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Russia’s New Guard

14 minute read
Nathan Thornburgh/Kaliningrad and Simon Shuster/Kaliningrad

Alena Arshinova, 26, is running for a seat in the Russian parliament. A onetime model who loves yoga, vegetarianism and Mother Russia, she works with Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard), the youth wing of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party. With her silken hair and telegenic teeth, she has become not just a leader of Young Guard but also something of a spokesmodel: her face is on T-shirts, and pictures of her hang throughout its Moscow headquarters.

But Arshinova is no empty vessel. She clawed her way from the backwater enclave of Transnistria, near Moldova, where she grew up, to make a success of herself in Moscow, the gilded heart of Russia. She’s about to defend her dissertation in the Ph.D. sociology program (subject: extremism) at the prestigious Moscow State University. And thanks to the support of Putin, she has spearheaded national campaigns to bring wi-fi to universities and public transit around the country. After she made a personal plea to Putin at a party conference–the first time she met him in person, she says–the Prime Minister set aside $250 million for renewing Russia’s decrepit university student housing.

Arshinova has a reputation for her somewhat aggressive ideology, but in an interview at a chic Italian restaurant that, like every other moneyed spot in landlocked Moscow, seems to serve mostly sushi, she is more nuanced. Yes, she wishes Russia could solve problems like Internet access without needing a personal audience with the Prime Minister. No, she doesn’t want Putin to stay in power until 2024, a possibility if he wins two six-year terms. (“I want to see new, fresh, young people.”) But she makes no apologies for the electoral domination of United Russia or for her tireless efforts to speak out against Putin’s enemies. She is old enough to remember not the breadlines of the Soviet Union but her family’s buying bread with a ration card during post-Soviet shock waves of hyperinflation. That, in her mind, is what liberal democracy wrought.

“If our party didn’t have the majority, it would be endless talk,” she says. “We’d have to form a coalition just to pass the budget every year.” It would be, she says, bardak, a Russian word commonly used to describe the wild ’90s, meaning roughly “a mess,” “a madhouse.”

Those memories help explain why Russia is now less free and less democratic than at any other point in its postcommunist history. When the Soviet Union was disbanded 20 years ago on Dec. 8, it seemed as if Russia’s rejection of 70 years of communism meant it would turn to Western-style democracy as eagerly as its citizens turned to blue jeans. That hasn’t happened. As President and as Prime Minister, Putin has ruled Russia in classic strongman style–consolidating power to the Kremlin, canceling regional elections and creating an environment in which dissenting journalists and businessmen are beaten, bankrupted, exiled, imprisoned or murdered. His unique brand of crony capitalism has sent Russia’s corruption rating plummeting: out of 178 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index, Russia ranked 154th last year, in a dead heat with the Central African Republic. The parliamentary elections on Dec. 4 will be the first test of Russia’s reaction to Putin’s announcement that he’ll run again for President next spring (the vote has been confirmed for March 4), but United Russia–part of a Kremlin machine with deep control of media, banking, energy, automotive and other industries–is virtually assured of a majority.

In recent years, Russians have been more than happy to accept la carte freedom rather than the full buffet; they can buy any kind of car and even listen to liberal radio if it pleases them. Street protests and calls for reform have been the province of other nations. But that may be changing. Russians even younger than Arshinova who don’t remember the chaos of the ’90s are beginning to wonder why their country is not as liberal or prosperous as the rest of Europe. Putin may be the old party boss, but in his next term he’ll have to meet these new expectations. And the U.S., whose fate was once so tied to the Soviet Union’s, will have to reckon with a changing Russia too.

Two Cheers for Democracy

The simplest answer to questions about why Russians are not more free: after everything they’ve been through, it just hasn’t been a priority. Shortly after Putin took office in 2000, 81% of Russians surveyed by the Levada Center polling group said they wanted order even at the price of personal freedom and democracy. Seven years later, as Putin was ending his second term, 68% of respondents still held this view, despite the fact that he had muzzled the opposition and brought the most important media under state control. Russian wages had increased nearly eightfold during those first two terms. The economy had nearly doubled in size. “Democratization quickly fell to the back of people’s minds,” says Boris Dubin, a sociologist with the Levada Center.

Not everyone has forgotten it. Gennadi Burbulis, one of the founding fathers of democracy in Russia, hasn’t held elected office in years, but he still has a genteel touch for retail politics. Thin and trim at 66, he kisses women on the hand, clasps men on the shoulder and tells them how glad he was to meet them. These moments seem to buoy him on what is an otherwise slightly forlorn, quixotic quest to explain his view of the past two decades of Russian history and his hopes for the future. As provost of small, liberal International University in Moscow, he crisscrosses Russia constantly to speak at minor conferences and gatherings, carrying a suitcase full of pamphlets about democracy and human rights–a traveling salesman of liberal ideals.

On a crisp, cloudless day in November, Burbulis stands in front of 75 or so university students in the western enclave of Kaliningrad and explains his credentials. “Gennadi Burbulis is a historic figure,” he says as the students fidget and check their cell phones. He tells them that he was Boris Yeltsin’s closest adviser. And he tells them that, along with Yeltsin, he signed the Belavezha accords, the papers that dissolved the Soviet Union on Dec. 8, 1991. The communist empire ended that day, with no air-raid sirens, no mushroom clouds, none of the nightmare imagery that had haunted two generations of Americans and Soviets. There were just six men–the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus–holed up in a hunting lodge in an ancient forest near the Polish border, declaring their secession and toasting the death of the Soviet Union.

The willful disbanding of the Soviet empire was supposed to ring in a new era of cooperation, especially between the world’s superpowers, the U.S. and Russia. One of the first calls Burbulis and Yeltsin made after the signing, even before they called Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, was to U.S. President George H.W. Bush. When the breakup was finalized a few weeks later and Gorbachev turned power over to Yeltsin, Bush went on television to proclaim the event “a victory for democracy and freedom.” It was, in effect, the last war America won. The hope was that Russians had won it too.

But that victory was short-lived. Egged on by American free-market economists, the reformers broke up state holdings and auctioned them off for pennies on the dollar. Millions of Russians lost their jobs as hyperinflation wiped out their savings. Russia’s GDP fell by 13% in 1991, 19% in 1992 and 12% in 1993, according to the International Monetary Fund. The country sank into a brutal depression. Free elections in 1993 packed the parliament with communists and nationalists who declared war against Yeltsin’s policies; earlier that year, lawmakers had voted for Yeltsin’s impeachment, and the would-be democrat ordered tanks to fire on the parliament building. Hundreds were killed, and by the time the smoke cleared, the country had lost faith in democracy.

The glow of freedom in those first post-Soviet years–the liberty to travel wherever, read whatever, vote for whomever–faded quickly. Russians’ ballots, they learned, did not slow the slide into disorder or hold leaders to account. They got the worst of democracy, all uncertainty and no accountability. Fatalism, never far from the Russian psyche, set in. Better to focus on scraping out a living for yourself than on building a better society.

Worse yet, Russians feel that the West abandoned them in their time of need; in the minds of many, the bardak of the ’90s was America’s fault. The U.S.-led economic reforms were a disaster, and there’s an argument to be made that the U.S. exploited the weakness of the new Russia by circumventing Moscow to gain quick influence in oil-rich former Soviet republics in Central Asia. “We expected they would pursue their interests,” Burbulis says, “but we never thought they would be so blunt about it.” There was never a Marshall Plan for Russia, in part because there was a strong undercurrent of schadenfreude in Washington about its former enemy’s struggles.

More recent history leaves many Russians feeling that U.S. intentions are two-faced at best. The U.S. calls for cooperation but then pushes NATO to Russia’s doorstep and offers deep support to its enemy Georgia. It doesn’t help when American politicians lob threats–as Senator John McCain did when he said, just after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was shot dead, that Putin should be “nervous.” Fear of U.S. meddling adds to the ruling party’s paranoia about domestic politics. Arshinova’s Young Guard put out a 2012 calendar full of crude caricatures of various opposition politicians. The month of September features a drawing of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a classroom “teaching” opposition activists about democracy next to a poster that reads WE NEED OIL and a map that suggests the U.S. might invade Russia.

The U.S. has its own views on the matter of guilt. For example, Washington had nothing to do with Russia’s 1994 war against its citizens in Chechnya–a conflict that added a sense of moral despair to Russia’s dismal economy. But the clashing narratives from Moscow and Washington about what happened during Yeltsin’s era will never be reconciled. The hurt of the ’90s is too deep for Russians; seen through that pain, the ongoing jostling with the U.S. on issues from Libya to missile defense to NATO seems as inevitable as the rise of Putin as a strongman was.

The Kaliningrad Answer

If time built up this new enmity between the two nations, it can also, to borrow a phrase, tear down that wall. You can see clues to how this might happen in the curious enclave of Kaliningrad. Occupied by the Soviets in 1945, it is not connected to the rest of Russia but is wedged between E.U. member states Poland and Lithuania. That distance from Moscow made it a particularly lawless place in the ’90s, but now it is giving rise to something Burbulis calls the Kaliningrad answer. That is, Kaliningrad can look at its close neighbors, with their vibrant economies and healthy electoral politics, and imagine a better way of life.

Alexander Storozhuk is a Kaliningrad farmer who happened to sit next to Burbulis on the flight from Moscow and recognized him immediately. “We talked about whether it was possible to build a society that would let people be free,” he says. “Burbulis is trying to enlighten people.” Storozhuk’s farm–54 workers and 4,200 acres (1,700 hectares) of cabbages, carrots, beets and potatoes–is suffering because Russia lacks that freedom. He reels off a dizzying list of regulations and petty corruption that plague his industry; there are one-fifth the number of small farmers in the region that there were eight years ago, he says. The rest of them have gone out of business or left the country.

The difference in Kaliningrad, he says, is proximity. Its residents can drive to the E.U. and be home by dinner. Unlike people in the rest of Russia–which the locals call the mainland–Kaliningrad residents have no trouble getting even long-term visas to E.U. countries. “You cross the border and think, What the hell?” says Storozhuk. “We can see in other countries that there is another way.” That ringside seat to Europe is part of what in early 2010 drove Kaliningrad to hold the largest protest ever against Putin’s United Russia. More than 10,000 people took to the streets, shouting slogans against the party and the governor Putin appointed. Amazingly, it worked. The governor stepped down, the Kremlin appointed a Kaliningrad native to replace him, and Moscow announced a passel of new infrastructure projects to placate the region.

The proximity that Kaliningrad enjoys is coming, in essence, to the rest of Russia. As of this year, the country has more Internet users than anywhere else in Europe; if they can’t visit the West, they can see it. And throughout Russia, they are doing what informed people do everywhere–demanding a better life, more efficient government, a leader who gets results. Anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny has become one of the most read commentators in the country. Reform-minded business owners are anxious, as are a broad range of interest groups far removed from the intelligentsia of western Russia. Even the Union of Military Sailors, traditionally a stronger supporter of the state, called for its members to vote against United Russia on Dec. 4. “[We] are degraded and offended to the depths of our souls by the party of power,” it wrote in a statement that blasted the Kremlin for low military pensions and a general lack of accountability. “More and more people, especially in the last two years, have started feeling uncertain about what kind of country they are living in and where it is headed,” says sociologist Dubin. “They are asking, Where are these people at the top taking us?”

That does not necessarily mean that Russians will take to the streets and call for Putin’s ouster. But it does mean that Putin’s next six years as President will see more demands for the kind of progress–social mobility and economic freedom, at the very least–that he has failed to deliver so far. Discontent has already made several impromptu appearances. At a late-November martial-arts event, in front of people who are the judo-loving Prime Minister’s natural constituency, Putin was openly booed. He seemed visibly shocked by this, but his troubles will only be compounded by the maturing of a generation younger than Arshinova’s, which has no memory of the bleak ’90s, a generation that has judged itself solely against the rest of Europe. Members of that generation will have seen plenty of anti-Western propaganda, but they will be less likely to latch onto it as an answer to all their inquietude.

Arshinova has an agenda for Russia that she sounds prepared to act on, with or without Putin. She says she has her differences with the old guard of United Russia and even wishes there were a more credible opposition, a somewhat dubious claim, since Young Guard spends a lot of energy shouting down what opposition there is. Still, she says she had particular hopes for Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire nickel magnate (and owner of the New Jersey Nets) who started a quasi-opposition party only to be disqualified after some undisclosed conflict with the Kremlin. Her political career, she says, has taken a personal toll. She loves to travel but cannot. She says she would be more beautiful if she were able to take better care of herself instead of constantly working. Like many other Russians, she wants something in return for her toils: progress.

“I am not a blind fan of Mr. Putin,” Arshinova says. By the end of his next term, in 2018, “I want to see the results of reforms–of police, of education, of utilities,” she says. “I want to see the results of my efforts. Then I will continue to believe.”

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