Alexei Navalny protests could be the beginning of the end for Russia's rotten elite

Alexei Navalny, Putin's most prominent critic, was a figurehead of the protests

Protest erupted across Russia over the weekend

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Economic stability and traditional values. Family and religion. Education and guaranteed income. Respect at the international arena and military might.

These simple points of Putin's policy were meant to reach out to people of all ages, and it seemed to be working up until now – but last weekend brought something I really want to see as the beginning of the end of the system.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets all accross Russia, indignant at the scale of corruption claimed by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny in his recent documentary. 

In Moscow, Navalny estimates the popular turnout reached 25,000 people, while the police talk it down to 7,000. The figures offered by Navalny and the Russian police for most of the 99 cities that joined the protest differ dramatically - but the liberal radio station "Echo Moskvi" counted about 60,000 people followed the opposition leader's call for public rallies. Over a thousand people were detained in Moscow alone. 

The documentary about Dmitriy Medvedev, entitled "He's Not Dimon To You" [Dimon is a popular shorthand for Dimitriy, in much the same way as Nige is for Nigel in Britain] dismisses the common perception of the Prime Minister as a clumsy political pawn, a good-hearted next-door fellow cunningly exploited by the evil Vladimir Putin.

An investigation carried out by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation alleges that Medvedev created and owned a deeply corrupt business empire through friends and college mates. It claims the Russian Prime Minister became a billionaire enjoying generous donations from oligarchs, and converted them to luxurious yachts, villas and wineries in Russia and Italy. 

The allegations made by Navalny are not only shameful and disgusting – they are motivating. No wonder his call to go out and protest on March 26 was met with enthusiasm. But what happened on that day came as a surprise to everyone, and has sparked active debate among sociologists - a large chunk of the protesters were young adults and high school students.

This new generation has been commonly seen as politically indifferent and spending most of their time online. Thus, it's a protest within a protest - if you grown-ups sit and wait, and fear losing your job for saying what you think, we are going to do it for you. We're not another brick in the wall. 

This phenomenon can be partly explained by the growing ideological pressure on students in public schools and universities, and the resistance to it. Soon after Navalny's call to protest, a high school student in Bryansk, a city in Russia's west not far from the border with Ukraine, set up a group on a social network to organize like-minded people for the event. He was quickly detained during a lesson and taken away to the police station, while the teacher and the school principal went to lecture his classmates of the dangers of supporting Navalniy and attempts to change the regime. 

Navalny appears to be very serious about running for president next year, although he's officially ineligible due to a previous conviction he claims the authorities rigged. This, together with the regime's hysterical and violent reactions to any kind of public questioning of its actions, makes me fear for our security in the near future.

But I am happy - truly happy - that the ability to doubt, to question and to protest the injustice has finally gone so deep in the society that high school students take to the streets. Their destructive potential is immense - they have nothing to fear and nothing to lose. I hope the destructiveness will go just far enough to get rid of the corrupt politicians, and not bring another major shock - by a frightening coincidence, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the bloody Bolshevik Revolution.

These students won't lose a job because they have none, or go to jail because they are too young, they don't have kids to think about. They only look ahead. They want a future for themselves that they don't have a chance of having now.

To be fair, only a fraction of these Bryansk high school students can count on a decent wage and a mortgage with interest rates at 12.5% a year. Most of them will likely earn just enough money to buy food and pay bills. Social elevators don't work, at some point you just hit the glass ceiling that doesn't let you go further - because in Russia the elite is full; there’s no room for anyone else. There's no happy future for most of these young people in Bryansk, and a lot of other simple boys and girls under this regime. 

It is high time that the dysfunctional system is dismantled. But it won't give in easily and will strike back fiercely. However, the need for change is here. And the children of today infected with this idea of justice will only foster it as they grow. We have a chance now. We must take it. 

To the past or to the future. To the age where thought is free. From the age of Big Brother: greetings!

Yaroslav Zheltovskiy lives and works in Moscow