It is often argued that Russia’s democratic future is assured by the progressive and pro-Western attitudes of its youth. Donald N. Jensen, Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, contends that the reality is more complex.

 

 

The current—usually pessimistic—discussions in the West about the prospects for democracy in Russia often end on a hopeful note.  The younger generation, it is argued—especially with its access to the media and its ability to travel abroad—will inevitably push for a more open society closely integrated with the West.  At a recent roundtable at Johns Hopkins University, the eminent French political scientist Marie Mendras argued that it is impossible for Europe and Russia to dismiss one another.  European values and institutions attract many Russians, she added, predicting that in a generation or two Russians will accept ideas such as the rule of law.

Last year, in an article on Russia’s youth, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that young Russians “spend their time in the free worlds of the internet, getting their information and organizing through blogs, Facebook and Twitter.   For the first time in generations, an entire segment of Russians can steer clear of government propaganda depriving the Kremlin of control over large parts of their lives.”  “This is something new,” the magazine continued, “and it has already led to a change in values and a new view of society... Putin’s children are no longer afraid….  They stand behind their ideals.  They dream of democracy and a free press.”

Russian youth does not see any chance to gain “general respect” or acquire material wellbeing by working honestly.

The reality is considerably more complex, according to sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya who studied the attitudes of young Russians in 26 large cities. Kryshtanovskaya found a high level of alienation among young people, noting that there is a “complete collapse of norms and values.”  This is a symptom, she suggested, of the “instability of the existing social system and the difficulties individuals face in trying to find a place for themselves in it now that the Soviet social fabric has been torn apart but not replaced.”  Many young people, according to Kryshtanovskaya, do not understand who they are and have no direction in life. The survey (conducted between December 2012 and February 2013) used both focus groups and in-depth interviews with four groups of urban youth—university students in technical fields and the humanities, specialists with higher education, and workers.

Other findings in the report suggest widespread cynicism among Russia’s young people:

  • Only one-fourth is interested in politics or even knows what the state is for.
  • Young Russians fear the authorities because they are “dangerous and pitiless.”
  • Young Russians blame the bureaucracy for corruption and theft.
  • Those polled see the state’s main duties as distributing subsidies, loans and pensions, as well as organizing educational activities.
  • Russian youth does not see any chance to gain “general respect” or acquire material wellbeing by working honestly.
  • More than 90 percent of young people believe there is no political party that expresses their interests.
  • Many young Russians are ready to move “from a small city to a large one;” from a large one to a regional capital; from a regional capital to Moscow; and from Moscow to Europe and America.

Despite their alienation, most young Russians are not clamoring for democratic change:

  • About 25 percent of those polled consider themselves “liberals” or “democrats,” but relatively few people understand what those terms mean.  Many respondents would like to see a nationalist, monarchist or anarchist party.
  • The younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is to believe that Russia is a great power.
  • Putin remains the most popular politician among younger Russians.  He is viewed as a kind of “dragon” who acts mysteriously and can be replaced only if another ”dragon” appears.
  • Russia’s young people are more inclined to support “the complete destruction of the system”—even by revolution—than gradual change.  But many consider revolution difficult to achieve.
  • Young people put little stock in the opposition or anti-Kremlin leaders such as Alexei Navalny.

 

According to a Levada Center poll, one-quarter of the Sakharov Avenue protesters on December 24, 2011 were aged between 18 and 24.

 

Some of what the report finds is contradictory: on the one hand, it states that there is little content behind the thinking of those young people who identify themselves as liberal.  On the other hand, the report also claims the internet is the engine of their Westernization.  Moreover, in some ways Russian youth attitudes also resemble those in other countries—support for maximalism, for example, and a rejection of gradual change.  The report found, however, that in Russia such values are more confused and extreme.  “Young people’s brains are a mess,” noted Elena Omelchenko of the Center for Youth Studies at the Higher School of Economics, adding that “nationalist views coexist with liberal ideas, and homophobia is mixed with aspirations to freedom for all.”

Russia’s young people share society’s broader uncertainty over the country’s post-Soviet statehood and national identity.

Despite the report’s shortcomings, Kryshtanovskaya’s findings offer important clues about the role of Russia’s youth in possible political change.  First, there is potential support among young people for a wide range of outcomes, not just a Russia that is pro-Western and democratic. Indeed, a recent Carnegie report found that while there is growing indifference to Stalin among the young, about one-fifth view him favorably.  Second, support for any scenario is likely to remain passive if the state can provide young people with basic economic necessities.  Third, the extent to which the Kremlin can prevent the emergence of a new “dragon” on the political scene will determine whether the youth can be politically mobilized.

Russia’s young people thus share society’s broader uncertainty over the country’s post-Soviet statehood and national identity.  They also do not agree on its Communist past.   Putin, however, is taking neither the political passivity of youth nor its continued support for granted.  Speaking at a meeting of the Kremlin’s Council on interethnic relations in February, the president proposed creating a single set of history textbooks for school children, arguing that the texts should be built around a “single concept,” that reflects the “logical continuity of Russian history” and is “free of internal contradictions and ambiguities”—all criteria that are at variance with Russia’s complicated, controversial past and designed to help the current regime consolidate its power.   The West, meanwhile, should be wary of assuming that deep cultural norms will be automatically pushed aside by high technology or the attractions of its popular culture.

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