Is Vladimir Putin's adolescent Russia ever going to grow up?

It's now 21 years since the end of the Soviet Union, but Russia's politics are still strikingly teenage in nature.

That year, autumn sneaked up and ended a hot summer. By the end of August, the evenings were already damp and dark.

In many countries, the age of 21 is considered a time when you understand at least a little of who you are, and what you would like to be. 21 years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia still seems to lack a clear idea of what it wants to be when it grows up.

One enduring symbol of that uncertainty is an absence which has persisted since the damp end to the summer of 1991. Then, as the Communist Party’s grip on power was loosened for the last time, demonstrators tore down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the forerunner of the KGB. It was the ultimate insult to the secret police, for the monument had stood in Lubyanka Square in front of their headquarters.

The place where the statue stood remains empty. The country has not decided what it stands for. Russia is like the 21-year-old who has put away some childish things, but not abandoned adolescent uncertainty, or rashness.

The jailing of Pussy Riot is the most obvious recent example. Rashness persists in the Kremlin’s idea of news management, in spite of the highly-paid western PRs they have, for years now, hired to make themselves look good.

Should Pussy Riot have been sent down for playing up in the cathedral? Many western observers seem to think the punk protesters were hard done by. 

Whatever your opinion, it seems the Russian authorities made a mess of the way they handled it: show your mates how tough you are, and don’t worry until later about what anyone else things – almost a typical adolescent attitude. A lesser punishment would not have been nearly such big news.

The forerunners of this winter’s protests demanding fair elections were those led by the former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, and a motley collection of other opponents of Vladimir Putin.

In the oil boom times of 2006-7, they struggled to attract even a couple of thousand demonstrators to their rallies in the heart of a city of millions.

Hugely outnumbering the protesters, riot police came by the busload. When not standing steely-faced behind their shields, they could be chatty – perhaps glad of the trip to the capital. "Do you get paid extra for working on a Saturday?" one asked me once on a sleety December afternoon.

"No," I replied.

"We do," he smirked, shoving his shield into the back of a van, his shift finished.

A senior member of the Presidential administration once asked me why western journalists bothered to cover such small demonstrations. I replied that it was not the demonstrations which were newsworthy, but the police response.

It was the same overreaction in the handling of the Pussy Riot trial. The lesson in how to turn a stunt into an international story would have dismayed any PR trying to make Russia look good.

As part of my research for a chapter in my new book, Reporting Conflict, on the role of PR agents in contemporary coverage of war, I sought out a former BBC colleague who had the insider’s knowledge. Angus Roxburgh was a former Moscow correspondent who later spent time advising President Putin’s administration on their international media image.                  

"They didn’t really understand it," he recalled. "We taught them what we could, but they came into it with strange ideas about how the western press worked. I think they felt that everybody else did do it, that all other governments had PR people working for them as well – but didn’t completely understand it."

They still don’t. The way that the Kremlin projects itself on the international stage frequently suggests an adolescent combination of "don’t know, don’t care".

President Medvedev may have left office mocked as his powerful mentor’s marionette, but  his presidency – even if Vladimir Putin remained in charge in reality – should be remembered for one important idea: "legal nihilism". More than once, Mr Medvedev identified this as the main problem facing his country – manifesting itself in massive corruption, and a total absence of principle in public life.

That’s why last winter’s protests were such a nightmare for the Kremlin. Here were people who believed in something – and it was not Russia’s leadership.   

Twenty one years into their new existence, at least part of the Russian electorate is growing up. The political elite still snarls like the punk youth they profess to despise.     

They will get away with it as long as people put up with it. "Russian armies can’t march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges," David Cameron declared in 2008 when Russia went to war with Georgia.

Yet no one will do anything as long as British companies keep making money in Russia, or entertain the hope of doing so. Britain ended up looking impotent over the 2006 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko; the west as a whole looked toothless over civilian casualties in Chechnya in the 1990s.

Change, if and when it comes, will have to come from inside Russia. Despite the coverage which the Pussy Riot case got outside the country, it did not inspire the same passions within – at least not on a wide scale.

Russians whose childhoods were the late Soviet period, and the bandit capitalism which followed, and who are now in their 30s, might be expected to be the revolutionary class. In some cases – those who are active in the protest movement - they are. In others, memories of the chaos of their early years makes them wary of radical change. Those with the education, skills, and contacts, seem often to have chosen to emigrate rather than demonstrate.   

21 years later, the events of 1991 still cast a shadow over Russia. The secret police remember losing the statue of their founder. In the shape of Mr Putin and others, they recovered their power, while remembering that it once vanished. That explains their reluctance to let any dissent – even a punk protest – go unpunished.

The anti-Soviet demonstrators of those years can reflect on their experience. The statue of Dzerzhinsky may not have returned – the strength of the security forces has. Their successors who marched against the presidential election result, and the imprisonment of punks, might look to Egypt for their lessons. The "Facebook revolution" has not brought a government of young activists.  

The lesson for them all, and for those of us outside Russia, is that in a time of legal nihilism, political tension, and economic uncertainty (Russia has never prospered in times of low oil prices) nothing can be counted on to last. As Reuters reported recently, President Putin’s long-standing popularity is on the slide.

Mr Putin’s recent role as saviour of the Siberian cranes is the latest of his hard man stunts which have been widely reported in Russia, sniggered at in the west, and satirized by the more subversive of his compatriots (on this occasion, by showing the former KGB man photoshopped atop a shark). 

As Russian politics move into adulthood, it may be the people who came up with the last one who eventually have the last laugh.

James Rodgers is Lecturer in Journalism at City University, London. He is the author of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and for many years worked in Russia as a journalist for both Reuters Television and the BBC.

 

Opposition activists protest against the alleged mass electoral fraud in December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images
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A clinically-approved birth control app is changing the way we think about contraception

The particle physicist Elina Berglund has created an app that is 99 per cent effective. 

Women around the world using the contraceptive pill have long complained to their friends about its perceived side effects – weight gain, acne, mood swings to name a few. Some more recent studies have verified that anecdotal evidence – a Danish study from 2013 confirmed that there was a 40 per cent increased risk of depression for women who were on the pill, compared to those who weren’t.

Frustration around the inadequacy or ill-suitability of certain methods of contraception is rife. One woman, Elina Berglund, decided to do something about it.

Formerly a particle physicist at CERN (and a member of the team responsible for the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle), Berglund co-founded Natural Cycles, a contraceptive app, with her husband Raoul Scherwitzl. Approved as a contraceptive app earlier this year, it is downloadable on a smartphone and relies on a relationship between body temperature and fertility to tell women when they're fertile.

But contraception campaigners have viewed the concept with caution. Widespread use of the pill, condoms, and diaphragms comes after decades of campaigns against reliance on "natural methods" – not to mention the opposition of religious organisations like the Catholic church. 

At first glance, Natural Cycles might not seem all that different from the Vatican-approved "rhythm method", which is based on observing the exact stages of a woman's fertility cycle and avoiding sex during ovulation. This can be, according to the NHS, up to 99 per cent effective – but in reality it is closer to 75 per cent, because "people can make mistakes". 

Users of Natural Cycles take their temperature daily and input it into the app (which costs £6.99 a month). The app then compares the figure to its own dataset and uses an algorithm based on Berglund's days from CERN. It also asks for other data, such as the dates of user's periods and whether they are planning for a pregnancy or not, to create a personalised calendar.

If it’s safe to have unprotected sex, then the in-app calendar will show up as green. If not, the in-app calendar will show up as red. On those red days, users should find methods of contraception if they aren’t seeking pregnancy.  

Menstrual tracking apps are all the rage (there are around 1,000 of them on the current Apple app store). But recent studies have shown that those apps are often inaccurate and lack any scientific basis. 

Natural Cycles, by contrast, carried out three clinical trials, each time expanding the dataset to reduce errors. The most recent, written up in Contraception, involved 22,785 women across 37 different countries in settings that mimicked real life. The co-authors pointed out that in instances of perfect use, one out of 100 women become pregnant accidentally. However, in instances of typical use, seven out of 100 women had the same result.

When Natural Cycles first gained publicity, Berglund pointed out to the press that “now they (women) have a new, clinically verified and regulatory approved option to choose from”. Berglund and Scherwitzl are looking into getting Natural Cycles prescribed on the NHS, like the pill.

So is Natural Cycles the future of family planning? The first thing to make clear is that the app cannot actually function as physical contraception – on “red” days, the app advises users to use a condom if they’re having sex and don’t want to get pregnant. It cannot prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases either. 

Nor is the app really marketed to those who may benefit from the most information about their sexual health – 16 to 25-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour. 

A spokesperson for Marie Stopes, the reproductive health NGO, said: "Apps to track fertility are a high-tech version of what women have been doing for years with a diary and a thermometer.

"For anyone trying to get pregnant, they might well help. However, if you want to avoid pregnancy, it’s much better to choose a reliable, long-acting modern method of contraception like an IUD or implant. Traditional methods, including tracking fertility, carry a much higher risk of unintended pregnancy."

The app relies on an algorithm, meaning it is only as effective as the data that it receives from users. It is also not free, which may exclude its usage by certain sections of society. A blog written for NHS Choices emphasised that the data collected in all the trials was collected from women who were already signed up for the product, making it likely that they had an incentive to continue with this specific additional contraceptive, as opposed to looking elsewhere. Even so, a third of users who had signed up still dropped out, potentially because of the maintenance required to get results from it. 

All the same, Natural Cycles has 380,000 users and counting. It has received clinical approval to be marketed as a medical device, and it seems to be meeting a need – 70 per cent of Natural Cycle's users come from hormonal contraception, according to Berglund. In her account of Natural Cycles in the Evening Standard, Kate Wills highlighted that the Apple Watch had all sorts of health inputs, but no way to track periods.  All kinds of apps exist to make modern life easier – why has it taken so long for one that addresses a concern for so many women to make its way into the mainstream?

The history of contraception is littered with examples of women being ignored. Early birth control studies vastly underplayed the potentially debilitating side effects of hormone fluctuations on women’s mental health and physical appearance, often treating users as though they were hysterical. Add into the equation the stigma around accessing contraceptives safely and non-judgementally, and it’s easy to see why a relatively painless and private form of contraception might be appealing. 

Natural Cycles may well work for some women – those who are in stable relationships, hoping to get pregnant and fastidious enough to note their temperature every morning. But it doesn’t prevent diseases, requires a steady commitment and – here's the clincher – can't take measurements when you’re hungover as alcohol can affect your temperature. There's also a big difference between the "perfect" use of the app, and the likelihood of pregnancy when used in a "typical" fashion. So long as that's the case, old-fashioned contraception seems unlikely to be swept away by a digital revolution.