Their backs to the massive Lenin statue on October Square, the Anarchists were spoiling for a fight. Dressed in black, the young men and women jumped up and down, straining at their rope lines, and chanting again and again: “Аста Ла Виста, беби!Аста Ла Виста, беби!”
I asked a middle aged man who was detouring over a snow bank, giving the anarchists a wide berth. He muttered: “It’s something in ‘hispanski.’”
Then it flashed on me. It came from a movie: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As Arnold Schwarzenegger was about to blow away the frozen remains of his nemesis, the T-1000 nanomorph, he tossed off a line that ultimately circled the world: “Hasta La Vista, baby!”
Presumably, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin does not see himself as a frozen nanomorph.
But some members of Russia’s younger generation do.
During the two months of Russia’s protest movement, Kremlin strategists have shown a calm front. They seem comforted by their knowledge that Russia’s demographic profile is more like Japan’s — top heavy with retirees – and less like Egypt’s – lots of angry youth.
It will all blow away, they seem to say. We can take it in our stride.
Two days before the Feb. 4 protest march, Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, tried to pop the balloon of political suspense in an interview with The New York Times. On the night of the March 4 presidential election, he predicted, the opposition will cry fraud (fake yawn). And then, the next day, there will be a big protest rally (boooringgg). (The best description of Peskov came in a December New Yorker article by David Remnick: “When he lies, he knows that you know, and you know that he knows that you know.”)
Confounding Mr. Peskov’s expectations, 100,000 people turned out in minus 20 degree C weather – probably the coldest Saturday of the winter.
Mikhail Dmitriev, president of the Center for Strategic Research, has a message about Russian urban youth the Kremlin does not want to hear. Due to the high concentration of universities and employers in Moscow, about 30 percent of Moscow’s residents are in their 20s. Ditto for St. Petersburg and the 10 “millioniki” – the 10 cities with populations of about 1 million. This is an Arab Spring demographic profile.
Rural and small city Russia is old, dying out, and watching Prime Minister Putin inaugurating new factories every night on TV.
Urban Russian youth is online, and getting their political education from opposition radio and Internet comedy shows that regularly rack up over 1 million hits a segment.
Boris Nemtsov, one of the bigger egos of the opposition movement, was recently caught on the wrong side of this generational divide. In a secretly recorded conversation leaked to an internet news site, the 52-year-old opposition leader derided Russia’s new generation of dissidents as “internet hamsters.” When his indiscretion was revealed he took to the very same internet and blogged an apology.
That did not stop three young protesters from showing up Saturday, dressed from head to toe as hamsters. They wove through the crowd in a bouncing conga line.
Svetlana Kolchik, who writes a weekly column, Women Talk, dug up this protest recruiting ad on the website of a popular Russian online dating site. Addressed to unattached women, it read: “Sixty-five percent of the protests’ participants are men, 80% boast an above-average income, 75% have an above-average IQ, and 50% are currently single. So don’t miss it!”
Protesting is now cool. And, with the university year stretching to June, the calendar is working against the Kremlin.
Historically, student protests take place in the spring – think Paris and Prague in May 1968, the May 1970 shootings at Kent State, and the April 1971 anti-Vietnam war march on Washington. And, of course, last year’s Arab Spring.
As a former student protester, against the Vietnam War, I recall that spring was my season of protest – sit-ins, playing cat and mouse with the police in the streets.
At my high school in April, 1971, a group of us 16-year-olds secretly pored over The Anarchist Cookbook. We studied how to flip open the back of a Volkswagen beetle, yank off the distributor cap, and thus immobilize the car – and an entire lane of traffic. The strategy, as circulated by the Liberation News Service in those pre-internet days, was to block commuter traffic on all bridges into Washington. We were going to stop the Nixon War Machine!
I would have done all that, and more!
But, my parents did not let me take the bus to Washington.
On the opposite side of the globe, in Leningrad, Vladimir Putin, was living through his own rebellion. In his memoirs, he describes himself as a “shpana” or a street punk. Only the timely intervention of a judo instructor kept him off the path to jail, and put him the on the path to university, a KGB career — and the rest is history.
Of course, today’s Russian students are completely different.
I’m sure that this spring, when Moscow inevitably defrosts, when the leaves start popping, and the girls’ hemlines start rising, the young men and women of urban Russia will be 100 percent concentrated on their final exams, and on the productive careers that await them.
And, if you believe that little fairy tale, “Аста Ла Виста, беби!”