Due West: Russia's Internet Generation Finally Finds Itself

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
“You know what I did on election day? I started checking where my friends were via Foursquare”.

“You know what I did on election day? I started checking where my friends were via Foursquare”. Noticing the slightly bemused look of an Internet illiterate, Anton Nosik, Russia's number one Internet guru explained it to me: “It is an application which allows you to see in real time where people you follow on Twitter were. And you know what I saw? Page after page of “I am at a polling station number so and so” tweets. Most of them are thirtysomethings and the majority were voting for the first time.”

The unfolding saga of Russia's parliamentary elections and their dramatic aftermath is the story of how Vladimir Putin seemingly missed a rendezvous with history and lost the trust of a whole generation along the way. His strength and the strength of his United Russia party relied for a long time not only on civil servants and pensioners, as is widely presumed, but also on the silent assent of the country's nascent middle class.

Nosik and his friends, all aged 30-40, enjoyed the fruits of Russia's oil and gas boom all through Putin's two terms as president. They got a good education, frequently went abroad and utilized Western grants. They travelled, created their startups, sat in Moscow's fashionable cafes and seemed to be content to hear nothing of the political problems civic society activists and journalists worried about.

Politics did not bother them and they hardly saw any link between their lifestyle and such things as freedom of speech and assembly, free and fair elections, transparency and accountability. Moreover, some of them supported the Kremlin's policies because they associated them with the economic boom, which made their carefree lifestyle a reality.

I remember talking to another well-known “new media” entrepreneur, who told me: «If United Russia asked me to help them redesign their website, I would only ask them: ‘How much?» But he went to the pro-democracy rally on Moscow's Trimphalnaya Square and is tweeting his friends pictures of police, deployed on the streets of the capital.

Why did this happen? I do not have a clear answer to that. Probably a combination of reasons caused the attitude change among the “iPad crowd”. The initial push came in 2008-2009 when the economic crisis for the first time made them cast a look around in order to understand what was going on. They found out that while they have to use their own money and guts to keep their businesses afloat, state-affiliated companies got billions of dollars of support from the federal budget – mostly because in Russia's state capitalism only losses are state, while benefits are private.

These thirtysomethings started paying more attention to corruption which grows exponentially in Russia, and to the widespread police violence. They became more and more irritated with the top civil servants' cars dashing across the city sirens wailing, while ordinary people had to wait in traffic jams. But what's more important they found out that their success in life does not depend on the state, moreover, that they would feel much better if the authorities left them alone.

Some of these people put their trust in President Dmitry Medvedev's “modernization”, hoping it would move the country forward through evolution, not revolution.  But when on September 24th Dmitry Medvedev announced that he wouldn’t be seeking a second term and suggested that Putin should run for president, their patience snapped – as it did for many others across Russia. They did not want more of the same, they wanted a bit more dynamism, humanity and honesty. It is these people who until the morning of the election day were deliberating, as the hero of the old song by The Clash sang – “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

 They went, and voted, and by doing this changed their lives forever – and very probably Russia's future along the way. They suddenly transformed politics from online chat to offline, real life activity and dealt a decisive blow to the cynicism that had engulfed Russia in the last decade.

Although the Internet generation is numerically small, it wields a significant power in Moscow and Saint Petersburg - the country's two main centers. As Vaclav Havel observed at the height of Communist repression in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”, intellectuals can only play a role if they stick to their on rules of the game with governments. And this is where the first problem lies.  No one can predict whether this protest wave is sustainable in the long run, as the protesters are inexperienced and disorganized.

Secondly, as it was in Ukraine, disillusionment and weariness could set in after some time.

Thirdly, the government still wields a lot of power and could stem the wave of discontent. Finally, even if things really change in Russia, the results might well be different from what the Facebook, Twitter and iPhone generation expect them to be. Old-style lefties or rough nationalists could well claim power instead of the enlightened liberals – of whom there are very few in Russia. But these December days would still be an experience that will stay with them forever. As one disillusioned Ukrainian “Orange Revolutionary” once said to me: “I know we failed. I also know we once defeated our own cynicism and did something good”.

That's precious, no matter what the future holds in store.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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