Every time Vladimir Putin takes his shirt off, Elena Mozavetskaya winces.

"That's funny to us!" she laughed.

"It's just funny. He's turned 65 and doesn't look very well. And he can't understand young people very well right now.

"So for young people, I think Putin is not a choice."

Mr Putin has been Russia's undisputed strongman for 18 years, alternating the posts of president and prime minister with his loyal deputy Dmitri Medvedev to evade constitutional term limits.

But in the March presidential election many first-time voters like Elena, who's 20, will be opposing the only leader they've known and a system that's grown as sclerotic as an old man's arteries.

"There's no democracy, there's not even a chance of change, not even a chance of a choice," she said.

Four months ago, she started working in the Saint Petersburg office of a popular opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, who claims to have attracted 160,000 volunteers to his presidential campaign.


Some see Mr Navalny as a hard-line nationalist, but young people have been flocking to support him as the only man capable of beating Mr Putin.

"Right now, he's the only one who can actually become president," Ms Mozavetskaya said.

"We don't have much choice here."

The Kremlin's response has been to ban Mr Navalny from running and to launch a somewhat awkward, youth-oriented social media campaign.

So far, it's created about as much excitement for teens and 20-somethings as Mr Putin's bare chest on hunting trips.

'So kid, stay out of politics'

Media player: "Space" to play, "M" to mute, "left" and "right" to seek.

 VIDEO: Pop star Alisa Vox denies she was paid to produce the anti-protest video. (Translations: Moscow Times)(ABC News)

In May, a glossy video clip by Saint Petersburg pop star Alisa Vox appeared, suggesting young people who've joined massive street protests organised by Mr Navalny were sad and lame.

"Learn from your mistakes, it's not too late to start," she sang, before stripping into lingerie.

"Freedom, money, girls, you'll get it all, even power. So kid, stay out of politics and give your brain a shower!"

It was a PR disaster. Online media claimed the Kremlin had paid her more than $40,000 for the video, which was quickly withdrawn amid frantic denials of payment.

"They paid not just this singer, but several others," Ms Mozavetskaya insisted.

"But you don't see them anywhere on the internet or the radio. They realised it didn't work and stopped it."

Political poetry slam

Some politicians from the ruling party United Russia have taken a more daring approach to reaching youth.

Saint Petersburg deputy Andrei Anokhin recently ventured into one of the city's burgeoning rap clubs for a political poetry slam.


The crowd applauded his courage but booed his lyrics.

"You liberals are weak, not fit to rule," he rapped.

"Even if we sanction your protests, you just want to fight with police."

The lines sound only marginally better in Russian rhyme.

The problem for middle-aged politicians is that state-controlled television was always the medium for reaching the public.

It's hammered a constant message that Mr Putin saved Russia from the post-Communist chaos of the 1990s and was making the country great again.

Unfortunately for them, the new generation of voters doesn't really remember the 90s and never watches TV.

Turning to the internet


YOUTUBE: Video on Alexei Navalny's YouTube channel with drone footage of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev's estate

Like everywhere in the world, most Russians under 25 get their news from the internet.

That's rather weakened the Kremlin strategy of banning any effective opposition figures from the airwaves.

Mr Navalny can't get on TV and the regular protests he organises are never reported.

But his YouTube channel has almost 2 million followers and the anti-corruption exposes he posts can have tens of millions of viewers.

Unlike the stodgy nightly news reports of Mr Putin meeting dignitaries in the Kremlin, Mr Navalny's channel looks edgy and subversive.

His investigative team regularly flies drones over the walled estates of Mr Putin's inner circle to show their astonishing wealth — the cameras sweeping across chateaux, helipads, servants' quarters, vineyards and fleets of luxury cars.

The millions watching are unlikely to conclude government ministers are just canny investors of their modest state salaries.

'We have to be proud of Putin'


On the other hand, the prospect of wealth and power can be an attractive lure.

Thousands in Saint Petersburg have joined the United Russia party's youth wing known as the Young Guard — though all insist they've only joined out of admiration of Mr Putin.

"For me I think he is a very interesting and intelligent person," Young Guard member Polina Shemyakina said.

"Not just as a president but as a person, as a man.

"I think we have to be proud of him. He is the leader of our country."

The Kremlin is also encouraging patriotic support for Mr Putin.

The Defence Department has funded a blockbuster romantic film celebrating the 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea.

YOUTUBE: Trailer for movie Crimea

Called Crimea, it's a story of star-crossed lovers — a Russian man and a Ukrainian woman.

She finally realises the wisdom of Mr Putin's foreign policy and they live happily ever after.

Ticket sales have been glacially slow.

A new generation


We arrive in a Saint Petersburg park as young people are meeting for a protest timed to coincide with Mr Putin turning 65 — the compulsory retirement age for civil servants.

The city government has banned the birthday protest and set up loudspeakers playing recorded warnings that participants could be arrested.


But there's a sweetener for the mainly under-30s crowd.

"If this wasn't in your plans and you don't want to waste your time for nothing," the recorded message continues, "there is a free screening of the film Crimea that has been set up especially for you in the nearby Rodina cinema".

The offer keeps repeating on a loop, but it's hard to hear over the crowd's laughter.

What follows is an impromptu march into the city that's blocked by a wall of riot police, who proceed to arrest people and drag them into vans and buses.

None of the protesters seem the least bit intimidated. One couple taunts police by passionately kissing in front of them.

"It's natural after years of stability you actually want something interesting to happen in your life," Russian author Arkady Ostrovsky tells me.

"They have energy, they have frustration and it's actually fun. You know they don't even mind being arrested.

"They want to feel they're pushing against something because that's part of their energy."

For now, these young voters are in a tiny minority.

As puzzled as the Kremlin is by how to deal with them, there's little doubt Mr Putin will be returned in March with the same lack of suspense or surprise that has characterised his every election.

But the long term isn't looking as certain for the grey men running Russia.

As Mr Putin approaches the end of his reign, a new generation is just getting started.

Watch Foreign Correspondent's Happy Birthday, Mr President at8:30pm tonight on ABC TV.

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