked unhurriedly to the subway, forcing themselves to look nonchalant, as if they were simple passersby. They made it.
Morgunova doesn’t know what to expect next. She doesn’t plan to attend a protest announced for Dec. 24. “I said what I had to say,” she says. She believes that Putin will win the March presidential election. None of the other potential candidates appeal to her, not blogger Alexei Navalny, a hero to many in her generation; not Grigory Yavlinsky, the democratic warrior of 20 years ago; not billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who has announced his intention to run in the race.
But one thing she insists on: The presidential election had better be fair. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Morgunova said, the middle class was killed off. On Saturday, she saw that they had returned, gathered together in common purpose, smiling and determined, and making themselves heard.
“We call it the revolution of the expensive boots,” she said. “The protesters were dressed well, people with good jobs and comfortable lives. Now we can say, hey, we’re here. At last, we’re here.”
Russians grow up learning how to maneuver in the corruption that surrounds them. They are born into hospitals where staff members depend on bribes, they pay for success in school entrance exams, and they slip rubles to the police during a traffic stop. For most people, it’s the discordant background music to their lives, irritating but tolerable.
Those who dare enter business cross into a whole new dimension, where the petty daily bribes turn into hefty stacks of hundred-dollar bills and a company pays up or dies. Those who refuse often find themselves in jail, and they either knuckle under or turn radical and fight, like Vladimir Osechkin.
Osechkin, the son of a cardiologist and a newspaper man, grew up in Samara, a city of more than a million on the Volga River. In 2003, he came to Moscow, seeking his fortune. He worked with a friend to buy used cars at auctions in the United States, ship them to Finland and have drivers bring them to Moscow, where growing paychecks fed a ravenous appetite for well-made foreign cars.
Then, Osechkin, now 30, made a mistake. He discovered that a Porsche Cayenne had been stolen, and he had the effrontery to go to the police. There, he fell into a web of officials demanding bribes.
In April 2007, he was charged with fraud — accused of having the car stolen himself. He was told, he said, that the case could be settled easily — if he paid $150,000. He refused.
He had been living well, making payments on a million-dollar apartment, driving a Mercedes 500. And then he was in jail, his business seized, his apartment gone. He was held behind bars for four years.
By the time he emerged, he didn’t care about millions of rubles or Porsche Cayennes. “I wanted the truth,” he said.
Since then, he has assaulted the legal system with a flurry of complaints and appeals, but he spends most of his time fighting for the rights of the prisoners he left behind. He has a Web site called gulagu.net — a play on words that means “No to the Gulag” — on which friends and relatives of prisoners can share reports of abuses and encourage one another to persevere. Working with two others, he has a small but growing human rights organization.
Osechkin did not join the protests over the Dec. 4 elections. Politics here accomplishes nothing, he said, and so he avoids the luxury of indulging in them.
“Russia has more than 800,000 prisoners,” he said. “Only through constructive dialogue with the authorities will we be able to do something about their suffering, deprivation and torture.”
It was nearly 10 p.m., and Andrei Novichkov was heading to the subway when the riot police collared him in the windswept cold of Triumfalnaya Square, the site of demonstrations last week.
This time, his mom got really mad.
Andrei is 14, wears a wispy moustache and sometimes tells people he’s 15, so they’ll take him more seriously. He grew up loving computers and videos, and became so technically adept that friends flocked for help. As he grew older, heading past 12, he started recording real-life events. In November 2009, he made a video of a nationalist march and got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was his first arrest.
“Of course I went again,” he said.
Andrei soon developed an impressive portfolio. A friend introduced him to an editor at a Web channel called Fronde TV. He was taken on a year ago, after his mother signed papers giving her consent. She thought a press card would protect him.
Over the summer, he documented a confrontation involving a developer with connections to the mayor’s office who demolished a residential building over neighborhood objections. Hired goons kept the residents at bay, but Andrei refused to run off and suffered a beating at their hands. He had gone from sitting at a computer to standing on principle.
When the police detained him Dec. 5, for the fifth time, it was for a curfew violation. His mom had to pick him up at 2 a.m.
When he started to work for the Web channel, he said, he neither knew nor cared about politics. Then he saw human rights activists being beaten, protesters being arrested, the weak being pushed around.
“The Internet is the only way for people to find out the truth,” Andrei said, as he recounted the episode over a cup of thick hot chocolate. “I’m on the Internet until my eyes hurt.”
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