When the lines between “democrat” and “patriot,” “nationalist” and “separatist,” become hopelessly blurred by the post-Perestroika generation, you will get events like Bolotnaya, Maidan and Donetsk.

Masked man walking past a broken window inside the Mariupol town hall in eastern Ukraine on April 26, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Anyone in the U.S. attempting to understand the political consciousness of the modern Russia – and that includes officials in the U.S. State Department and members of Congress in Washington – would do well to pick up Zakhar Prilepin’s mega-cult novel “Sankya.”

The novel, which has been hugely popular in Russia ever since it was published in 2006, is available for the first time now in English and comes with a slim foreword that was written by popular Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during his highly-controversial bid to become Moscow mayor in 2013.

Two epic scenes serve to bookend this testosterone-filled, vodka-soaked novel. In the first chapter, young Russian protesters chanting anti-government slogans run wild in the center of Moscow, turning over foreign cars and smashing windows.

In the final chapter, the same protesters have joined up with a disillusioned, head-butting OMON dropout to loot a military ammunition dump, strap on full-body armor, and seize government buildings before they’re forced to stand down in the face of overwhelming firepower from the Russian authorities.

These two scenes can be thought of as a fictionalized Bolotnaya and Donetsk, two touchstone events in the transformation of the opposition movement from a purely Russian phenomenon into a post-Soviet phenomenon.

In between, we meet some of the faces of the Russian protest movement, here called The Founders. (This is a group that has significantly more in common with the National Bolshevik and Right Sector movements than with the young generation of Muscovites who rallied to Bolotnaya, but more of that later.).

There’s Sasha (“Sankya”) Tishin, the titular hero of the book, who appears to be desperately looking for some purpose in a life that is nasty, brutish and short. He keeps telling his mother that he’s OK, even when the Russian FSB is busting down doors of Moscow apartments, trying to find him.

There’s Yana, a beautiful young female leader of the movement who sounds like a dead-ringer for Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot. She delights in political hooliganism and committing nonsensical acts against the Russian authorities, all while exclaiming, “This was a political action!”

There’s also Kostenko – the revered leader of the Founders who seems to be the personification of Eduard Limonov of the National Bolsheviks. And then there are a whole host of supporting characters – Matvey, Nega, Posik, Rogov, and Verochka – who do their share to supply the opposition movement with guns, vodka and ideas for a never-ending supply of stunts to aggravate the Russian security forces.

In the book, often they become mini-celebrities as their faces flash momentarily on independent Russian TV stations broadcasting their acts of defiance against the Russian state.

The Russian-language version of “Sankya” has been downloaded almost 300,000 times it was published. It has won literary prizes and has even been turned into an award-winning theatrical play called “Thugs.” A back cover blurb for the book references Tolstoy, but a more fitting comparison would be Gorky – this is not a book to be consumed in a university classroom, it’s a book to be read in the streets while contemplating revolution.

At its core, “Sankya” can be seen as the most vivid explanation of how we went from Pussy Riot and Bolotnaya to Maidan and Donetsk in a span of just a few years. In other words, how post-Soviet society went from the masked girls of Pussy Riot to the masked men of Eastern Ukraine.

And, not surprising, given the celebrity status of Prilepin in Russia these days and the types of events depicted within the book (in one, Yana throws an egg at the Russian president, thus triggering the full-on wrath of the authorities and the unexplained death of two of the top Founders), the book has also attracted the attention of Vladimir Putin and one of his top advisors, Vladislav Surkov.

Dmitry Medvedev, when asked to name one contemporary Russian writer who’s a must-read, mentioned Zakhar Prilepin.

And that’s where things get interesting, since the book – more than any other that currently exists in print in the English language - portrays the fundamental tension that exists within post-Soviet society today. Even if it was written in 2006 for a specifically Russian milieu, it feels as topical today, given the recent events in Ukraine and Moldova.

Navalny nails it in the foreword, when he says, “Prilepin has not merely turned inside out the consciousness of the entire post-Perestroika generation of politicized young Russians and laid it bare, but also, in large part, predicted the patterns of development of radical political groups and the government’s strategy in combating them.”

For this generation, the faces of Western-style capitalism are the old Soviet bosses who rigged the system and now have cash, cars and the ear of the president. Meanwhile, they’re left to scrape by, unable to afford more than a few shots of cheap vodka and pickled cucumbers while their grandparents rot away at the dacha.

In other words, we’re going to continue to see these types of radical opposition movements in Russia, no matter how hard the government cracks down on them, as long as the economics don’t improve. What’s driving these opposition leaders is not an ideology, per se, but a lack of ideology.

Their actions are raw and visceral and filled with a combination of despair and hate, like when they fight a group of ethnic Chechens in a Moscow market, or when they conduct a high-intensity terrorist attack on a McDonald’s that leaves charred wreckage behind.

Throughout the novel, characters – like the Afghan war vet missing an arm or the polished liberal opposition figure Bezletov – come and go, challenging these members of the opposition movement to define what they stand for. They stand for nothing other than revolution. They cannot articulate a new future for Russia, and they have no new ideas. They are disillusioned and simply want to strike back at the “vile” and “vulgar” Russian authorities. They are not scared of death.

What’s compelling in all this, of course, is how we go from Bolotnaya to Donetsk within the arc of a single novel. In between, there’s a brief interlude in Riga, in which the Founders cause havoc as retribution against the Latvian government. They later hire Sasha to assassinate a judge who’s sentenced a few of the founders to 15 years in prison.

This Riga sub-plot, if you will, is the start of how we go from the protest movements as a uniquely Russian phenomenon to a post-Soviet phenomenon. The scope of action intensifies, from throwing eggs and rocks, to Molotov cocktails and Kalashnikovs. It ends with a struggle to the death, the siege of a Russian government building, and plans to extend the fighting to 30 provincial cities.

What to make of all this? More likely, that the composition of the Russian “protest movement” or the “pro-Russian separatist movement” is much more complex and nuanced than we would like to admit.

“Patriotism” can be an excuse to cling to power – or an excuse for violent revolution. There’s a lost generation in the post-Soviet space, looking for purpose and meaning. Stunts like Maidan and Donetsk – filled with TV cameras willing to glorify their actions - are becoming their new outlet for approval, now that they are cut off from a bright economic future.

That should be disconcerting for anyone who thinks that the masked men in Ukraine are ever going to just disappear and go away. “Sankya” is literally the soundtrack of the modern Russia, and as Navalny says in the foreword, the “real raw nerve of modern Russian life.”