As a first-year journalism student, Anastasia Chukovskaya envisioned herself peering down Russia's dark alleys, scratching out truth on a flimsy notebook. An intern with the BBC, she looked up to veteran Russian reporters like Anna Politkovskaya, renowned for exposing human rights abuses.
Then, in 2006, Ms. Politkovskaya was shot in an apparent contract killing. Deeply affected, Ms. Chukovskaya quit political journalism and took a job with Elle magazine, which features her latest story: Russians volunteering for charity.
"People here do not need my truth," says Chukovskaya. "Why should I risk my life when they don't care?"
Working full time while she finishes her degree, Chukovskaya is surrounded by peers who, she says, talk about kids, stars, love, fashion – everything but politics. To her, it's a sign that the traditional Russian preference for a paternalistic – if not autocratic – state has reasserted itself after what many Russians see as the dismal experiment with liberal democracy in the 1990s. But in contrast to many of her generation, the young journalist energetically refuses to settle for a stability that, she argues, comes at the expense of freedom.
Maybe her defiance is rooted in the six years she spent in the US during her childhood, or the fact that she claims two distinguished great-grandfathers who both tangled with the Soviet state: children's poet Korney Chukovsky and renowned composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Or maybe it's just her familiarity with Western media. But Chukovskaya doesn't lack for words when she talks about the thrill of investigative projects or comments on the five newspapers she reads daily, dishing out wry remarks about a headline calling President Vladimir Putin's protégé "the new president" ("He hasn't been elected yet!") or a Russian Orthodox mass dedicated to nuclear weapons ("That's absurd!").
Just 21, she has already served as an assistant to visiting foreign correspondents and landed a regular gig freelancing for Cosmopolitan. "All you need to do is send in three good story ideas," she says, walking briskly through the February slush after a long day at Elle, a firm grip on her weathered leather briefcase.
Chukovskaya also worked with the prominent French director Nino Kirtadze on "Durakovo: Village of Fools," a documentary about a Russian Orthodox businessman. The film won an award at last month's Sundance film festival – and inspired her thesis on what she says is the manipulation of religion in Russia. "The main idea of the film was to show what Russian think about themselves, and what I heard shocked me," she says. "They say that all men who have power, have the power from God. If Putin has power, he has it from God ... for me, it is something barbarian."
For a society accustomed to strong leadership and paternalistic government, the country's controlled political situation and resurgent economy is a welcome relief to many. But critics warn of authoritarianism masquerading as democracy.
"[Mr.] Putin cares about image, about appearances ... but there are no checks and balances, no accountability, no relevant opposition," says Masha Lipman, a liberal political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center. "This government is sophisticated, it's subtle."
Trappings of democracy?
Russia indeed wears many of the trappings of democracy: well-attended elections with numerous parties and candidates; national and regional parliaments; a public chamber of civil society representatives; and media reports lambasting the government. Putin appears set to make good on his promise to fulfill his constitutional requirement to relinquish the presidency when his second consecutive term expires this spring.
But the probable election on Sunday of Gazprom chief and longtime Putin aide Dmitri Medvedev has sparked speculation that the president will attempt to maintain his influence in a beefed-up prime minister's post under Mr. Medvedev – just the latest example of the consolidation of power that has characterized his eight-year tenure.
Political parties must now win 7 percent of the vote – up from 3 percent – to enter the State Duma, or parliament. Deputies are chosen by their parties and regional governors are nominated by the president. And with nearly every media outlet controlled by the state, few journalists have the will or means to expose government misdeeds.
An Amnesty International report released this week, citing the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, expressed concern that the "fundamental rights" of freedom of expression, association, and assembly have been curtailed under Putin. And last week, the New-York based Human Rights Watch detailed how a 2006 law on nongovernmental organizations has "targeted various NGOs that work on controversial issues, seek to galvanize public dissent, or receive foreign funding."
"Putin did roll back democracy and things are more authoritarian," says Andrei Zolotov, the editor of Russia Profile, a state-funded English news magazine. "But the West also underestimates the importance of stability."
For many Russians, the humiliations of daily life just a decade ago still linger. Wives of foreign intelligence agents had to take jobs to support their husbands and teachers cleaned houses on the side to make ends meet. Young people unloaded trucks of sugar to get a prime spot in line the next day to actually buy some, and shabbily dressed businessmen ate for two or three at company dinners. Teens lost friends, sometimes dozens, to drugs and armed bandit groups.
Now, the streets are safer, salaries are better, and supermarkets are full. But in the political market, choice is limited. "In America, it's so great, you can choose Clinton or Obama, or ... who's this guy? McCain," says Chukovskaya wistfully. "It's like going to the supermarket and choosing between three different kinds of apples and deciding which one you want this evening. Here we just have one apple."
Broad sense of helplessness
Though people like Chukovskaya see much that needs correcting, she and many others describe an overwhelming sense of helplessness – rooted in a history of life under overbearing rulers – that stymies any efforts at reform.
"Nobody feels that we have the power to change anything," she laments. Indeed, according to a recent survey by the liberal Levada Center, 67 percent of Russians feel they have little or no influence over government policy.
Sitting in an upscale cafe, a scarf thrown loosely around her rebellious long hair, Chukovskaya roots her society's submissiveness in Russian Orthodoxy's legacy. "When we had czars here, people were sure that they were divinely appointed by God," she explains. "Now, they think that if someone has power over you – a pope, president, or boss – they are divinely appointed. That's why you just have to listen and do what you have to do."
As journalists, Chukovskaya and her friend Alexandra Sheveleva, who joins her after a long day at the BBC, see that servitude playing out in the press.
"I think chief editors and editors know ... how news should be cooked," says Ms. Sheveleva, poring over the menu, which offers tea starting at $8 a cup.
Government supporters often counter such criticism by pointing to Ekho Moscovy, a hard-hitting radio station based in Moscow. But Chukovskaya discounts its existence as evidence of freedom of expression. "I have the feeling as if it is there for the government to say, 'Oh no, we have opposition,' " she says.
"Our radio exists for Condoleezza Rice," agrees Sheveleva dryly, noting the US Secretary of State's concern about democracy's decline under Putin.
But without a network of robust democratic institutions, such outlets don't have the same ability to act as a catalyst for public scrutiny as those in the West – whose stories often spark political activism, court cases, or government investigations.
"What's key about lack of press freedom," Ms. Lipman of the Carnegie Center says, "is that even though there is some investigative reporting, this does not make officials any more accountable because of what's printed."
The lure of an omniscient state
Despite being critical of reduced press freedom, however, Sheveleva can see the appeal of Putin's administration.
"When you talk to ... people who are close to power, they are so optimistic and they just involve you in this feeling. You think, 'I should be with them. I should be a patriot,' " says Sheveleva, recalling an interview with one of Putin's press secretaries. "The happiest people work in the administration of the government."
But still, she and Chukovskaya struggle to understand how their fellow citizens can be happy with Putin's government, and chalk up their compatriots' contentment to a long-cultivated image of the state as omniscient provider.
"The old generation, they vote for United Russia, and you say, 'Why? Your pension is so low, the healthcare system is so bad,' " says Sheveleva, who as part of her job takes calls on the air from BBC's mainly elderly shortwave radio audience. "And they say, 'the government is strong, they know what to do, they know how to run this country.' "
For Chukovskaya, who has all the restraint of a Kentucky Derby contender in the starting gate, such unquestioning reliance on the state has no place in a democracy.
"For me, democracy is something where the people are involved," she says. "You know how English parks are made? They watch where people walk and then they build paths there.... Here, no," she adds, explaining how her mother's neighbors keep treading the old path in the grass instead of using a new walkway nearby. "They will give you the model, will tell you what to do.... Maybe for some people that's good. A lot of people think we need Stalin back (see story).... For me, democracy is where I'm involved."
"When you go through your favorite path," interjects Sheveleva – not theirs.
"And someone cares that I want to," agrees Chukovskaya. She's not sure what her path will be – maybe a PhD program in Europe or America. But she can't imagine leaving Russia. Her role models are not stars or czars, but friends like Sheveleva. What's her counsel?
"In every time, there are a lot of people who are educated enough – they are the core of society, they are the moral leaders," says Sheveleva. "[Nobel laureate and novelist Alexander] Solzhenitsyn was such a person in the '80s, and the real thing we can do is to become such moral leaders."