Dressed in stylish shoes and a sharp suit, Kirill Shchitov strides to work every morning with an eye on the Kremlin looming ahead on the skyline. It's a tantalizing reminder of his ultimate goal: the top job within its imposing walls.
That's a long shot, he concedes with a shy smile in his room, a poster of Charlie Chaplin looking over his shoulder. But at 22, Mr. Shchitov is already a rising star in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. Last year, as public relations chief for the party's youth wing in Moscow, he helped organize 50-plus events – including a Red Square rally of 15,000 to promote the party's young candidates, nearly a dozen of whom were elected to parliament.
Born amid the fervor of Mikhail Gorbachev's economic and social reforms, Shchitov's generation was expected by liberals to build on Mr. Gorbachev's effort. Instead, they have thrown their weight behind a man seen as rolling back democratic reforms in the name of a more stable, prosperous, and powerful Russia. In Sunday's polls, young Russians – 92 percent of whom approve of Mr. Putin – are likely to join Shchitov in endorsing their leader's eight-year tenure by electing his handpicked successor.
They are the Putin generation: young, often worldly, optimistic about their country's future, and enthusiastic about a democracy they see as having more to do with higher living standards than checks and balances or freedom of speech. Acquainted only through history with the Soviet Union's oppressive grip, but distinctly aware of their parents' challenges during the tumultuous 1990s, they live in a Russia of unprecedented opportunities – ones shaped profoundly by Putin's strong hand over the past eight years.
Over the next three days, the Monitor will profile the careers and outlooks of three young Muscovites whose lives attest to the radical political and economic shifts that have taken place over the past decade in Russia.
Shchitov is tapping his youthful leadership to perpetuate Putin's course. Yulia Barabasheva has seen firsthand the grittier side of prosperity as she used her entrepreneurial skills to open a beauty salon. And Anastasia Chukovskaya is grappling with her decision to quit political journalism, which is a futile exercise, she says, in the face of authoritarianism.
Putin's Russia: proud, stable, rich
Though few of his peers are as politically engaged as Shchitov, an overwhelming majority share his party's view of Putin as a strong leader who transformed Russia into a stable, prosperous country demanding respect on the world stage.
"We support the political course that Putin started," says Shchitov, an avid reader who draws inspiration from Peter the Great – "a real example of being proud of your country." He also likes Stalin, a ruler who could solve any problem – including the defeat of Hitler – "by strict measures." And he admires Franklin D. Roosevelt for, he says, making the United States a strong nation. And now, Putin.
Since the former KGB agent became president in 2000, Russia's gross domestic product has quintupled, from $260 billion to $1.25 trillion. Its reserves – nearly $500 billion – are 12 times what they were in 2000. This wealth, fueled by a 10-fold increase in oil prices, has doubled real disposable income. Inflation has fallen from 18 percent to 12 percent.
This prosperity has contributed to a sense of stability after a decade-long experiment with liberal democracy that seared the national psyche. A rich minority gobbled up massive assets amid rapid privatization even as 40 percent of the country languished in poverty. An increasingly weak Boris Yeltsin embarrassed his countrymen with drunken blunders abroad.
By contrast, Putin centralized power, removed oligarchs such as jailed Yukos oil company chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky from the political sphere, and took a tough stance internationally on issues like energy supply.
"Putin should be given credit for improved living standards, reasserting Russia on the world stage, and taking politics under control without antagonizing the public," says Masha Lipman, a liberal political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center.
The Young Guard at work
At the Moscow headquarters of United Russia's Young Guard, Shchitov has headed up public relations and youth relations since April, running meetings with a dozen or so deputies from the head of a glossy wooden table. At the end of one long day, at a favored cafe around the corner from his home, a visibly weary Shchitov articulates his mission: to groom a new generation of leaders who will build on the momentum of Putin's tenure.
Blaming the Soviet Union's collapse on a lack of fresh ideas among graying politicians, Shchitov has helped to establish unofficial youth parliaments in 104 of the 125 districts in the Moscow region since last February. He has gained valuable political experience as a member of the capital's youth parliament, which meets monthly and, in its first year, has gotten 46 of its 75 amendments to youth laws ratified by the city parliament through regular meetings with lawmakers.
He even won the "development of civil society institutions" category in a 2007 contest of youth projects sponsored by Putin's administration – an initiative he realizes some would see as ironic.
Shchitov loves Putin's sharp wit and admires the way he has helped Russia to shed its "younger brother" status among nations – singling out Putin's achievement of landing the 2014 Olympic Games. "It proves," he says, "that the development of Russia has reached the level of an equal partner of European states or the US."
He espouses the administration's ideology of "sovereign democracy," a term that supporters say describes a form of democracy uniquely suited to Russia's needs, implemented free from interference.
Calling it Putin's answer to criticism from President George Bush about an authoritarian drift in Russia, Shchitov explains, "We don't want to be an Iraq or Afghanistan"– a reference to what he sees as unsuccessful bids to impose democracy.
He is well aware of Western criticism that Putin stifles civil society. But drawing on historical figures from Aristotle to Winston Churchill, he calmly addresses such criticism.
"Russia is portrayed as a country where all democratic values are suppressed, where there's no freedom of expression, no free media, no free elections," says Shchitov, who is fluent in French and English. "Is [the US Patriot Act] the collapse of democracy in America? No, it's just what is necessary for the time. It's the same for Russia."
His rationale for supporting Putin
Back at home, he relaxes in a armchair while his Egyptian cat, Cleopatra, lounges nearby on an Oriental rug. But politics is never far from his mind. His father, who was on the forefront of Russia's foray into international business in the 1990s, chimes in.
"When Putin became president ... there were several people who had lots of money, who could really influence the political course of our country, but the government had no mechanisms to control the political process," says Vladimir Shchitov, taking a break from watching a tennis match on TV. "Step by step, Vladimir Putin took control of the situation."
One step was eliminating the direct election of regional governors, instead nominating candidates for local parliaments' approval.
"Under Yeltsin, when heads of regions [came to power] by direct vote, they … were mostly supported by local criminals. Now Putin decided to change this situation," explains Kirill Shchitov. "It works the same way in France – and no one says that France is not democratic," he argues.
But Ms. Lipman at Carnegie says that Putin's nominations amount to direct control. Local legislatures, she says, "are accountable to local party bosses, who are accountable to party bosses at the federal level, and those receive instructions from the Kremlin." Also, nearly all of them are from Putin's United Russia party.
Drawn to the party in 2003 as a political science major, Shchitov extols the importance of having a political opposition to counteract the ruling party's shortcomings, but says it was "stupid" to have 35 parties competing for the State Duma (the lower house of parliament) in 2003.
Since Putin took power, he raised the percentage of votes required to enter the Duma from 3 to 7 percent to "stimulate the parties," says Shchitov, who points to Britain's Labour-Tory rivalry and the US Republican-Democrat tussle as better models.
In the run-up to December's elections, in which only four parties made the cutoff, opposition groups received little coverage on the state-run TV Channel 1, which 95 percent of households depend on for news – particularly outside Moscow.
"Our opponents ... think the press should pay as much attention to them as to us," says Ivan Demidov, a former TV personality in charge of shaping the Young Guard's ideology. "Support for opposition parties is about 3 to 5 percent, and that's about [what] they get in the media.... If your song is not popular, why should I have it played on my radio station?"
While Shchitov shares that view, his mother laments the all-consuming focus on Putin and his protégé, Dmitri Medvedev.
"The TV of today is similar to the TV of my youth under Brezhnev," says Alla Shchitova, who fed her son's voracious appetite for learning with French literature and frequent museum visits.
"Actually, I cannot agree with my mom," Shchitov chimes in as they sit in their elegant living room. "You can hear journalists blaming Putin every minute [on REN-TV]. On the first two [state-run] channels, there is no need to speak of an apocalypse for the whole country; they need to be sure of their country."
That theme surfaces often among those in Shchitov's circle: a wariness of full-fledged democracy as Russia emerges from a fragile stage. Still, Shchitov, contrasting Russia with the checks and balances of the US system, speaks critically of parliament's weakness.
"In Russia, real power [rests with] the president and the ministers, and the parliament is the mechanism of legitimizing the decisions of the president," he says. "According to the Constitution, deputies [in the State Duma] must defend the interest of the Russian people. But right now … our deputies are afraid."
'Our children will have all they need'
While Shchitov believes that under Mr. Medvedev, Russia will transition to a strong parliamentary system, he insists that Putin's strict government was essential to restoring stability.
Before taking a break from his political life to attend an evening opera at the Bolshoi theater, Shchitov and his fiancée, businesswoman Elena Filatova, explain over cappuccinos what stability means for them.
"Stability means we won't have an economic crisis like in '98; we won't have devaluation of our currency…. We won't have crime in the streets," says Shchitov, his light-blue eyes intense yet steady. "But for me, the most bright example of what stability is – this summer we will get married. I'm sure I will have a good salary, I won't be fired because of an economic crisis, we will be able to look after our children – and they will have all they need."