Who are the teenagers who dream of change in Russia?

The Putin Generation: blind birds or future leaders?

© Mashid Mohadjerin

Mikhail Yudin

Marsovo Pole. The Field of Mars in Saint Petersburg. Here is where the tsars celebrated their military triumphs. Here is where, in 1917, the funeral ceremonies for the victims of the revolution took place. In 2017, the vast park looks bleak and deserted. The green grass, the flowers and the flowerbeds, trampled by protesters’ feet. With some imagination, you can still hear the echoes “Enough Putin!”.

The presidential elections in Russia are supposed to be one big celebration leading Putin to a quarter of a century in power. They may seem a mere instrument to confirm his power, but the past year with many visible and less visible protests running up to the elections highlighted the changing nature of Russia’s polity. A new generation, too young and powerless to shape Russian politics in 2018, could grow into a serious force by the 2024 election. 

The Russian parliament announcing that the elections would take place on 18 March 2018, the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, was just one electoral trick too many for these six youngsters from Saint Petersburg and Moscow. They haven’t seen any other state leader during their lifetime. They resent that a single political leader has dominated their lives since the beginning. The Kremlin has lost the power of persuasion over them, that Putin should be in their future and not just in their past. What they all have in common, is that they feel different from the others. They found a new home in political activism.

These are their turbulent life stories, told in their own words. Mashid Mohadjerin made their portraits.

  • German Maslov (1993)
  • Andrei Potapov (1996)
  • Mikhail Yudin (1994) and his mother Olga Yakovleva
  • Viktor Kapitanov (1994)
  • Katerina Malkova (1998)
  • Valentina Kanuchina (1988)
© Mashid Mohadjerin

German Maslov

German Maslov (1993)

German lives on the old roofs of Saint Petersburg. As a cleaner of air-conditioning systems, he holds the keys to a hidden world, where he escapes from the rush he sees passing by him beneath. There, he tells his life story about growing up in poverty with a single mother addicted to alcohol. He fled, from his home in Omsk to “the promised city” Saint Petersburg. He became a devoted activist for the campaign of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Two times per week, he follows English classes. ‘So one day, I can continue my higher education in a western country.’

‘It’s a miracle that I didn’t end up as a gopnik. That’s how we call marginalised youngsters addicted to drugs and involved in petty crime. But when I was thirteen, I was already reading Carlos Castaneda while the noise of drunken laughter sounded through the walls of the living room.

Six years earlier, my grandparents had both died in one year’s time and my carefree childhood had abruptly come to an end. I had to go live with my mother again. She had an alcohol addiction. Every weekend she held parties with a lot of drinks, drugs and noise.

I can’t remember how often I protested as a child, but I can vividly recall how I was always faced with a wall. I think that’s how I got my rebellious character.

My mother belongs to the generation of Russians born in the 1970s. As a young adult, she was confronted with the crisis and the mafia practices of the 1990s. Her boyfriend of that time convinced her to sell our flat to move to a larger one.

She had debts, so that seemed an attractive option to her. But he was a criminal who bought flats from poor people through shady deals. From the moment he had the flat, he kicked us out and disappeared. From then on, we had to move all the time. My mother sought refuge in alcohol and drugs.

‘I can’t remember how often I protested as a child, but I can vividly recall how I was always faced with a wall.’

I definitely don’t want to have children. It’s my deepest conviction that children shouldn’t grow up in poverty. After being dragged from one place to another during ten years, I put an end to it. I was 15 and there was nothing that still connected me to Omsk, which is the city with the largest emigration numbers of the entire country.

All of that happened ten years ago. I have never spoken to my mother since. It’s better to ban such people from your life. A father? I never had a father.

It didn’t take me much effort to leave. After having moved so often, I no longer get attached to places. At each moment, I am prepared to lose everything. Whenever I did feel fear for the leap into the unknown, it was actually a motivation to continue.

In a small town at the Black Sea, 3500 kilometres from home, I found a job in a hotel. With the money I earned there, I moved to Saint Petersburg when I was 18. It felt as if a storm hit me.

I finally wanted to make myself useful and joined diverse opposition movements as a volunteer. I participated in protests without knowing what they were about. Only since this year, my own political ideas have started to mature. You shouldn’t see the young generation as a naive child. I am not naive. I don’t believe in saviours, not even in Navalny. We have to change the entire system, not the face of the power.

On 29 April, I was arrested during an action of the movement Open Russia. We were shouting “Enough Putin!”. Repressive acts of the government enable a larger mobilisation, especially if they are caught in iconic images, like the images of an American police officer with a dog threatening a black man.

I joined Open Russia when I saw how their demonstrations were repressed. If you protest peacefully for democratic demands and the police represses that protest with violence, the injustice gets a face.

Police violence? No, that doesn’t make me hate the police. I don’t feel hate. A violent police officer is a man in his own conditions. He also dreams of a better future, he just needs guidance. And I also know police officers who support the demonstrations.’

© Mashid Mohadjerin

Andrei Potapov

Andrei Potapov (1996)

With a fake fur coat and little rainbow flag. That’s how Andrei showed up at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg. He is straight, but refuses to conform to the traditional values. His parents kicked him out of the house. He survived in the streets for a while. Three years ago, he moved 9500 kilometres away from home, from Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg. He there joined the LGBT Alliance, where he feels at home with youngsters ‘who are also different’.

‘When I was six, I saw a dead body for the first time. I walked home from school with a couple of friends. We saw a homeless person. His face was charred and the rest of his body mutilated. People who are beaten up brutally, it doesn’t touch me anymore. I’m afraid that I’m becoming like a stone, numb, without feelings.

One day, we were sitting at the dinner table. I had just slept one week under a bridge because my mother had kicked me out. But she was chatting as if nothing had happened. For fifty days, not a single word left my mouth.

She didn’t understand how someone could sleep a whole day, day in and day out, on his bed. She thought I was lazy, but I had problems. The only thing she worried about was that people would start gossiping. So she trumpeted around that I had beaten and abused her.

I never had a strong relationship with my family. My father even denies my existence. He is a hardline military man who looks down on all non-Russian people. If I say that I want to visit Finland or Poland, he calls me a Russophobe. He shouts « go back to your own country » to Central Asians, but Russia is their country. He hates foreigners, but his own family comes from all over the world.

Our ancestors are from Turkey, Poland, Ukraine and China. Strange combination, isn’t it? My grand-grand-grand-grandfather married a 14-year-old Turkish girl. The grandfather of my mother was a Ukrainian and his parents were Polish. And a long time ago, many Chinese were living in Vladivostok.

‘I’m not gay nor an immigrant, but I feel connected to them since an early age. I feel connected to people who are excluded.’

I didn’t want to study to lead their narrow-minded routine life. That was my worst nightmare. Even the sounds of the bar code scanner in the supermarket exasperate me. I am afraid to become a machine, like my parents. From the moment something happens that conflicts with their expectations, they act as if the whole world is ending.

In 2014, when I was fifteen, I moved from Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg, an open city full of opportunities. I want to live in Saint Petersburg without Russia. I don’t like Russia.

For a few days, I lived in the streets in Saint Petersburg. Alexei of the LGBT Alliance was my first friend. I was depressed and wanted to do something positive for society.

People in Russia who deviate from the norm in one way or another often share the same problems. Immigrants, gays, or people who just feel different, like me. I’m not gay, but I feel connected to them since an early age. At school, I stood up for them. And if I see someone from another origin, I see an opportunity to get to know a new culture.

I take part in the protests because I don’t want to regret to not have been part of history. I don’t like Navalny. He sometimes gives the impression that he will start a witch-hunt if he would become president. I’m not up for that.

But I would consider it positive if he could participate in elections. Look, I am twenty and the same party leaders are participating since I was three.’

‘The real revolution takes place in the minds of citizens’

Since the protests of 2011-2012, Dinar Idrisov defends arrested youngsters in court and in administrative procedures. He himself calls these youngsters “blind birds” because they see the repressive face of the country in which they grew up for the first time. 

‘They are like birds flying against the window. Some “drop dead” when they notice they cannot count on the support of their environment. Others get up again and become even more determined. I defend them in the hope that some of them become intelligent leaders. They are confident that they can change something, but there is no guarantee of results, even when you make sacrifices. They have to be willing to hold on without expecting results. Only those with a strong character can do that. 

They think they can count on the constitution, but only those in power determine what your rights are. I already defended hundreds of youngsters. I have seen enough to know that our constitution is purely decorative. 

The state hadn’t expected so many youngsters would participate in Navalny’s protests in March and June 2017. That is a source of concern, because youngsters more easily become radical than older people who are already cynical. 

The real revolution takes place in the minds of citizens, not in the streets. In the 2000s, the technological progress in Russia came as quickly as in other countries. The first decade of the 21st century, they lived in the illusion of welfare. They gave up their political rights in return for economic development. In 2011 came the first massive wave of protest against the restriction of political rights, when common citizens witnessed with their own eyes how they were cheated: the elections were falsified. Suddenly, these people transformed from mere consumers into conscious citizens. Suddenly, they remembered that they were cheated ten years earlier when Yeltsin and Putin abolished democracy in silence. 

Now that the economic development is also stagnating, protests against economic injustice and corruption are emerging. According to the new propaganda, that is the fault of the foreign enemy and citizens should hang on and stand behind their country patriotically. But increasingly more youngsters demand individual dignity rather than a strong state. If Putin doesn’t come up with another version of the social contract, his support base can crumble.’

© Mashid Mohadjerin

Olga Yakovleva

Mikhail Yudin (1994) and his mother Olga Yakovleva

Mikhail, a law student, shows the place where he was arrested for the first time in his life. His mother Olga turns out to be an even more radical opponent of Putin than her son. ‘My deepest wish is an armed revolution.’

Olga, mother

‘It’s especially the silence of others which hurts me the most. If I talk to friends, they say that we just have to live our life, far away from politics. They think that silence is wise.

My deepest wish is a revolution like in Ukraine. But at the Maidan square, some demonstrators were armed, so they could defend themselves against the forces of law and order. Here, only the state is armed. So how can we defend ourselves?

I hope the ultranationalists will be courageous when the revolution comes. I know that they don’t fight for justice, but for power. But we now have to be united against Putin. A revolution in Russia could be bloody, but now we are just dying in silence. We have to give our blood for the well-being of others. I dreamed in the past of emigrating to Europe, now I want to stay and fight.’

Mikhail, son

‘Mother is historian. She is unemployed, she has a depression. Her parents were banned to Siberia in 1965. The circle keeps turning, because my parents are divorced and we still live together in a small flat, in poverty. The flat is the property of my father, and mother doesn’t have money for an affordable apartment. When I use the word poor, I mean: living in an insecure financial situation.

In December 2011, I saw the protests on the internet and I was impressed by the large, optimistic crowd. As a law student, I found it terrifying that elections, meant to let my voice be heard, were fake.

‘I’m not scared, but angry. I won’t stop protesting, but I will make sure that I can pay the fines myself.’

Mother took me to the demonstrations. I climbed in a tree and reported about what I saw. I was 17. Since then, we go to each protest together.

In June, I was arrested violently. In total, I spent four hours in the police van and three hours in the police station, with a woman of sixty years old, a sixteen-year-old boy and a man who did a live broadcast on Instagram. We had 1000 viewers.

In the end, the police let me go without any explanation. Two months later, I got a telephone call: my court hearing would take place at nine o’clock the next day. I was shocked. They sentenced me to a fine of 15,000 roubles, half of an average monthly wage.

Whether I am scared? No, I am angry. I didn’t do anything wrong. I won’t stop protesting, but I will make sure that I can pay the fines myself. Now I have to ask the money to my father, who works hard for each rouble.

I’m studying law at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. At the time of the annexation of Crimea, we had a lively discussion. Only two students opposed the annexation, all the others were in favour. Many students are afraid to make dissident comments because they fear for their reputation. Most are just not interested in politics.

I was five in 1999, when Putin came into power, but it’s not only about Putin. Also the so-called opposition leaders haven’t changed since then. I don’t want to see all those faces anymore. That’s why I participate in the protests of Navalny.

I am a citizen of a country that produces and sells large amounts of oil and gas. And what do I see? Poverty, roads in bad condition, corruption. My grandparents lived in poverty, and me, two generations later, also. I am willing to fight for a long time. Patriotism means to me: caring for a strong and prosperous population, not for a strong state.’

© Mashid Mohadjerin

Viktor Kapitanov

Viktor Kapitanov (1994)

Viktor has a disability. He lives all alone with his dog in a filthy and empty apartment at the edge of Moscow that is packed with giant residential towers. He cannot renovate the apartment: the state has taken ten thousand roubles of fines from his invalidity payments, for “repeated participation in illegal demonstrations”. During his last action, a police officer dislocated his vulnerable arm, but Viktor is a determined demonstrator.

‘They pushed me against the floor and pulled my left arm, which I cannot move, on my back. I felt a sudden, unbearable pain. While they dragged me to the police van, I shouted: ‘The whole zombie people of Russia celebrates the birthday of Putin! He is a disgrace to our country!’

Couldn’t they just have taken me with them without breaking my arm? How can a person with a disability resist against armed police officers?

It happened on 7 October 2016, the tenth anniversary of the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. I did a commemoration action in front of the building of the presidential administration. It was raining cats and dogs, but the rain didn’t stop the Ukrainians at Maidan either.

When Politkovskaya was killed, I was twelve. When I was nineteen, I started to lay flowers in front of the apartment building where she was shot.

My plan was to wear a mask of Putin and hold up a sign with a quote of Politkovskaya. The officers asked me for my identity card, but they knew very well that they had taken it themselves after my previous protest. I had expected that they would detain me, but not that they would use such brutal violence on an unarmed disabled man.

It was also a total lack of respect for all those doctors who, since 2005, have given me physical therapy for my arm to recover. I had already achieved much progress. By twisting my arm, they wiped out all that work. Until today, they are evading justice, but I won’t give up. The Committee Against Torture offers me legal assistance.

Even if I would give away all my invalidity payments, it would still not be enough to pay the 941,000 roubles of fines. The bailiff has blocked my account. They take the money directly from my pension account.

‘It gives me such a good feeling when other demonstrators intervene to protect me. “He has a disability! Shame on you!”, they shout to the police.’

That is theft, because the law stipulates that no permission is necessary to protest alone with a sign. I don’t pay the fines. That would signify that I recognise their illegal actions.

Now you understand why I live in these filthy living conditions: I don’t have money to renovate my apartment. It’s a social housing apartment, but I had many dogs and they have turned it into a mess.

My father thinks that I only have myself to blame for this. I have sometimes wondered if father was right. But if you are not willing to suffer for justice, you might as well give it all up. Because what about all those people who paid a much higher price for their protest? I know that I have to endure all of this to remain human.

Everything started in 2011. I wanted to go to the demonstrations against the falsification of the elections. I thought it was something normal to do. But when I saw how police officers hit common men and women with police batons, something inside of me snapped. People were imprisoned and persecuted because they did what they were entitled to: to stand up peacefully for their rights.

During demonstrations for the liberation of the prisoners, there was an incredible solidarity. Each time I received a rough treatment, it gave me such a good feeling when other demonstrators intervened to protect me. “He has a disability! Shame on you!”, they shouted to the police.

The teachers at school figured out that I attended demonstrations. In 2014, I also openly expressed my support for the Maidan uprising in Ukraine. I went by myself to Rostov, 1000 kilometres from Moscow, for the process against the Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who was taken prisoner by the pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

The school director gave me a choice: either I would immediately be expelled from school, or I would have to stay at the school until my graduation ceremony.’

© Mashid Mohadjerin

Katerina Malkova

Katerina Malkova (1998)

A timid and dutiful girl that until recently was a fervent Putin supporter. Katerina tells her story in the Indian restaurant/café where she often comes with friends to recite mantras. Since she turned to the opposition, she has endless discussions with her parents. To her great surprise, she was arrested during the protests. Her world collapsed. The fear that her university career would suffer from it, made her remove all stickers of Navalny2018 from her phone and lesson materials. She doesn’t dare to go to protests anymore.

‘Because of my and my friend’s fault, a teacher was fired. We had noticed on social media that he was a member of opposition groups. We asked ourselves if someone like that was suited to teach children and reported him to the director. A few months later, we saw him working at a pizzeria. If I think about it, my stomach still turns. He was one of the best teachers.

Four years ago, during the time of the annexation of Crimea, I was very patriotic. For me, there was no difference between love for your country and love for the president. My parents, friends, social media, school, everyone thought in the same way.

I was one year old when Putin came to power. It’s truly sad. I don’t see any changes in my life. During the protests in 2011, I was only a child, but it’s still incredible that the country was turned upside down and I didn’t hear anything about it. On 26 March 2017, I decided to participate in a street protest for the first time.

‘On Victory Day, our parents always made us watch the military parades on television. My youngest sister once said that she hates Americans. She is seven.’

By coincidence, we saw another teacher who had always encouraged us to think critically. He was surprised to see us. He said he was proud of us.

We stood there laughing when officers came and took us with them. Since then, I haven’t participated in any protest anymore. Where should I find the money to pay the fines? I was at the time also preparing my entrance exam at the country’s most important film school and had heard stories from others who were rejected because of “participation in unauthorised protests”.

In the police van, the only thing I could think about was what I would tell my parents. Mother is extremely patriotic. On Victory Day, she always made us watch the military parades on television. My youngest sister once said that she hates Americans. She is seven.

Father is not radical. He is just afraid I am risking my career. Mother always starts to yell when she watches news about the chaos in Ukraine on television, as if I am to blame for that.

Every time something goes wrong, for example bad marks at the film school, she shouts that it is due to my political activities. She feels I am betraying my country. For me, patriotism is: not saying that your country is better than others, but making it as good as possible.’

© Mashid Mohadjerin

Valentina Kanuchina

Valentina Kanuchina (1988)

Originally from an isolated village with fifty inhabitants without internet connection, Valentina ended up, via orphanages, in the metropole of Moscow. There, she became a successful literature student. ‘Today, activism and opposition are for me just as much part of daily life as taking care for my cat.’

‘I was born in a very poor family. With grandmother, I worked on the fields. We sold our potatoes and ate what was left. My father left us. Mother was a strong woman, but she broke down when my older brother died and became addicted to alcohol.

She had followed higher education but worked as a plasterer. She has always worked hard to care for us. She eventually died when I was still a little child. When my grandmother and my uncle also passed away, I stayed behind completely alone. I grew up in an orphanage.

When I was seventeen, I came to Moscow and experienced real life for the first time. With a scholarship I received as an orphan, I could start university. The teachers were like mothers to me. Without them, I would never have made it. They taught me how to combine my work and studies.

In 2011, I went to the protests because all my friends from my hobby – role playing dressed up as hobbits or orcs – also went there. People of this subculture are usually politically active. Through them, I got involved in election monitoring. We saw with our own eyes how election fraud works. I started to study the electoral laws and thus became increasingly more politically aware.

After 2011, I was a loyal supporter and volunteer of Alexei Navalny. Now, I don’t agree with his opinions anymore. He has little knowledge of women’s rights, for example. He deserves support, not because he should become president, but because he is one of the only ones who really want to change something.

‘Russian youngsters want strong and repressive leaders, and deep down they believe the repression will never turn against themselves.’

My fellow-students didn’t care about politics at all. But recently, a friend who always told me not to mention politics became angry after she had seen the video of Navalny about the corruption of prime minister Medvedev. She shouted that we should demonstrate. I laughed: « O my god, you needed ten years to realise that? » It shows how quickly people can become aware by one well-made video going viral.

At the language and literature faculty, most students are beautiful boys and girls who are only interested in books and art. Russian youngsters want strong and repressive leaders, and deep down they believe the repression will never turn against themselves. They cherish the illusion that you can control the dangers around you through your own behaviour.

I asked a friend if she would like it if the state would read her personal conversations. No, she didn’t want that. Sooner or later, this generation will realise that Putin enters the domain where they cherish their freedom the most of all: the internet.

The internet generation doesn’t accept authority so easily anymore. The older generation, including teacher at school, can’t deal with authority-defying youngsters. Teachers have learned to respect authority, not to question it.’

This special report was made possible with the support of the Fonds Pascal Decroos voor Bijzondere Journalistiek.

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