Russia’s Red and Blacks: A Tale of Two Generations

Posted November 10th, 2011 at 6:41 pm (UTC+0)
6 comments

This is a tale of Moscow’s two demonstrations — first the Nationalists, then the Communists , It is not just a tale of the Blacks and the Reds, but a tale of two generations.

“Russkii Sport” chanted one flying squad of nationalists. And, on signal, they threw themselves horizontal on the cold, gray asphalt, pumping out pushups.

It looked a mite comical with their winter coats, and the scarves their babushkas had probably forced on their tough guy grandsons.
I thought of the Women Talk column that Svetlana Kolchik, a friend, had written two days earlier for Ria Novosti: “Where are the Men?”
C’mon Svetlana, you should have taken the Marino metro line almost to the end, to Lyublino. Ok, all the guys wore black, many covered their faces with bandannas, and some snapped sinister stiff arm salutes.
The nationalists were young, male, and angry.

Targeting Russia’s ruling United Russia party, one group carried a banner that showed United Russia’s bear symbol dragging a bag of loot. They chanted: “Down with the party of thieves and swindlers.”.

Young Russian Nationalists hit the pavement to show their fitness in rightwing Russian March VOA Photo: James Brooke

Targeting Muslim immigrants, one squad of 40 young men, clearly pumped for action, chanted: “Arm yourselves! Don’t tolerate them!”

One large banner read in English: “Gaddafi Is Killed, Who’s Next?”

Oh, I thought, more whining about the demise of the Kremlin’s favorite dictator. Then, the group’s chant started to sink in, ever louder: “Rossiya Bez Putina! Rossiya Bez Putina!”

They were chanting: “Russia Without Putin! Russia Without Putin!”

As a youth, I grew up next door to William Shirer, author of “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” When I became interested in journalism, we met and talked a few times in the 1970s – 40 years after he had covered the early years of Nazi Germany. Now 40 years after those conversations, as I stood on the cold sidewalks of Lyublino, I felt a whiff of Germany, a la 1931.

While standing near a metro exit, a large man in a black jacket accosted me. He sneered: “I suppose you would like to see Moscow all American?”

As a seasoned street-wise reporter, I read this as the awkward appeal of a lonely soul who wanted to talk. So we chatted for a while, warily.

His main assertion: 90 percent of Muscovites share nationalist anger over the massive influx of migrant workers from the Muslim south – Central Asia and Russia’s own Caucasus.

Startlingly, I found sympathy for the nationalists from two people I interviewed at random as they came out of the metro. Blinking in the sun of a holiday afternoon, they had stumbled on the public rage of the black jackets.

Three days later, the Reds had their turn.

The Communists marched down Tverskaya, Moscow’s central shopping avenue. The police seemed to be mostly concerned with picking up plastic traffic cones, restoring Moscow traffic to its rush hour paralysis. Two ambulances closely followed the parade, standing by in case a marcher had a stroke.
The Communists were poor and old. They were overwhelmingly pensioners, women fumbling in their purses for the right coins to pay for a cheaply printed Communist newspaper.

Pensioners and nostalgia for the Soviet era dominated the Communist march in central Moscow. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist leader, gave a brave speech about new blood coming into the party and new (invisible) brigades of Communist Youth.

But marchers under 40 years of age clustered together, evincing the kind of self conscious uneasiness that some people show when they visit a retirement home.

Viktor, a retired construction worker, said life was great under the USSR: “Free education, free health care, guaranteed work.” When I asked if his children were helping out, he said they had all turned out “bumzhi” – bums. A harsh verdict on a cold gray evening in the stone city (Moscow).

As the red banners passed the Zara clothing store, reportedly the most expensive street level merchant space in Moscow, I watched as sleek metrosexual salesmen cautiously peeked through their window displays. They looked out as if their luxury turf was being invaded by Martians.

The sea of red flags, the comfortable old language of 5-year plans, and the chance to meet with old comrades were the main attractions. Few people I talked to expressed the slightest hope that December’s parliamentary elections will change anything.

I asked one woman why she was buying a newspaper.

She responded: “You are a big American jerk.”

(Gee, how did she see through my disguise so quickly?)

As a seasoned street-wise reporter, I coolly sized her up.

To me, she looked like an older, shrunken version of Rosa Xhleb, the ex-KGB colonel in “From Russia with Love”. In that movie, Col. Xhleb pops a poisoned blade out of the toe of her shoe and repeatedly tries to kick James Bond.

With that vision in my head, I decided to keep moving.

As I walked away, she actually cackled: “Xa, xa, xa, XA.”

This Rosa Xhleb, 2011 edition, was clearly delighted that, there on Tverskaya, only two blocks from the Kremlin, that she had unmasked a “vrag naroda” – enemy of the people.

The march ended on Theater Square. But the Communists turned their back on the neo-classical front of the Bolshoi Theater. A few years ago, workers removed the hammer and sickle from its place of honor. They restored the double headed eagle of Czarist Russia.

Only one week before the Communist march, Theater Square was the stage for the gala reopening of the Bolshoi, capping a lavish, six year, $680 million renovation. Instead, the Communists faced the grey granite statue of Karl Marx, the largest in Russia. There, the “Lenin Generation” bathed in the warmth of the old songs and slogans of their youth.

The Kremlin evidently sizes up the Communists as yesterday’s people. Not a future threat, they get prime time and prime real estate for their march.

In contrast, the angry young men in black got police helicopters, detention trucks, and a desolate, windswept marching site that cried out: Siberia!

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

6 Responses to “Russia’s Red and Blacks: A Tale of Two Generations”

  1. Gennady says:

    The tale of the two demonstrations objectively mirrors very contradictory picture with no certain societal vector of motion.
    There is no mentioning of a stance of the now predominantly productive generation being caught in between.

    1. It is all clear with the mentality of the generation of Stalin-minded senior citizens brought up in vigilance and in looking for more spies and unmasking more “vrag naroda” – enemy of the people on the pattern of Rosa Xhleb, 2011 edition. The generation of the barracks socialism, brain-washed internationalism that under the leadership of the “wise” CPSU brought economy to complete collapse and to demise of the USSR And there was nobody to blame but the CPSU. The “unanimous” generation with no alive opponents but dead ones.
    And now they try to convince people that they have got some vision of the future.

    2. The generation of young men, easily deceived and manipulated, being the future of Russia, is in ferment.
    FSB minded ruling party with the people’s money got for selling off country’s natural resources frantically recruits young people to join their “Young League” for purpose of being instrumental to pursue their FSB agenda.
    Anybody may see posters inviting to enlist the League in every high street.

    3. But it is evident to any ordinary Russian citizen that there is a healthy nationalism of any nation in the wide world trying to keep its “home” in cleanliness and order.
    Many citizens in the Russian Federation are nowadays concerned with the unregulated influx of immigrants as vectors of alien cultures.
    Incompetence, mismanagement of the executives of the 11 years in power regime resulted in uncontrolled and unrestricted immigration and in growing ethnic tension and conflicts being ready to explode at any moment and at any place.
    Even more. The immigrants are often humiliated by the executives and other officials by extorting money from them.
    So, it is no “win-win” situation neither for ordinary Russians, nor for immigrants themselves but to the corrupt regime and those profiteering by it.

  2. Pyotr says:

    Well, James, I bet you get the full notion of highly praised “Russian hospitality and open-heartedness” now, don’t you? Thanks for the great rootlevel view of the “opposition” which is still allowed and tolerated by Putin’s regime. Supressing the real opposition of healthy nationalists and intelectuals the regime is risking to face a full fleged nazi gorrila-brigades one day. Putin is beginning to bronzen and lacks the ability to see those who really can push him off the pedestal.

    • Olga says:

      I hope you’re going to go to the upcoming election, to push Putin off the pedestal?

      • Pyotr says:

        Of course I will, I always did, and I have never voted for Putin and his party. The problem is nobody wants to count my vote.

  3. John says:

    Found your article on Moscow News and followed link to this version, which is a bit longer and even more interesting with your depiction of the Rosa Klebb character. But thanks Captain Obvious, maybe you were being a jerk asking her why she bought a newspaper when all she could say was she wanted to read it? Anyway, your situating of Nationalist and Communist demos is an interesting commentary, but probably that metrosexual salesman felt slightly less anxious with the Communists coming towards him than the Nationalists?

  4. Stan says:

    I am an American who has been living in Russia for almost a decade, but visited many times much further back. Only recently has there been a buzz in the air, something is up and people who were just on the margins before are becoming bolder and more energetic. No, it is not the Nationalists or the Communists, both are more frightening (particularly the Nationalists) to the average Russian, but general conversation in pubs and coffee shops by the vast middle are adding political comments into conversation. There was little direct interference or threat before, but it just was not that important or fruitful.
    Most people saw great gains in quality of life and options, particularly the young educated classes, under Putin. But they have seen steady growth for so long, since 1999, that it is being taken for granted that things improve materially yearly, so are turning their attention to “more, faster”. The Internet has been very influential with vKontacte having 18,000,000 regular users for networking in western Russia alone. That is both good and bad, there are more information sources, but all sources are more likely to be spreading false information since qualified editors are not there to vet the information and sources. Most information, in any language, is false on the internet mixed in with a little bit of factual information. Russia does have one advantage in the Internet age over most in western Europe and the US, as being naturally a little more skeptical of claims.
    The new sources of info meeting the critical mass of like minded people suddenly are feeling like there is change in the works and they are going to be the ones changing things. My own GF has never been overtly political but this recent election, she was quite proud of rounding up neighbors and talking to them about the advantages of voting for change and against United Russia.
    The calls of ballet stuffing I think is valid but overblown. Exit polls predicted results very close to the official counts so if there were cases of stuffing, it was more likely isolated regional operatives if they had such little impact on skewing counts further from the exit polls. Although United Russia has been reduced to a mere dominate position this last weekend, the drop is more important symbolically than just counts and better than expected totals for several parties. Suddenly, the inevitable is not. That count, even in a loss by opposition really can’t be overestimated in its impact on average voters, it means that the next election will overtake United Russia, and a skillful leader of opposition parties will be able to create a coalition of Duma voting blocks to overtake United Russia in practice as well as principle.Right how there is no such charismatic politician however.
    It will be interesting times and I have a lot of optimism for Russia. Changes have been dramatic and generally positive considering the government is only 20 years old. It took England and the US 150 years to have their courts somewhat independent, and even longer to develop a middle class. Russia, from a historical time frame is doing very well in preventing chaos while tolerating positive change.

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About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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