Vladimir Putin is approaching his 20th anniversary as de-facto leader of Russia, and many critics of his regime are increasingly looking to the new generation of Russians in the hope that they can bring about change. What is known about this new generation? Is there ground for optimism?

 

Yellow rubber duck became a symbol of the March 26, 2017 protests that took place all across Russia. For the first time in years, many young people took to the streets to speak against the country's corruption problem. Photo: open sources.

 

In recent years, the Russian youth has been harshly criticized for its political apathy and conformism. They were described as Komsomol 2.0 and the Putin Generation. At the same time, they were hailed for showing up, courageously, in large numbers at the 2017 anticorruption protests organized by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. So which is it: are they loyalists or rebels? A recent report by Free Russia Foundation offers an ambiguous answer: they are both and neither. 

The report details the attitudes and life strategies of the Russian youth (defined as persons aged 17-25) and offers valuable insights. First, according to various polls, Russian youngsters are in many ways not that different from their American counterparts. They are “digital natives,” the Internet is their key source of information, and social media is the main means of communication. These habits would, presumably, spare them from the pervasive state propaganda machine, which works mostly through television, but the Russian youth uses the Internet for entertainment—not for news or political discussions. 

In fact, interest in politics in quite low among young Russians. The polls point to their poor knowledge of history and simplistic understanding of political differences. For instance, in a 2018 poll, 31 percent of young Russians said they didn’t care about Stalin, and 37 percent struggled to agree or disagree with the following statement: “Stalin was a wise leader who led the country to power and prosperity.” The picture gets more complicated when it comes to their feelings about Russia. On the one hand, they claim to be patriotic and proud of their country, but on the other hand, 41 percent—a record high, according to a 2019 poll—intend to emigrate to the West, with Germany being the number one choice for many. Defying the Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda efforts, about 60 percent of young people view the United States favorably—twice as many as average Russians. However, this attitude comes with baggage: America has been historically the country of “oversized importance” to many Russians, and this interest is widely asymmetrical.

Most young Russians are aware of their country’s problems—corruption, nepotism, economic stagnation—that limit their career opportunities and restrict upward social mobility. It comes as no surprise that, whereas Putin’s ratings remain relatively high among average Russians, his approval with the youth has significantly dropped over the last few years. Until 2017, however, the youth was one of the two groups most loyal to Putin—along with pensioners, the key demographic of the president’s electoral base. This drastic change can be explained by several factors.

One is the protracted stagnation resulting in the shrinking of the economic pie and the narrowing down of the privileged ranks. Two is the unintended result of the government’s efforts to seize the anticorruption agenda from the opposition. The effect of Alexei Navalny’s anticorruption investigations, skillfully packaged and promoted to appeal to the younger audience, was amplified by a series of high profile arrests of top officials on embezzlement charges. Speaking out against corruption has become “mainstream” in the eyes of the youth.

The third factor is the critical age gap between young Russians and key members of the Putin circle, many of whom are in their late 60s. The Russian leadership is viewed by the youngsters as increasingly outdated, and Putin’s claims that he rarely uses the Internet is hardly a winning tack with the “digital natives.” Moreover, despite the Kremlin’s efforts to propagate so-called “traditional values,” the majority of young Russians remain unimpressed, opting for more progressive ideas, such as personal growth, self-actualization, and creativity.

Beyond opinion polls, the report also looks at different subcultural groups that exist under the umbrella term “Russian youth.” Distinguishing between these groups is crucial for a better understanding of the country’s future paths. The key point is that the Russian youth is fragmented and polarized, with various groups adhering to opposite values and employing different life strategies. According to researchers from the Center for Youth Studies at the Higher School of Economics (St Petersburg, Russia), there is a longstanding conflict between two polar opposites—youth groups defined as “hipsters” and the so-called “patsany” (in Russian criminal jargon, patsanymeans candidates to become “thieves-in-law,” a special status in the world of organized crime). Hipsters are usually members of the urban middle class; they are better educated, more worldly, and tolerant; they support democracy, gender equality, and hold favorable views of the West. Patsany come from various backgrounds, but their distinct characteristics are: patriotism mixed with nationalism (or xeno- and homophobia), support for authoritarianism, and negative views of the West.

The current subcultural conflict between Russian hipsters and patsanymirrors the similar cultural struggle between the two youth groups of the previous generation of Russians that had opposing sets of values. And while the outcome of the ongoing antagonism is still unclear, the previous one, tellingly, ended in the victory of the more authoritarian-minded groups under Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term.

This victory was likely facilitated by the Kremlin’s youth policy based on its classic toolkit for controlling the public: career opportunities in return for loyalty, patriotic mobilization through nationalism and tribalism, attacks on designated “enemies,” promotion of disbelief and disillusionment, pursuit of “politics of fear,” etc. But following the initial success in co-opting the youth into Komsomol-style movements (the now-defunct “Walking Together” and “Ours”), the Kremlin never offered a genuinely positive agenda, nor did it provide a strategic vision of the future. Its aggressive propaganda and coercive tactics failed to win the youth’s hearts and minds. The 2017-2018 protests that prominently featured tens of thousands of young people came as a direct result of this political and moral failure against the backdrop of Russia’s economic decline.

Ironically, similarly to its anticorruption campaign, the Kremlin’s attempts to co-opt the youth had an inadvertent side-effect—the popularization of activism, which has been booming in Russia since early 2010s. Young Russians, regardless of their beliefs, increasingly aspire to inclusiveness and influence as they launch numerous local initiatives and participate in grassroots organizations, pursuing the “politics of small deeds.”

These developments create grounds for cautious optimism about the new generation of Russians who are trying to take matters into their own hands. Yet it remains to be seen whether they can succeed in building momentum from the bottom up.

In the meantime, the Kremlin has already started to prepare for the “2024 problem”—the year when Putin’s fourth presidential term is scheduled to expire. There are early signs that the government is planning to revamp its youth policy. The agency responsible for youth affairs (Rosmolodezh) has been elevated in status, and its funding for 2019 has increased by seven times compared to the previous year. Oversight for youth policy was transferred to Sergei Kiriyenko, the current Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration, who will coordinate it directly with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. One can only speculate about the future of these efforts, but a famous quote by former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin provides a sense of perspective: “Whatever organization we try to create, it always ends up looking like the Communist Party.”

  

The report titled “Russian Youth: A Look Inside the Black Box” was prepared by Vladimir Milov and Olga Khvostunova for Free Russia Foundation.

Vladimir Milov is an expert at Free Russia Foundation, opposition politician, publicist, economist and energy expert. He is Russia’s former Deputy Minister of Energy (2002).

Olga Khvostunova is the director of the Institute of Modern Russia and a fellow at Free Russia Foundation. 

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