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Generation N: How Navalny Shook Up Politics With His Army Of Volunteers

Charismatic Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has energized his largely youthful power base.
Charismatic Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has energized his largely youthful power base.
MOSCOW -- For Aleksei Shagal, it all began when he read one of Aleksei Navalny’s blog posts.

The 27-year-old freelance journalist was deeply inspired by Navalny, an anticorruption blogger with a nationalist streak, and was propelled for the first time in his life into political activism.

Shagal joined the throngs who took to the streets to protest alleged vote fraud following the December 2011 State Duma elections and never looked back.

This summer he signed up as a volunteer for Navalny's upstart campaign for Moscow mayor.

In doing so, he joined thousands of other idealistic youths who pounded the pavement, knocked on doors, passed out leaflets, manned phone lines, and organized online for the charismatic opposition leader.

And late on September 8, as the vote count showed Navalny doing far better than even the most optimistic projections had predicted, Shagal could barely contain his enthusiasm as he basked in the pride of the campaign's achievement.

"We need to unite," he said. "This is a historic moment. We have to do something. Otherwise we'll have another cycle of stagnation. We've had enough stagnation!"

ANALYSIS: With Strong Moscow Showing, Navalny Moves To New Level

Shagal is emblematic of a phenomenon that might be dubbed Generation Navalny -- the thousands of young people who came of age after the Soviet collapse and who yearn for a more inclusive politics.

In the Navalny campaign they found their vehicle and provided him with a network of committed volunteers that acted as a surrogate for a conventional political-party base.

Smells Like Navalny Spirit

Whether observing elections or plastering campaign stickers on buildings across the capital, this brigade of volunteers enabled Navalny to bypass a state media blockade and mount a challenge to Sergei Sobyanin, the Kremlin’s chosen man in the capital.

WATCH (in Russian): RFE/RL spent a day with Navalny volunteers in the heat of the campaign

And in doing so, they brought the whiff of a new era of Russian politics.

Aleksei Shagal (center) with Aleksei Navalny (left) and Internet analyst Anton Nossik in Moscow.
Aleksei Shagal (center) with Aleksei Navalny (left) and Internet analyst Anton Nossik in Moscow.
Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, believes Navalny tapped into a powerful wave of civic activism that has been latent for years and is now becoming manifest.

"The way this constituency can be very roughly described is that they are the product of the postindustrialist economy," she says. "They are working in jobs [that are] a lot about creativity and individual goals and achievement. This constituency has effectively gotten rid of habitual paternalism -- the attitude of 'nothing depends on us' or 'what can we do'? Of reliance on the state even as you resist the state. They are relying on themselves."

Driven by the unprecedented prosperity of Putin's first two terms in the Kremlin, the rapid rise of the Internet in Russia, and the relatively liberal tone of Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008-12 presidency, this civic-minded constituency solidified but was not represented in the halls of power.

Since the December 2011 protests broke out Navalny has, more than any other figure, been able to harness this untapped resource.

Since joining the campaign in July, Shagal took on the role of weeding out provocateurs at the scores of Navalny meetings with voters. With a sheepish grin, he recalls how one "provocateur" tried to throw tomatoes at Navalny but accidently hit a seated mother holding her child -- and in the process played right into Navalny’s hands.

A Campaign With A Difference

Shagal also helped produce Navalny’s campaign newspapers and manned its street stands -- known as "cubes" -- which were deployed across the capital. For Shagal, the effort was worth it.

"In the course of his whole campaign, the protagonist -- Aleksei Navalny -- really has perfected himself as a politician," he says. "In the beginning it was apparent that he was still working out his style and was not entirely confident when saying something. By the end of it he has been happy to answer any questions. It was clear that he really has tempered himself and has become a politician of a new level. I think, now, he can easily claim the status of federal politician."

According to official results, incumbent acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin narrowly avoided a runoff election with Navalny by taking 51.3 percent of the vote in the first round. According to those results Navalny came in second with 27.2 percent.

But alternative vote counts showed Sobyanin fell short of the required majority. Navalny has claimed the authorities used fraud to get Sobyanin over the 50 percent barrier to avoid a second round and has called on his supporters to take to the streets in protest.

And Shagal will no doubt be among them. But regardless of how the ongoing drama of the Moscow mayoral election ends, analysts say the Navalny campaign -- and its volunteers -- have changed Russian politics decisively.

"His campaign has shown Russians that politics can be different,” Maksim Trudolyubov, opinion-page editor of the daily "Vedomosti," wrote in "The New York Times" on September 6.

“Moscow residents have seen that a principled stance by one person can force authorities to react. Thousands of young volunteers will remember the thrill of helping run a first-of-its-kind political campaign. And future politicians won’t be able to dismiss the campaign techniques Mr. Navalny introduced."