His mother despairs for him. “Why do you want to die?” she asked him recently.
Ulyanovsk is a Detroit-like city, with a faltering auto industry — the UAZ jeep is made here — and a once-thriving aviation industry that has been overwhelmed by competition. But Ulyanovsk has no abandoned houses and lies in the Communist-sympathizing Red Belt instead of the Rust Belt.
Yemelyanov, a blond, green-eyed child of a working family, is the local leader of the youth wing of the liberal Yabloko party, which formed a coalition in March with Troshkin’s nationalists, Communists and civic activists to keep anti-Putin protests alive here.
Now they are trying to find ways to harness economic fears — the average job pays about $500 a month here — so they can eventually make political demands.
Antontsev, who has a radio show, said his listeners don’t respond when he has programs about laws cracking down on protest, but the phones light up when he talks about bad roads.
“They don’t see the direct link between elections and the condition of the roads,” he said. “People will become dangerous when they see the reason for their misfortune.”
Alexander Kruglikov, a longtime Communist, said the authorities are making a big mistake in suppressing dissent. “I have to say that the Soviet Union fell apart because there was no real opposition in the country,” he said with a wry smile. “No one was listening to individual voices.”
There are many potential issues. Health care is considered inadequate. Utility prices are rising beyond the means of many, especially pensioners. College costs are going up, while the number of scholarships is being cut. “We feel they want to make idiots of us,” Yemelyanov said.
Yemelyanov has one more year until graduation from the State Academy of Government Management, but he knows that even if he makes it that far his political activity will prevent him from getting a government job, as he once hoped. United Russia, which is associated with Putin, holds the power, and those who support the party get the jobs.
“I hope I will graduate,” he said. “I will hardly find a job, but I really wish I could find a way to change something at the local level.”
‘A new political generation’
Nikolai Vasin, a political scientist here, calls Ulyanovsk a classic provincial town, where new ideas take a long time to arrive from Moscow. Its people fondly describe it as old-fashioned. It’s a place where an attempt to leave a tip sends a waitress running out on the street after a customer, thinking the change has been forgotten.
But new ideas will make their way here eventually, Vasin said, and they will find receptive ears and eager minds in Yemelyanov’s generation, who grew up after the Soviet Union fell apart.
“These young people do not yet have enough political experience,” he said. “Now, our governor has no competitors. There is no one with his authority or political experience. But we are observing the birth of a new political generation, and it is showing itself more and more.”
Only those born after 1990 will be able to change the country, agreed Yemelyanov.
“We’ll need five to seven years,” he said, smiling with the confidence of the young.