In Russia's once-quiet provinces, young people lead protest

The city of Tambov in southern Russia is one of those sleepy, provincial centers that have in the past been the heartland of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not anymore.

"Corruption is the root of all problems," says Maria Nizhivenko, a 20-year old coffee shop employee who was detained by police as she took part in a demonstration in the city Sunday. "What's the point in complaining about bad roads, utilities or bad education if it's all about the fact that money doesn't reach the places it should have?"

A wave of anti-corruption protests that rocked Russia's 11 time zones Sunday was stunning for Putin's authoritarian rule, both in its scale and its demography: the protests, previously contained to the country's cosmopolitan cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, spilled over to provincial towns and were spearheaded by people in their 20s and even teenagers who were once thought to be Russia's most apolitical generation.

The frantic police response — from attacking lone protesters in Moscow to rounding up young women like Nizhivenko — demonstrated just how shocked authorities were by the sudden show of discontent.

The protest in Tambov had been banned by authorities. Residents who came out to protest found utility workers digging up the sidewalk in an apparent attempt to hinder the gathering.

"I want to know the truth," written on the placard that Nizhivenko was holding, got police attention, and she was scooped up into a police van. After spending seven hours at the police station the young woman was released along with eight other people who had been detained. The experience has not put her off protesting against Russia's ruling elite.

Tambov, more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) southeast of Moscow, lacks independent media or high-profile opposition figures and is not your typical hotbed of dissent. The ruling United Russia party won 63 percent of the vote here last year and Vladimir Putin garnered 72 percent in 2012. Authorities in Tambov tightly control the media.

But news gets out.

"The town is small, and probably the main source of information here is rumors, and it's hard to hide massive layoffs, closures of factory shops or that your salary can buy fewer goods," says protest organizer Vladimir Zhilkin, a 43-year old former sociology professor who was fired from his posts at the local university and two colleges after he became a local representative for Open Russia, a charitable foundation of former billionaire and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky seeking to foster democracy in Russia.

Sunday's protests in dozens of Russian cities, from the western exclave of Kaliningrad to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk 7,500 kilometers (4,700 miles) to the east, were largely prompted by a call from opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who last month released an hour-long video documenting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's alleged corrupt wealth. Claims in that video, which has had more than 14 million views, have struck a chord with many Russians who typically are not so moved by more abstract concerns of opposition activists such as freedom of speech.

"Navalny and his investigation set off this wave," says 50-year old businessman Andrei Polyakov, who keeps a pen with Navalny's name in the pocket of his jacket. "We know they steal out there," he says, "but he gave you the facts and the reason to ask questions."

Like pretty much anywhere in Russia, the local governor and administration are hugely unpopular in Tambov, a city of 400,000, and many tend to blame economic problems in this predominantly agriculture-driven region on them rather than on the Putin regime. Navalny's video about Medvedev's alleged wealth, however, shifted the focus onto the federal government, setting off the protests. In Tambov, 200 to 300 people took to the streets in the first act of public discontent since nationwide protests against electoral fraud in 2011 and 2012.

The protesters this time round are notably young — most have only known life under Putin and some were born after he took power.

Diana Rudakova, a landscape designer who also went to the rallies to protest electoral fraud in 2011 and 2012, said she felt like a minority: "I'm 25 and I felt old at that rally."

Rudakova and others said the youth, who shun state-owned television programs for online programs, took to the streets because "they don't see a future for themselves with this system we have now."

The massive anti-government protests five years ago died down after a brutal crackdown on a demonstration on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on May 6, 2012, sent dozens to prison for attacking police on what critics say were trumped-up charges. Separately, the Russian parliament adopted a flurry of laws aimed at discouraging demonstrations.

The political crackdown that paralyzed Moscow protesters may not have reached Tambov, a city of pretty 19th-century mansions and pot-holed roads, but the fear is still palpable here.

"If it wasn't for that fear of repression, more people would have come out," businessman Polyakov says of Sunday's rally. "You look at Moscow. . No one wants to be the first targeted."

Those few who braved the protest ban speak of relatives and friends who were too afraid to go but offered words of solidarity and helped to raise funds for lawyers for those detained.

The one generation seemingly unfazed by the fear of repression is the one that has only hazy memories of the Bolotnaya crackdown.

"Older generations have more things to lose but while I'm young I can use this privilege," says Nizhivenko, who dismisses suggestions that she should fear for her safety for speaking against authorities. "Who if not young people should rise up?"