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Putin’s Children: The Generation Born Under Russia’s President

17 minute read

Mikhail Ogorodnikov hadn’t been planning to speak at the rally until someone handed him a megaphone.

It was a cold day in March in the Russian city of Vladimir, with dirty snow still stiff on the ground, and many in the crowd in front of Ogorodnikov were roughly his age, 16. As he gathered his thoughts, a strange fact occurred to him: the man they were rallying against, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been in power longer than most of them had been alive. “For the past 17 years, this man has been robbing the country I love,” he shouted into the bullhorn. “He doesn’t want this country to thrive. He only wants success for himself and his oligarchs.”

The crowd started cheering, as much for the messenger as for his message. Born in 2000, the year the President first came to power, Ogorodnikov represents a generation that Russians have taken to calling “Putin’s children.” Over the past few years, their political voice has grown louder as the young have grown old enough to vote, run for office and demand a change of leadership.

But few expected that voice to break so suddenly. On March 26, almost exactly a year before Putin is due to stand for another term as President–his fourth–a wave of dissent showed Russia how badly his authority has aged. While Ogorodnikov addressed the crowd in Vladimir, thousands of his peers in more than 80 towns and cities joined a series of anticorruption rallies that swept across Russia’s 11 time zones that day. Putin could ill afford the distraction: he was scheduled to meet with leaders of Iran that week to discuss their alliance in the war in Syria, while in Washington, close aides of President Donald Trump’s were preparing to testify before a Senate hearing on Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election. So the homegrown revolt caught the Kremlin off guard, and its reaction was a knee-jerk crackdown. Riot police beat up dozens of protesters on March 26; in Moscow alone, more than a thousand of them were detained, including 92 minors.

The organizer of the rallies, Alexei Navalny, was also arrested, and it shocked him to see the jailhouse packed with kids. “These young people are getting into politics,” says the activist. “And there hasn’t been a student protest movement in Russia in many years, not since 1985.” That was when a youth culture hungry for change started pressuring the Soviet Union to open up, reform itself and, ultimately, break apart.

But the new generation of Russians is different. What angers them is not isolation or communist dogma but the greed of Russia’s ruling classes–the generals and technocrats who have enriched themselves under Putin’s rule. Nearly two decades into this age of plunder, its spoils are passing to a new generation of elites, and the rigged system is renewing itself. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the murky financial dealings of Putin’s friends, and even his family members, who live lives of opulence that are reserved for the well-connected. With fortunes stashed in Switzerland and yachts moored in the Mediterranean, this new nobility prefers to summer on the beaches of France, where TIME found the habits of Putin’s circle to be an open secret. Back home in Russia, the children of the Putin era are waking up to this reality–and they are starting to resist it.

The arrival of this new movement could not have come at a better time for Navalny. Having started around 2007 as a right-wing crusader against corruption and illegal immigration, the 41-year-old lawyer from Maryino, a shabby district on the edge of Moscow, has evolved into a political force with a massive following. He intends to challenge Putin for the presidency in March 2018. With no access to the state-run media and no real chance of winning the vote, his campaign has increasingly relied on street protests to amplify its message.

After his release from jail in early April, Navalny called for another wave of demonstrations, to be held on June 12, a patriotic holiday known as Russia Day. The authorities showed signs of panic as that date grew closer. A presidential decree issued on May 10 banned all public gatherings from taking place in June without permission from the state security service. And the Russian National Guard, a new police force Putin created last year to help “maintain social order,” announced in May that its ranks had roughly doubled in size and would begin monitoring social media for signs of “extremism.”

Across the country, teachers have started holding “prophylactic lectures” to warn students away from Navalny and his rallies. The state university in Vladimir screened a video comparing him to Adolf Hitler. And a professor at Tomsk State University was recorded giving his classroom a bizarre lesson in civics: “If the state has no corruption,” he said, “it means the state is useless.” When a student objected that corruption amounts to stealing, the professor shot back, “There’s stealing everywhere!”

On that point, at least, the professor was right. During Putin’s time in office, graft in Russia has reached the levels of a third-world kleptocracy. In the yearly Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International, Russia ranks 131 out of 176 countries, below Honduras and Sierra Leone. The total value of bribes paid in Russia last year, according to official police statistics, topped $5 billion.

Putin knows this. But for all the craftiness that Western officials ascribe to his foreign policy–from the alleged Russian hacking of elections in the U.S. and Europe to Putin’s military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria–he has never been able to curtail the appetites of his own bureaucracy. “Putin’s whole system of management is based on the sale of loyalty,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who served as an adviser to the President between 2000 and 2011. “In exchange for loyalty, you are allowed to take from the state budget.”

The flaw in this system is obvious: it leaves the majority of Russians on the outside looking in. And once in a while they get angry. During Putin’s last campaign for re-election, in 2012, street protests broke out in Russian cities, swelled by middle-class and middle-aged voters who demanded fair elections and the rule of law. With the power of state propaganda and the judicial system at his side, it took Putin less than a year to intimidate, co-opt or otherwise silence those protesters. What remained of their movement was soon buried beneath a surge of patriotism engendered by Putin’s decision in 2014 to invade and annex the region of Crimea from Ukraine.

The teenagers protesting now in Russia’s provinces may be harder for the Kremlin to subdue. Unlike their elders, they don’t rely on state-run television for their information. Their picture of the world is formed on YouTube, Facebook and other social media, and their generation is too young to remember the post-Soviet chaos that Putin’s mythmakers credit him for bringing to an end.

What they have experienced, like all Russians, is the fallout from corruption: the awful roads and underfunded schools in their neighborhoods; the teachers who sell grades for cash; the kids who get the best jobs, thanks to their parents’ connections. The Putin years, which their parents prize for their stability, seem more like an age of stagnation to them, with just one man’s face at the top of the news for as long as they can remember.

On social networks, the news in Russia looks very different. Tales of nepotism and official abuse go viral fast, and Navalny’s video blog–a compendium of clips about the wealth of the Kremlin elite–has become a clearinghouse for such material, all catered to millennials with a mix of sarcasm, humor and pop-culture references. Along with goofy memes and sound effects, its episodes show drone footage of luxury villas and documents linking them to Putin’s friends.

No one is spared. In early March, Navalny released a 50-minute video about Putin protégé Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, alleging that he indirectly controls an enormous fortune, including a private vineyard in Italy, a ski chalet and mansions in Russia, offshore bank accounts and two yachts. Medvedev dismissed the film as a “fruit punch” of lies and innuendo. But its reach has been massive: more than 20 million people have watched the film on YouTube–enough to rival the audience of the Kremlin’s propaganda outlets.

“It was a completely different view of the world and of politics in Russia,” says Yegor Kazarinov, a 20-year-old student in Vladimir who, like many of his peers, joined the protest movement after watching that film. “I checked a few of the facts, watched a few more videos, and I understood it’s not an isolated incident. It’s the system.”

Nothing poses more of a threat to Putin at home than this sort of digital political awakening. His hold on power relies on control of virtually all mass media in Russia, but the Internet has been gradually eroding that control for years. Although Navalny is barred from appearing on state-run television, his investigations are ubiquitous on Russian news feeds. His targets have even begun responding in kind; one of the billionaires Navalny has accused of bribery posted his denials on YouTube. “I spit on you, Alexei Navalny,” the tycoon, Alisher Usmanov, said in one of the clips.

But Putin is the ultimate target, and the most difficult one. “He’s the czar of corruption,” Navalny tells TIME, “and the czar of corruption owns everything and nothing.” After years of investigating Putin’s wealth, Navalny believes that most of it is held through a web of shell companies controlled by the President’s friends and relatives. Numerous leaks and whistle-blowers have given credence to the theory that Putin has access to billions of dollars.

Yet evidence directly linking Putin to a hidden fortune remains undiscovered, and his spokesman routinely denies that any such fortune exists. The image he has cultivated for nearly two decades is that of a selfless ascetic, a patriot who works “like a galley slave,” as Putin once described himself, and abstains from the luxuries that most of his countrymen cannot afford.

In his official declaration of wealth, the President admits to owning a small plot of land, two modest apartments, three cars and an old-fashioned tent trailer known as a Skif, which was once popular among Soviet holiday makers. In a TV documentary marking Putin’s 60th birthday in 2012, Russian viewers got a glimpse of his residence, and from the contents of his refrigerator–a bottle of ketchup, a carton of buttermilk–one might have worried that the President risked malnutrition. Even his holiday destinations underline his modesty: the wild expanses of Siberia and the Russian Arctic, and the sleepy resort of Sochi on the Black Sea.

His friends and family, by contrast, enjoy the sunnier corners of Europe, in particular the Basque country in western France. That’s where TIME found evidence of the lifestyle that Putin affords himself and his loved ones.

Vladimir Russia May 12 2017 Mikhail Ogorodnikov, 16, looks at a family feeds pigeons in downtown Vladimir. He said he'd plan to join new protests against prime minister Dmitry Medvedev on June 12.
Born in 2000, the year Russian President Vladimir Putin first came to power, Mikhail (center), represents a generation that Russians have taken to calling “Putin’s Children.” The speech he gave at an anti-Putin demonstration in March got him in trouble at school in his hometown of Vladimir, Russia. Pictured in May 2017 in Vladimir, he says he still plans to join the next protest, which is scheduled for June 12.Yuri Kozyrev—Noor for TIME

Nestled between the vineyards of Bordeaux and the Spanish marinas of San Sebastián, the French resort of Biarritz has attracted wealthy Russian visitors since the middle of the 19th century. Members of the Russian imperial court used to come for the climate and the pampering to be found at the Hôtel du Palais, a former palace built in the 1850s.

With the emergence of a new Russian elite over the past two decades, Biarritz has seen a revival of that tradition, partly thanks to its unusual place in the history of the Putin family. In the summer of 1999, when Putin was serving as chief of Russia’s main intelligence agency, his holiday in Biarritz with his wife and daughters was interrupted by an urgent message from the Kremlin: President Boris Yeltsin had chosen the young spymaster as his successor. Cutting his vacation short, Putin returned to Moscow to accept the offer. The following year, one of Putin’s first presidential decrees granted Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution, ensuring that no corruption probes could ever strip the Yeltsins of their wealth.

At around the same time, Russia took the unusual step of appointing an honorary consul in Biarritz, a town of less than 30,000 people; the nearby cities of Bordeaux and Toulouse have no such diplomatic outpost. “It was because Putin’s circle has an affection for this place,” says the consul, Alexandre de Miller de La Cerda, who has held that position ever since. In an interview with TIME at a Biarritz hotel, he explained that members of this circle have often attended the “debutante balls” that he has hosted, usually in the frescoed ballroom of the local casino. By showcasing the scions of Russia’s new aristocrats, the evenings may have allowed Putin’s courtiers to imagine themselves the heirs of czarist nobility, whose children went through the same rituals in centuries past.

Putin’s own daughters have mostly kept away from such pageantry, and the Kremlin guards their private lives as closely as its military secrets. Neither Maria Putina, 32, nor Katerina Putina, 30, has ever appeared on television. The state has not released any photos of them in adulthood, nor has it confirmed some of the most basic details about their lives, such as where they live, where they work and whether they are married.

Only over the past two years has the identity of Katerina been revealed in a series of investigative reports. Born in East Germany during her father’s posting there as an agent of the KGB, she grew up to become a competitive dancer of acrobatic rock ‘n’ roll, specializing in the category known as “boogie-woogie.” A former classmate tells TIME that Katerina studied at an elite German-language school in Moscow and had trouble fitting in, partly because of the bodyguards who followed her around to parties.

According to recent investigations by Reuters and Bloomberg, Katerina is married to a young oil executive named Kirill Shamalov, the son of a Putin friend from St. Petersburg. Local property records obtained by TIME in Biarritz confirm that Shamalov owns a summer home in the town, a neo-Gothic villa that stands on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. He purchased it in 2012 from oil trader Gennady Timchenko, one of the President’s oldest friends. Biarritz’s deputy mayor, Jocelyne Castaignede, says it is one of at least two properties in the area connected to Putin’s family. “People see them in the market, going for walks,” she says. “But we don’t come up and take selfies with them. We don’t care who they are.” In the neighboring town of Anglet, a second property tied to the Putin family, an Art Deco villa, is under renovation. Its owner is listed in the local land registry as Artur Ocheretny, the St. Petersburg businessman whom Maria and Katerina’s mother Lyudmila reportedly married soon after divorcing the President in 2013. (Neither replied to TIME’s requests for comment.)

Under both French and Russian law, none of these property holdings are illegal, and Castaignede assured TIME that Putin’s relatives would undergo rigorous financial checks, like any foreign investors, to make sure the money they invest in France is clean. But given the secrecy around the family’s links to Biarritz, it’s clear the Kremlin would rather not expose the location of the Putin summer getaways to public scrutiny.

“Let God be the judge,” says Father Panteleimon, the priest at the Russian Orthodox Church in Biarritz. “But to me, what they do here just doesn’t look good.” Sitting in the pews of his church on a recent afternoon, he says Putin’s family has owned property in his parish for years–but they’ve never come by to give alms or pray. “They just come here to enjoy themselves,” says the priest.

Most Russians have never heard of their ruling family’s ties to this glitzy town in the southwest of France, and the ones who have most likely learned about it from Navalny’s blog. The investigators and lawyers at Navalny’s Moscow-based nonprofit, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, show little sign of slowing down as they try to track Putin’s wealth. On a recent afternoon, the offices looked like a mix between a campaign headquarters and a television studio, with cameras ready to shoot another broadcast for Navalny’s YouTube channel, which has more than a million subscribers.

The effort may seem pointless for a candidate who might not even get on the ballot. After a trial for embezzlement that most human-rights groups have dismissed as a sham, Navalny was sentenced in February to five years’ probation, which could be grounds for the authorities to keep him out of the presidential race. In a separate ruling on May 31, a Russian court ordered him to take down his film about Medvedev and retract its allegations of bribery. Failing to comply could mean violating his probation, which would give authorities another excuse to jail him ahead of the vote.

But these setbacks only seem to attract more young volunteers to Navalny’s cause. Thousands have flocked to see him on his whistle-stop tour of the country, packing into the basement rooms that often serve as offices for his campaign. His visits to these places rarely go as planned. Speaking venues have canceled at the last minute, and local organizers have sometimes found their tires slashed or apartment doors glued shut on the morning of his arrival.

The candidate has also been repeatedly attacked. In April, a man splashed him in the face in Moscow with a noxious disinfectant. It caused severe burns to his right eye, forcing him to seek emergency treatment in Spain–and to film one of his YouTube broadcasts while wearing an eye patch. The attack may leave him partly blind, he said on May 2.

“Our task is not to rejuvenate the protest movement, but to change the regime in the country,” Navalny tells TIME. To meet that goal, he first needs to expand the reach of the protests beyond the urban types who already support the liberal opposition. On June 12, he will get another chance to show the world just how widespread his movement is; he has applied for the right to demonstrate in a total of 212 towns and cities across the country.

Getting approval won’t be easy. Officials are considering a law that would prohibit minors from even showing up at protests. “Children shouldn’t be involved in politics,” Education Minister Olga Vasilyeva said in a radio interview in May. About 70% of them, she added, “don’t even know what the word corruption means.” She may have a point. Recent surveys found that more than 85% of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 support Putin, a slightly higher approval rating compared with that of other age groups. But these sky-high ratings do not tend to reflect heartfelt support, says Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center, an independent polling organization in Moscow.

Most Russians simply see no alternative to Putin’s rule, not least because state television doesn’t show them any. Among the 47% of Russians who even recognize Navalny’s name, only 10% said in February that they might vote for him. In another Levada survey, published in May, less than half of Russians said they were ready to vote for Putin; 42% are undecided. “Discontent does exist,” says Volkov. “But I think Putin will get the percentage he needs in 2018.”

Navalny, of course, sees Russia’s undecided voters as a pool of potential converts and believes their numbers will only grow as Russians turn to the Internet for information. The Kremlin’s own polling agency found in May that only 52% of Russians get their news from TV networks.

That doesn’t surprise Ogorodnikov, the teenager in Vladimir. Although the recent protests brought tens of thousands of people into the streets across the country, along with several thousand riot troops in Moscow, that evening’s state-run news bulletins didn’t even mention them. “They showed that they lie,” says Ogorodnikov. And by now his generation is old enough to tell.

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