RECENTLY I was invited to speak at a college of higher education in Moscow. The director looked visibly nervous when I pushed the lectern aside, sat among the students and asked them what they thought about the future of Russia. A lively discussion ensued.
"Anti-Semitism is a danger. Anybody who incites racial hatred should be prosecuted."
"If this is a real democracy, you should be free to express any opinion you want. And anyway, what's wrong with the idea of Russia for the Russians?"
"Sure, we need a new national idea. We can't go on depending on the West. But hating the Jews is a pretty lousy idea."
The students enjoyed themselves so much that they asked me to "come and give another talk" sometime and several took down my telephone number.
So it was that last week, I received a call from Irina, the young woman who had been searching for a positive national idea. Full of excitement, she asked if I would go and hear her speak at the launch of a "youth parliament". It seemed like a good opportunity to catch more of the Russian student debate.
The venue was the social club of the Moscow Aviation Institute. This college has been a hotbed of anti-Americanism since Washington included it on a blacklist of Russian institutions denied funds because of alleged atomic co-operation with Iran. In this setting, I envisaged a clash of Slavophiles and Westernisers, representatives of the two schools of thought that have vied with each other throughout Russian history.
The students were also expecting verbal fireworks, as they overflowed the 1,500-seat hall. Instead, we were treated to a display of ballroom dancing by girls and army cadets, who swirled against a white backdrop, decorated with an image of a stork building a nest.
"Have I got the right place? I thought this was the youth parliament," I said to the woman next to me. She was wearing a badge, identifying her as an organiser.
"Be patient. There will be a few speeches now. And we will endorse a couple of documents. Then the students will take the floor."
It turned out that the event was organised by Dobro (Good), a new centrist political movement of those who see the improvement of education as the key to Russian development. The idea of the youth parliament was to raise civic consciousness among the young. Also, I gathered, to give them some alternative to neo-Fascist movements such as Russian National Unity.
Would there be political parties in this mock parliament? No. The young people would develop their ideas in committees covering such subjects as the economy, law reform and ecology. There would be a "council of the wise", or body of grown-ups to make sure debate did not get out of hand.
The Minister of Education was the first of many adult speakers to come on stage and complain of the width of the generation gap, the loss of spirituality in Russia, the drug problem and the lack of respect for the law. As at an old Communist Party congress, the students sat in rows, unable to interject with comments or questions.
Gradually, they got up and left. They were voting with their feet. I followed three girls out into the foyer and discovered they were journalism students. "We had thought we might write about this but it is so dull," said one. "It's just like the Komsomol [the now-defunct Communist youth league]."
Irina was pacing up and down in the corridor. A would-be politician, she had an interest in staying, as she was slated to speak when the "New Faces" or selected promising students were finally given access to the microphone. "I'm going to call for tax cuts to stimulate business," she said.
I fear she ended up speaking to an empty hall. To my shame, I did not stay to support her. Two hours into the proceedings, when the adults were still droning on, I left with a group of computer students. They were healthily patriotic, not anti-Western. On the side of the angels, they had been ready to join a "good" youth movement. But they had been bored away.
We parted in an underpass, spray-painted with the swastikas of Russian National Unity. I suspect it will be a long time before the nest-building stork enters the repertoire of the graffiti artist. For many Russian youths, black leather and fascism are still more fun.
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