NOBODY inside or outside Russia saw it coming. The government seemed to have established complete control over politics, marginalising the opposition with nationalist adventures in Ukraine and Syria. Vladimir Putin’s approval rating had stabilised at more than 80%. After Donald Trump’s victory in America, the Kremlin had proclaimed the threat of global liberalism to be over. And yet on March 26th, 17 years to the day after Mr Putin was first elected, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in nearly 100 cities to demonstrate against corruption, in the largest protests since 2012.

The protests began in Vladivostok and rolled across the country to Moscow and St Petersburg, which saw the largest crowds. Riot police arrested more than 1,000 people in Moscow alone. The state media ignored the demonstrations; the top Russian search engine, Yandex, manipulated its results to push reports of them down the page. The Kremlin was speechless.

The marches came in response to a call from Aleksei Navalny, an opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner who wants to run for president next year. Despite the government’s crackdown on activism, Mr Navalny has doggedly continued publishing exposés of corruption on social networks and YouTube, and expanding his volunteer organisation. His latest target is Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister. On March 2nd Mr Navalny released a film alleging that Mr Medvedev had used charities and shell companies to amass a collection of mansions, yachts and other luxuries. The video has been watched 15m times on the internet.

The decision to target Mr Medvedev was strategic. Whereas Mr Putin is praised for restoring Russia’s geopolitical power, Mr Medvedev is seen as weak and held responsible for Russia’s economic woes. He is often ridiculed for his taste for Western gadgets and frequent gaffes. (“We have no money, but you hang in there,” he told pensioners in Crimea last year.) He is equally disliked by security-service hardliners, such as Igor Sechin, Mr Putin’s closest confidant, and by moderate technocrats such as Aleksei Kudrin, a former finance minister. Yet the protests were not restricted to Mr Medvedev. Denis Lugovskoi, an engineering student who demonstrated in Orel, 325km (200 miles) south of Moscow, says they were aimed at the whole political elite.

Although the crowds were thinner than those in Moscow in 2011-12, they were in some respects more alarming for the Kremlin. The protests of five years ago, sparked by rigged parliamentary elections, were largely confined to Moscow and St Petersburg, and deliberately lacked unified leadership; the educated, urbane protesters considered this a sign of political maturity. Now both demography and geography are much broader. Protests took place in industrial towns in the heartland, such as Nizhny Tagil and Chelyabinsk, and in poorer cities such as Nizhny Novgorod. Meanwhile, Mr Navalny has become the movement’s clear leader. On March 27th a court sentenced him to 15 days in jail for organising an unauthorised demonstration.

The crowds also reflected a generational shift. Whereas the protests in 2011-12 had a middle-aged core, the rallies on March 26th were filled with people in their teens and 20s with few memories of their country before Mr Putin. With their diverse class backgrounds, the Kremlin cannot portray them as spoiled city hipsters or pitch them against blue-collar workers, as it did with the protesters five years ago. Unlike the 30-somethings who took to the streets back then, these younger protesters have little to lose.

When the feeling’s gone

With the economy in trouble, the patriotic buzz of Mr Putin’s military exploits is fading. Denis Volkov of the Levada Centre, an independent pollster, writes that for most Russians, the annexation of Crimea “has lost its relevance”. The Kremlin, which successfully suppressed the protests five years ago, has fewer tools at its disposal. Arresting or beating up teenage demonstrators would risk bringing their parents onto the streets. And one of the Kremlin’s chief ideological weapons, the fear of returning to the chaos of the 1990s, is lost on a generation that has no memory of it. Another favourite concept, Russia’s resurgence to great-power status, is also of limited use: most of the protesters take it for granted.

A group of anthropologists from the Russian Presidential Academy who have studied attitudes among young people say they lack the fear of authority instilled during the Soviet era, and are more attached than their elders to universal values such as honesty and dignity. The Soviet coping mechanisms of cynicism and double-think are notably absent among the young. They see Russia’s current elite as financially and morally corrupt, and find Mr Navalny’s simple slogan, “Don’t lie and don’t steal”, compelling.

Television, the medium which Mr Putin’s government uses to manipulate mass opinion, has little effect on the young, who mainly get their news from the internet. The power of the regime’s use of television relies on the majority of Russians choosing to be passive spectators of the political narratives which the government creates for them. According to the Levada Centre, most Russians believe that “nothing depends on us.” The younger generation appears to be different. “I need to exercise my civil rights if I don’t want to live my life complaining about the country in which I was born,” says a 20-year-old student in Moscow. “It is wrong to say that ‘nothing depends on us.’ Of course it does.”