The first book that any British student of Russian is likely to read in the original is Fathers and Sons, a novel by Ivan Turgenev. It is short by the standards of Russian literature; Turgenev's style is not too taxing for novices, and he was an Anglophile at a time when Francophilia was the dominant trend.
But there is another reason why Fathers and Sons offers an appropriate launch pad into the study of Russia. Its theme is ideological conflict between the generations, a leitmotif of Russian history, and as pertinent today as 150 years ago when the novel first appeared. When Russians go to the polls to elect their next president on Sunday, the contest will be less about individual candidates than it is about generations.
The dispute that preoccupied Turgenev was between well-meaning liberals who believed in gradualist reform, and their children who emerged from university impatient to demolish the whole edifice of power and start again. It could be said that, with the Bolshevik revolution 60 years on, the great-grandchildren of the Nihilists got their way. And, while the debate today is different, the generational aspect remains fundamental – as fundamental as it was to Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost which precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev's student years coincided with de-Stalinisation and the Khrushchev Thaw. But it was not until he, and the 1960s generation he was part of, attained a critical mass in the power structures that they were able to broach change, and even then they drew fierce opposition. To make a career at all, they had had to pay court to survivors of Stalin's Purges and the ravages of war. Is it any wonder that a preference for peace and social stability was paramount?
A similar sense of exhaustion and relief dictated the priorities of Vladimir Putin, after he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president. With almost two decades of unremitting turmoil behind them, stability was what most people craved. And, for the best part of 12 years, that is what Putin – systematic, streetwise, but not especially imaginative – delivered. Now, though, another shift is afoot. The children of those whose discontent brought the Soviet Union crashing down are graduating from colleges in Russia and around the world, joining the professions, and asking why their homeland has made so little progress since it threw off the shackles of communism.
To Russian demographers and pollsters, the emergence of this new generation was just a matter of time. That it took so many others unawares – including, it appears, Putin and his immediate entourage – may reflect the volume of post-Soviet background noise, and the ignorance, especially abroad, of the discussions raging in Russia's – uncensored – social media.
But it was not until Putin's placeman as President, Dmitry Medvedev, announced in September that Putin, and not he, would be their party's nominee for president, that this new generation made its voice heard. The parliamentary elections in December showed its members starting to organise. And when they came on to the streets afterwards, the contrast with their parents' generation of protesters was immediately apparent. They were better-dressed, more articulate, technologically savvy, and above all uncowed. Where, it was reasonable to ask, had the children of the late 1980s been hiding?
Probably, their time has not quite come. It speaks volumes about the stasis in post-Soviet Russian politics that the only really organised opposition candidates to feature on Sunday's ballot were contesting national elections almost two decades ago – the Communist Gennadi Zyuganov, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the ill-named far-right Liberal Democratics. Vladimir Putin seems guaranteed a smooth return to the presidency, after four years as prime minister.
The ease of that passage, though, conceals a more complex reality. As the negative response to Putin's nomination showed, the complexion of Russian politics has changed, and will continue to change, and there must be doubts about whether, after 12 years at the top, Putin will be engaged enough or agile enough to change with it. Doubts, but no certainty. The Putin camp has so far avoided the knee-jerk retrenchment that has marked the Kremlin's response to the unexpected down the ages. Since December, Moscow has taken a less confrontational approach to protests. Some key members of the Putin old guard have been moved. Pledges have been given about improving electoral transparency.
The validity of these changes could be tested in the next week, and still further in the unlikely event that Putin has to fight a second round. Beyond that, Putin's continued effectiveness, even his survival in power, will depend on how open he is to co-opting individuals or ideas from his country's rising generation.
Over 20 years, Russian politics – though not its economy – has struggled to escape communism's thrall. Only now are the first truly post-Soviet Russians coming into their own, and the world's Russia-watchers could be in for a surprise. First impressions suggest they are not just more cosmopolitan than their parents, but more realistic and less dogmatic, too. Which prompts another thought. As tomorrow's Russians prepare to inherit their tsardom, surely the time has come for a new, less ideological, generation of Russia-watchers, too.
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