Politics heat up in Siberia

December 1, 2011


Hey readers,

I wrote a short article this week for the our Middlebury campus newspaper, conveniently named The Campus. I will copy the article here, but if you’d rather read it in on the the paper’s website, you’re welcome to click on this link.

Overseas Briefing

Thu, 12/01/2011 – 04:53
By Nathan Goldstone

Irkutsk, Russia — Something is rotten in the state of Russia, and the youth in Siberia have started to make a stink. While the weather has begun its descent into frigid temperatures in my now-hometown of Irkutsk, the city’s legacy of embracing rebellious youth is heating up as Russia’s Dec. 4 legislative elections near.

Russia’s claim of maintaining a democratic state is, in practical terms, something between farce and façade. Parties opposing the Putin-Medvedev tandem heading United Russia do exist, but only nominally. Prime Minister Putin has befriended or hired those who control the television news stations, and smaller parties seem to be given only airtime when they appear unelectable and out of touch.

It is becoming clear that Russia’s youth are disenchanted with this one-party holdover from their parents’ socialist state, and, with the help of modern technology, are beginning to change their nation’s political reality. This month in Krasnoyarsk, 15-year-old Matvei Tsivinyuk posted a video online of his principal’s explosive response after the student defaced a United Russia poster that hung in his school. No other party was permitted advertisement on the premises until national attention forced a change of policy.

Here in Irkutsk students regularly organize small, politically motivated gatherings through social networking sites like Kontakt — most often in the form of short-lived but well-attended and organized flash mobs — which work to make young voters more united and more vocal in their discontent.

While such activity is sometimes indirect in purpose, the individual efforts in Irkutsk have already produced results. Last year, United Russia placed heavy support on the mayor of the nearby city of Bratsk to take over in Irkutsk, and when it was clear that he could not win decisively, the party used its influence over the elections committee to disqualify the leading candidate. In protest, the city elected Viktor Kondrashov, officially of the Communist Party but effectively an independent, by a margin of 35 percent.

Unfortunately, three months after winning the mayoral elections, Kondrashov announced his new allegiance to United Russia. Many Irkutiane view this as a career-saving maneuver, but the real motives behind the change are unclear.

Irkutsk’s youth has begun taking matters into their own hands. Not long ago, I befriended Sasha, a local celebrity of sorts and one of the main organizers of political gatherings around the city. He believes that it is best to change the system from within. In ardent opposition to United Russia, he has officially joined the party to receive a stipend for his dedication, which he then uses to help finance protest activities.

Given that Putin was effectively appointed president six months before any democratic motion on the matter would take place, the December vote for the legislature is certainly, to a large degree, already decided. Nevertheless, young people all over the country are laying the groundwork for a more democratic future, and are doing so with a farsightedness that tends to elude their more politically categorized counterparts in America.

Perhaps I am just settling in, but for the first time in Russia — a land where grotesque contradictions often have their way with reason — I think I understand where my peers are coming from when they laugh off this election season while devoting their lives to the next. They have realized that this war against pseudo-Soviet politics, like most great wars in their country’s history, will be one of simmering attrition.

Who knows what will come of the student demonstrations and organizations spreading across Siberia, but one thing is clear: the children of the Far East want in on the Western World, and it seems only a matter of time before their corrosive unrest comes to a head.


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