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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 May 2007, 23:07 GMT 00:07 UK
Fighting for free speech in Russia
In the third of three special reports, Bridget Kendall, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent, reports from Russia on life and attitudes in the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod.

Nashi demonstration
The Nashi movement contains echoes of the Soviet past

Outside a 24-hour shop in the centre of Nizhny Novgorod, a group of several dozen youngsters wave placards and cheer on a young man shouting through a megaphone.

Most of them are dressed in red, with matching cherry-coloured baseball caps.

Passers-by look at them askance. One or two shake their heads. Others engage them in conversation.

Their noisy picket is to draw attention to the fact that the shop has been caught selling alcohol to children.

These are members of the nationwide Nashi youth movement. They call themselves "anti-fascist", but "Nashi" means "ours".

And with their patriotic slogans, and slightly militant style, they remind me of the Komsomol, the young Communists of the Soviet era.

These are President Putin's foot-soldiers, a Kremlin-backed youth movement dedicated to making Russia a better place - and ready to counter any attempt to organise an Orange-style revolution.

But there is also what looks like a darker side to their activities.

In Moscow, they have organised pickets to harass both the British ambassador - for attending an unofficial human rights seminar - and the Estonian embassy - after Estonia dismantled a Soviet war memorial.

Russia is too connected to the rest of the world. It would be impossible to isolate it again
Unnamed student

In Nizhny Novgorod, they announce that they will stay put until the shop apologises, confident they enjoy the backing of the city authorities.

Before long, the shop's manager comes out and sheepishly agrees from now on to ask all youngsters for proof of identity.

The Nashi protesters cheer and begin to roll up their banners. Another victory in the battle to clean up their country.

So how typical are they of young Russians today?

Strong leader

In the Hard Rock café in Nizhny Novgorod, a favourite teenage haunt, I arrange to meet some local students.

All of them are studying marketing and want careers either in PR or advertising.

I ask them what they think about Russia and democracy.

Group of Russian female students
Many students respect Vladimir Putin's assertiveness

One girl tells me Russia cannot be democratic because Russians are like children - they need a strong leader, who can use the belt on them if necessary.

Another girl agrees. "We need strong power in this country," she says.

"That's why we are proud of our president. He controls us but he is fair."

"We think he's the best," chips in a third.

"My father thinks he'll change the constitution and stay on for a third term," adds the first girl.

Democracy 'discredited'

It's not just young students who are so loyal to their president.

In the lunch hour at a modest diner, I get chatting to a local businessman. Yury is an interesting example of a new sort of Russian entrepreneur.

He is no Russian oligarch, rolling in money, with a safe haven in London and a bevy of bodyguards. He is a former fireman who became a mature student, worked his way through college and is now regional manager for a big Russian retail business.

Mourner holding portrait of Boris Yeltsin at his funeral in April 2007
Many Russians say Boris Yeltsin gave democracy a bad image

He hates going abroad and doesn't even go to Moscow if he can avoid it.

And he tells me he is convinced that only when Russians like him who try to make their money honestly become commonplace, instead of the exception, will the country start to develop normally.

In the meantime, his main criticism is reserved for Western governments who, he says, tried to weaken Russia in the 1990s with their pledges of aid and talk of democracy. All they wanted was to plunder its natural resources.

"Go out on the street and ask people what they'd rather have - democracy or a car, a flat and guaranteed personal security - and 99% will tell you they'd rather do without democracy in return for the means to live properly.

"They don't want communism back either, but the whole idea of democracy has been discredited because of what happened in the Yeltsin years."

He adds that he does not agree that freedom of choice and free speech have got more restricted under Vladimir Putin.

"Personally, I don't feel it," he tells me. "Yes, we use tough measures to crack down on disorder. But that's just the Russian way of doing things."

Freedom fighters?

Not everyone agrees with that.

A small coterie of human rights campaigners and opposition activists are determinedly trying to stage their own protests - to draw attention to what they see as diminishing political freedoms in Russia.

In a little wooden house in the centre of Nizhny Novgorod, we find the small stuffy office of Oxana Chelysheva and Stanislav Dmitrievsky.

They used to run a Russian-Chechen friendship society - until it was closed down in January and Stanislav was tried and given a suspended sentence.

The court ruled he had promoted race hatred.

Social activism is growing. And history is not made by the sleeping majority but the active minority
Stanislav Dmitrievsky

Undeterred, they have set up a new NGO under a different name and are planning new activities and rallies - the only way to make their voices heard.

"If we stop insisting on our legal right to protest," says Stanislav, "then the authorities can do anything, from sending us into exile, to putting us in prison."

From this tiny office, it is hard to imagine they can make much impact. Few people here have probably heard of them.

But their reputation extends way beyond Nizhny Novgorod. In the West, they are prize-winning human rights activists, recipients of an Amnesty International award and friends of the murdered Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya.

I ask Oxana if she is worried for her own safety.

"We've received death threats," she says. "Yes, I am worried."

No turning back

Back at the Hard Rock Café, I ask the students if they think there is a danger in Russia having too strong a leadership, given all the excesses that happened under Stalin and other Communist leaders in the Soviet era.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin could not return to Soviet isolation, Russians say

"There is no danger," says one. "Our president is a very clever man, and anyway Russia is too connected to the rest of the world.

"It would be impossible to isolate it again, like it was in Soviet times. If he tried to do that, the people would react and he'd lose his power that way."

Oxana and Stanislav agree: keeping the outside world out in order to turn Russia back into a proper dictatorship would be nigh-on impossible - so long as they can still use the internet.

Stanislav says he is optimistic that the number of people dissatisfied with the status quo in Russia is growing.

"Clever people realise that what has happened in Russia, all the stability, is only due to oil prices, " he says.

"Social activism is growing. And history is not made by the sleeping majority but the active minority."

Legal battles

My last stop is another office in the city centre: the crowded office of the Committee of Mothers of Soldiers.

This grass-roots organisation was started by the mothers of Russian conscripts, to protect them from army bullying and to deal with problems linked to the war in Chechnya.

On the walls hang photos of hundreds of young soldiers who died in Chechen wars.

Sitting waiting to tell their stories are several young men with shaven heads - conscripts who fled the army because they could not bear the brutality any more.

Natalya Zhukova
Natalya Zhukova says people are ready to fight for their rights

They want legal advice on how to avoid being court-martialled.

Eight years ago when I visited this office, it seemed disorganised and ineffectual. Now it hums with activity and purpose.

Constantly on the phone is the energetic chairwoman, Natalya Zhukova.

She agrees that she and those she seeks to help are now much more knowledgeable about their legal rights - and determined to fight for them.

"Even though there is almost nothing on the TV and only a bit in the newspapers, they are well-informed," she says, echoing Stanislav's optimism.

"That's how we'll make real changes in this country. We need the number of people who understand what's happening and can assess it critically to be big enough. That is what we are working for."

Bridget Kendall's radio report from Nizhny Novgorod will be going out on Radio 4's Today programme at 0730 BST on Thursday 31 May.

Should you miss it, or want to listen to it at a later date, then you can find it at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/

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Young people talk about life in Russia



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