MOSCOW, April 8 -- Suddenly in Russia, everybody's talking about a revolution.
In a country with a popular president, a growing economy and a fragmented and weak opposition, Russia does not seem ripe for the kind of revolt that toppled governments in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past 17 months. But as Lenin once said, "a revolution is a miracle," and the Kremlin and its political opponents seem bewitched by the possibility of one.
Russian activists found inspiration and a namesake in Ukraine's student pro-democracy group Pora, shown demonstrating in the capital, Kiev, in October in support of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, now president.
(Efrem Lukatsky -- AP)
"There is an Orange spirit in Russia," said Andrei Sidelnikov, the young head of the new Russian youth group Pora! (It's Time!), which took its name from the young activists at the heart of the street protests late last year that ultimately brought Viktor Yushchenko to power in Ukraine. "We are living through a new era of street politics. Our young people are becoming more and more active. . . . They might explode when they can't take it any longer."
Sidelnikov's assessment, delivered at a Moscow news conference this week, would have seemed ludicrous a few months ago. But following the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the government of President Vladimir Putin was unexpectedly shaken by thousands of retirees who took to the streets to protest cuts in their benefits. They were joined by the youth wings of opposition political parties.
The government quickly backed down and the challenge dissipated, but the fear or expectation of radical change has lingered.
"If we do not manage to consolidate the elites, Russia may disappear as one state," Dmitri Medvedev, the Kremlin chief of staff, said this week in a rare interview with the Russian magazine Ekspert. "The breakup of the Soviet Union will look like child's play compared to a government collapse in modern Russia."
This spring fever has largely centered on the potential of the country's young people, who until now have been noticeable only for their political apathy. Both the Kremlin and the opposition have been creating youth groups to either foment or forestall unrest. In recent months, besides Pora!, groups with names such as Defense and Walking Without Putin have been formed to fight what they describe as an emerging dictatorship. Pro-establishment forces have formed organizations called Nashi and Eurasian Youth Union, the latter promising to "stand as human shields in the face of the Orange bulldozer."
The deputy head of Putin's administration, Vladislav Surkov, met last month with some of the country's leading rock musicians, ostensibly to discuss the state of the industry.
But the meeting spurred speculation that the Kremlin wanted to cultivate the loyalty of the music industry, which played a critical role in sustaining the crowds on Independence Square in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Surkov, one of the Kremlin's gray eminences and himself a onetime lyricist for the group Agata Kristi, discussed the state of Russian rock, from CD pirating to the dominance of happy-clappy pop on state television, according to reports here and interviews with music insiders who later spoke with some of the participants. The musicians agreed not to discuss the meeting with reporters, and the Kremlin has declined to comment.
"It was a very dull meeting," said Alexander Kushnir, a music writer and promoter who has worked with some of the invited musicians and communicated with them about it afterward. "At the start of the meeting, Surkov said he was not trying to put them under Putin's banner. For the Kremlin, it was like a sputnik over enemy terrain to take some photographs and help them do some analysis."
The same week, another government official met with a select group of movie, media and theater luminaries to discuss youth culture.
"The Kremlin became concerned, even a little hysterical, after the events in Ukraine," said Alexander Tarasov, co-director of the New Sociology and Practical Politics Center in Moscow, where he studies youth movements. "They were afraid they didn't have any plan in case such events happen in Russia."
Surkov is also believed to be behind the creation of the new youth organization Nashi, or Ours, which will have a founding congress in Moscow this month. Members of the group, which emerged shortly after Walking Without Putin appeared early this year, say they plan to create a new elite to govern Russia while preventing any attempt to overthrow the existing order.
"In my opinion, everything that happened in Ukraine shook Russia," Ivan Mostovich, 25, Nashi's press secretary, said in an interview. "Young people began to discuss and think about Russia's direction. The main goals of our movement are modernization, democracy and patriotism."
But Tarasov and young activists such as Sidelnikov say they believe Nashi will contain a vanguard of hooligans who are prepared to engage in street clashes with other youth organizations.
"To withstand young radical organizations like Pora!, besides police force, you need youth groups who are just as radical but pro-government," Tarasov said. "Nashi has a clear goal. They know they must fight against those who are going to change the political regime formed under Putin. Their ideology is that everyone who is against the regime are enemies of the Motherland -- they must be fought against using force."
Nashi organizers insist they are nonviolent, but some of their rhetoric seems in conflict with such assurances.
"It is necessary to make short work of traitors," Vasily Yakemenko, one of the founders of Nashi, said in an interview with the newspaper Kommersant after the formation of Walking Without Putin.