Young people are finding new ways of signalling dissent
Oct 22nd 2016 Economist
In the best Patisseries in St Petersburg”, “12 Crazy Photographs of Famous Sites”, “A South Korean Erotic Thriller”. These are just some of the main headlines colourfully displayed on the Russian news site Bumaga (Paper). “We modelled it on Vox and theBoston Globe,” says Anna Kosinskaya, its co-founder and editor. Bumaga is totally independent. When it started four years ago, it had no funding. Now it makes money from advertising.
Ms Kosinskaya, red-haired and open-faced, is 26, just one year older than post-Soviet Russia. She spends her time in a part of St Petersburg well supplied with cool lofts, funky bars and gastropubs. Though not rich, she has travelled the world. Her generation of educated, urban young Russians has very little in common with the cowed Homo sovieticus who still abounds. In 2011 they took to the streets to protest against rigged parliamentary elections. For Ms Kosinskaya this was the first election in which she was able to vote. She would not accept the standard practice of rigging, not because she had a particular preference for any party, but because she thought it was disrespectful and wrong.
Ms Kosinskaya was ten when Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president. “I liked him. He was young and energetic,” she says. Her lifestyle owed much to the economic growth over which Mr Putin presided. But gradually she became disillusioned both by the president and by Russia’s general political direction, and in the winter of 2011 she had to watch her friends being bundled into police vans for trying to uphold the law. The demands of Ms Kosinskaya and her friends echoed the slogan of the Soviet human-rights activists: “State, respect your own laws.”
Five years on, last month’s parliamentary elections passed without incident. Alexei Navalny, one of the leaders of the 2011 protests, says people have lost interest in politics. Many of his former supporters switched sides following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Street artists who were drawing anti-Kremlin graffiti five years ago have switched to anti-American themes. One drawing shows a fish with blue stripes and red stars inside a blender in the colours of the Russian flag.
But many young, liberal Russians feel frustrated. “We live with the feeling that something really important did not happen in our lives,” says Phillip Dziadko, a former editor of Bolshoi Gorod, a Moscow magazine which five years ago was the flag-carrier of the protest movement. Its owners have since closed it down. “Many of my friends feel as though we have gone into internal exile,” says Ms Kosinskaya.
Until recently young Russians did not see themselves as part of the intelligentsia. “This was something rather archaic for us; people who talked a lot and did very little,” says Ms Kosinskaya. But now the survival strategies developed by their parents’ generation, particularly their ability to carve out niches where they could apply their skills and knowledge, have become relevant to younger people too.
One of the most popular authors among the new generation is Sergei Dovlatov, a Soviet writer from the 1970s. He emigrated to America where he died in 1990. In his prose he cultivated self-irony and sought privacy and autonomy from the Soviet state. In the words of a friend, Joseph Brodsky, Dovlatov “belonged to that generation which took the idea of individualism and the principle of autonomy of human existence more seriously than anyone, anywhere.” On September 3rd this year thousands of people in St Petersburg celebrated what would have been Dovlatov’s 75th birthday and unveiled a privately financed statue of him.
Say it with culture
Although the state today suppresses independent civil and political activity, it allows a lot more personal freedom than it did in 1979 when Dovlatov left. Since the mainstream media are mostly pumping out government propaganda, Russia’s modern intellectuals have got involved in cultural projects. Public lectures by notable scholars, both Russian and foreign, on subjects from urbanism to artificial intelligence gather mass audiences. Tickets to such talks sell out within hours. Every night dozens of events take place in Moscow and other cities. Book fairs attract queues to rival those for pop concerts. A new shopping centre in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, has organised a book round-table as one of its opening events.
Public lectures, intellectual discussions and excursions have evolved into a business. “Ten years ago, to raise money from investors, you needed to say only one word: ‘media’. Today all you have to say is ‘education’,” says Yuri Saprykin, a former editor of Afisha, a listings magazine that helped shape the tastes of the urban middle class. The trend started a few years ago when a site called “Theory and practice” began to provide a wide variety of courses and lectures. The young are wild about classical music and art museums. “If you are not learning something outside your work, you are a loser,” says Ms Kosinskaya.
Mr Dziadko, the grandson of Soviet dissidents and human-rights activists, and a group of friends have launched a popular multimedia education and entertainment project called Arzamas, a name borrowed from a 19th-century literary society of which Pushkin was a member. The subjects range from Elizabethan theatre and medieval French history to the anthropology of communism and the mythology of South Africa. A few months ago Arzamas organised an evening lecture about Joan of Arc, including a recital of medieval music, at Moscow’s main library. “We thought it would be attended by a few intellectuals. But when we turned up 15 minutes before the lecture, we saw a long queue of young people and hipsters trying to get in,” says Mr Dziadko.
The boom in “enlightenment” projects is not so much a reversal of the rise of consumerism in the previous decade but a complement to it. Just as Russian people were suddenly presented with a vast choice of consumer goods, they now have a large array of intellectual pursuits to choose from. And whereas Russia’s government can impose a ban on imports of Western food, barring the spread of knowledge is much harder.
The main producers and consumers of these enlightenment projects are young Westernised Russians who are part of a global culture. Their pursuit of a wide range of knowledge is a way of fighting the isolationism and aggressive obscurantism imposed by both state and church. This takes many forms, from banning modern-art shows to organising anti-gay campaigns, promoting anti-Darwinism and attempting to stop abortions.
Popular books about biology and physics currently sell better than detective stories. Yulia Shakhnovskaya, the director of the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, where Evgeny Yevtushenko read his poetry in the 1960s, says that education and science have become a form of resistance to politics. “We can’t win but that does not mean we should stop resisting, so we try to grow a garden in the middle of hell.” She says her main target audience is teenage schoolchildren, who are desperate for knowledge: “Good marks are no longer the main prerequisite for getting a good job in Russia…but the demand for knowledge is still there, so we try to satisfy it by other means.”
Ms Shakhnovskaya’s patrons include Igor Shuvalov, the first deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, and Anatoly Chubais, the father of Russia’s privatisation programme. They are helping to promote an educated and emancipated elite that could gradually begin to change the system, which is what happened in the 1980s.
For now at least, the educated urban class does not pose a serious political threat to Mr Putin. But it represents a different and more fundamental challenge that has to do with values and ideas. Some of the most striking independent public-lecture projects recently launched had titles such as “The return of ethics” and “Public lies”, involving both Western and Russian philosophers, economists, sociologists and writers.
This new generation of educated young urbanites has criticised Russian politicians and opinion-formers of the 1990s and 2000s for viewing human-rights abuses and the lack of independent courts as unfortunate impediments to business and foreign investment, rather than bad things in themselves. Yet “despite the total amorality of politicians and bureaucrats, or maybe because of it, the demand for ethics in the public sphere is growing, not falling,” says Andrei Babitsky, a former editor of the Inliberty website that organised the lectures on ethics and lies. The power of ideas should never be underestimated, especially in Russia.