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Escape from Putin's info bubble emboldens Russian youth

Russia protests

LONDON -- The worldview of Russians under the age of 30, like their contemporaries everywhere, is shaped by YouTube, V'Kontaktye (Russia's answer to Facebook) and hundreds of news, music and political websites and blogs.

They don't bother to watch Russian TV, with its Kremlin-controlled content, so they're not trapped in the state's information bubble. That has made them sceptical, inquiring and bold.

Anti-Putin protesters stage demonstrations throughout Russia

Last weekend, we travelled 150 miles west of Moscow to the city of Vladimir, to meet the organizers of one of the anti-corruption protests that was set for June 12.

We met Danil Belyakov, a 15-year-old with coppery hair who was handing out fliers for anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. Danil had attended Navalny's first big protest in March, which brought 60,000 Russians into the streets.

A few days after going to that protest, Danil and two other high school students who had attended were summoned to the principal's office for a telling off. Danil didn't only stand up for himself, he secretly recorded the conversation on his phone, and posted it online.

It went viral, and kicked off a lively local debate -- about respect, authority and the influence of the World Wide Web in today's Russia.

The conversation between the principal and Danil perfectly illustrates the tension between young, irreverent Russians who want change, and their elders who believe what they see on TV -- even if they have been left exhausted by years of instability and the very corruption millennials are protesting against.

Danil's principal started out by asking him what he and his friends had been chanting at the protest, and very quickly the discussion highlighted Russia's generational online/offline divide.

DANIL: We get [our slogans] from the internet. Maybe you've seen them.
PRINCIPAL: Where would I have seen them?
DANIL:  There were pictures online.
PRINCIPAL: I don't look online.  I'm not interested.  The internet is full of lies.

Danil explained that he and the other protestors wanted to highlight allegations that Russia's Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, had stolen billions of dollars.  Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner at the forefront of the opposition movement, posted a video online purporting to prove that Medvedev had used powerful friends and a network of charities to hide luxury properties, and even a yacht. 

The video has been viewed more than 20 million times.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny talks to journalists during a hearing at a court in Moscow, Russia, June 12, 2017. Reuters

Danil's principal, who came of age under the officialdom and hierarchy of the Soviet Union, can't accept that Navalny, a self-styled watchdog and campaigner should have any authority at all.

"Who is this guy?" he asks sarcastically. "Is he a policeman?"

DANIL: He's an opposition figure.
PRINCIPAL: An oppositionist!  Is he a policeman?
DANIL: But Navalny has provided evidence of Medvedev's stealing.
PRINCIPAL: Where does he show this evidence?  On the internet?  Do you know how much crap is out there -- for public access? Crap used to be scrawled on public toilet walls. Now they're writing it on the internet…"

Danil tries to make the case for the internet as a force for something that has been denied Russian citizens since President Putin took power; freedom of expression. 

The principal, clearly rattled by the obvious power of information that is neither verifiable nor officially sanctioned, pushes back.

DANIL: But on the internet you can write whatever is necessary and that's good. You can express all your thoughts online..
PRINCIPAL: I am not going to argue with you.  Any idiot can write whatever comes to mind on the internet.  That's why it's a big garbage can. Anyone can write anything. So Navalny decided to post his ideas there - on the internet.

Not ideas, Danil insists, but findings. For him, and millions of young Russians like him, Navalny offers facts to counter the Kremlin's lies.

Danil Belyakov, 15, distributes anti-corruption leaflets on behalf of Russian opposition figure Sergei Navalny's movement in the city of Vladimir, about 150 miles west of Moscow, June 11, 2017. CBS

A little later on, the principal agrees with Danil that Russia is riddled with corruption, but he doesn't agree that President Putin and his inner circle are to blame. Instead, the principal, who lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaotic 1990s, blames the oligarchs who pillaged Russia's industries, and the man who was president at the time, Boris Yeltsin.

Yes, it has left a mess, and he concedes he's not happy with what he calls, "the current power structure."

PRINCIPAL: I don't like it either. I'm telling you openly.
DANIL: So we need to fight it. Why aren't you coming to the rally?
PRINCIPAL: Me??? To the rally.  Why?  Do you think I'm insane?

The principal may think demonstrating publically will get him into trouble, and he is probably right. The Russian government, rattled by the anti-corruption rallies, has put pressure on local governments and officials to suppress them. 

But there's another reason he doesn't support the protests; he simply doesn't see the point. He's a man nearing the end of his career who has never seen good governance in his country. In his view, crooks and cronies always come out on top.

He brings up the example of Ukraine and the huge Maidan protest in 2014, which toppled Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovitch.

The principal, who watched coverage of the Maidan on Kremlin-controlled Russian TV, believes the Kremlin line; that the vast crowds in Kiev that spring were malcontents who were manipulated by foreign spies and Ukrainian billionaires. 

Danil, informed by video and online news, thinks they were brave citizens who wanted to rid their country of a tyrant.

PRINCIPAL: These people (protesting in Maidan Square) they organized a coup.
DANIL: Let's suppose...
PRINCIPAL: But the people who took power next were no better.
DANIL: But we hear it is better there now. I don't say they're perfect, but...
PRINCIPAL: No. Now criminals have taken power in Ukraine.  Billionaires.
DANIL: But it's possible that good people can come to power (after a political shakeup).
PRINCIPAL: Oh? And where will they come from? Out of thin air?
DANIL: So are you saying we should leave bad people in power?
PRINCIPAL: What do you think is going on now in Ukraine?
DANIL:  Why do you keep talking about Ukraine?  We're living in Russia!

Eventually, the principal runs out of patience.

PRINCIPAL: Oh, you are stupid. And ignorant. You don't know anything.
DANIL: Okay. Fair enough. I may be ignorant, but can I point out the roof of our school is falling apart, there are cockroaches everywhere and there isn't even power in all the rooms.
PRINCIPAL: Okay. We have some problems.  So what?
DANIL: And you are pulling students out of class because they were at an opposition rally? You should be paying attention to the state of the school.
PRINCIPAL: How dare you tell me what to do.

Predictably, Danil was expelled. But he did well in his exams, he told us, and was sure he'd get into another school this fall.

Meanwhile, the chasm between young, plugged-in Russians and the government that rules their lives from Moscow, grows wider.