What is wrong … with us?

What is wrong with young people in Russia with us?

ALEXANDRA ARKHIPOVA, anthropologist, Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA)


Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (www.agadzhikova.ru)
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Headphones and rallies: youth in danger?

In the spring of 2019, the company Kribrum, which monitors online social networks, released a Guide to Identifying Behavioural Risk Factors in Social Networks. With the best intentions, it seems – to warn teachers and parents about a “steadily high and growing destructive element” in young people’s behaviour. However, the authors of the guidebook define any youth behaviour that deviates from the current norm, from extremism to Satanism, as destructive – and interpret almost anything as a symptom, from wearing headphones to participating in rallies. They believe that “the active spread of destructive behaviour has certain unobvious goals”. To put it simply, they claim that the “destructive behaviour” of young people is directed and used by someone to “destroy traditional values” and to form “an impression of trouble and danger not only in the networks – the virtual world, but also in the state – the objective reality”. The guidebook goes on to explain what will happen to teenagers whose traditional values have been destroyed: “suggestible and destructively oriented people are recruited for destructive activities in the objective reality”. This recruitment will result in – surprise, surprise! – “the destabilization of the social and political life of the state” (i. e. teenagers going to rallies).

Having read these lines, any reasonable person will say that we are dealing with a conspiracy theory – and he or she won’t be mistaken. Some hostile forces are acting on our teenagers, forcing them to go to rallies and thus to destroy the state? Well now. Unfortunately, such notions cannot be ignored, as they are very popular and extremely widespread. They appear everywhere, from state TV channels to parents’ conversations. Every time after a significant number of teenagers participates in a rally or another protest action, concerned parents passionately repost an urban legend: the story of a “nice boy” who goes to see his friends when his father was not home, accepts a Coke from the hands of a young man – and only regains consciousness at a rally. In such texts, “the opposition”, “Navalny” or “Americans” zombify innocent Russian children.

How did the Russian perception of teenagers become that way? Where did the panic fear of youth participation in rallies come from? Let us start from afar.

Where did the author get her data?
A research group of folklorists, sociologists and anthropologists, which includes the present author, has been studying the daily reactions of Russian citizens to social and political events – including public political events – from 2011 to the present. We make observations, conduct interviews and poll people at rallies. Some result of our work are the book The Anthropology of Protest in Russia: 2011–2012, a series of articles and media appearances. When figures from the rallies are given without reference, their source is a study of our group.

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (www.agadzhikova.ru)
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Young people in the latest protests: how many, where and who?

The authors of such guidebooks (and there are many of them), as well as their readers, tend to make three unhesitant consecutive implicit assertions that could be formulated as follows:

(A) “An unusually large number of young people is now involved in political protest, much more than before”,

(B) “If so many young people, especially teenagers, are protesting, there reason must be the influence of external forces on our children”,

(C) “Therefore, the mass participation of youth in protests is wrong and dangerous”.

These statements became popular in the spring of 2017, when everyone paid attention to the “kids” appearing at the March 26 rallies after Navalny’s documentary about Medvedev, He Is Not Dimon to You. For example, a Kommersant journalist wrote that half of the participants in the Moscow rally were students and schoolchildren – without providing any data. Everyone began talking about “manipulation”, about “Navalny taking schoolchildren into the street”.

How can you check the truth of such a statement?

It is not easy to collect quantitative and qualitative data on rally participants, and this generates a variety of myths. The major sociological companies do not study rallies, and the Levada Center only does so periodically. Still, there are some figures and observations; for instance, a few polls were conducted right at the rally by an independent group of sociologists and anthropologists.

We should keep in mind that it is almost useless to consider the distribution of ages (or anything else) among the participants of a single rally. A rally, as well as any political action, does not arise by itself but forms part of a wave of political activity. There have been three such major political waves over the past ten years in Russia: the protests “For Fair Elections” in the winter of 2011–2012, the anti-corruption rallies in 2017 and the protests against the non-admission of certain deputies to regional parliaments (primarily the Moscow City Council), merged with the protest against police violence, in summer 2019.

Here, you can see the figures in more detail.

2011, “For Fair Elections”
Among the participants of the rally on Sakharov Avenue on December 24, 2011, 22% were young people aged 18 to 24. This proportion is 7% higher than the normal distribution of ages in Moscow. There were also 5% minors among the participants.

2017, anti-corruption rallies
The exact number of young people and minors is unknown, but measurements of the human rights organisation OVD Info in online social groups on the eve of the protest show that about 11% of participants in groups dedicated to the rally were under 18 years old. OVD Info also reports that among the 1030 persons forced into police vans at the rallies, 46 were minors – that is, only 4.5%.

2019, protests for the admission of municipal deputies to the Moscow City Council and against police violence
At the rally on August 10, 2019, young people aged 18 or younger made up only 8% of the participants. On August 31, at the uncoordinated march (“the Moscow walk”) along the boulevards, there were slightly fewer. On August 29, 2019, protesters aged 18 or younger made up only 4% of the total. The number of participants under 25 ranged from 23% (at authorized rallies) to 32% (at unauthorized ‘walks along the boulevards’ and ‘meetings with deputies’).

Both in 2011 and in 2019, at the beginning of each protest wave in Moscow, about 30% of the protesters were under 25 years old, including 4–6% minors. This share is slightly above the average representation of these ages among Moscow residents. There were no protest forms with predominantly, much less exclusively participants under 25.

The beginning of the 2017 protest wave might have included over 30% of young people. Still, it is highly improbable that half or more of the protesters were schoolchildren and students, as claimed by Kommersant and other media. Most likely, we are dealing a classic observer’s mistake: younger people tend to make more posters (according to our data, 10–15% more than 25–35-year-olds); moreover, such posters are usually funny and bright, and thus more memorable and striking. One of the young men detained on Tverskaya Street complained that their posters were misrepresented in the police report. They posters read “I’m waiting for an answer!” and showed the sculpture Homunculus loxodontus, an eternally waiting creature that became a viral meme – aka Zhdun – in Russia in 2017. He said: “They claimed we had boring posters, like ‘Corruption steals the future!’” Interesting posters, striking groups of people and videos of brutal police action are better remembered by observers and, of course, they sell better. As a result, it seems as if the rallies consisted of thousands of teenagers, while the modest grandmothers with their long protest texts are of less interest to journalists and remain unnoticed.

A protest wave usually includes 2 to 7 major rallies, many single and collective pickets and other forms of activity. During the development of such a wave, the age of the participants in mass rallies gradually increases, reaching an average of 35. This has nothing to do with “zombification” and “external influences”. It’s just that the rally loses part of its emotional drive and becomes a constant political statement; it requires constant efforts, and not everyone is ready for boring work. In addition, unauthorized rallies attract more younger and fewer older people. Here, the question is who is less afraid of being detained or arrested.

It is to be added that young people prefer another form of street protest – the collective picket. Pickets have become popular in Moscow in the last two years. The “picket queues” in defence of Ivan Golunov and Pavel Ustinov (June and August 2019) immediately come to mind. The number of young people who stood in the “picket queue” reached a record: 39% of all participants. The reason lies in the modified form of political statement. The legislation of the Russian Federation allows (at least formally) to carry out pickets without a permission from the mayor’s office. Thus, such a “queue” enables to immediately – and thus emotionally effectively – express indignation at a current even. This format is preferred by young people as you literally “protest with your whole body”, as one of our interlocutors said during the interview. The risk – to be detained for breaking picket rules – increases, but so does the attention to the protesters.

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (www.agadzhikova.ru)
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova

Why did everybody start noticing young people at rallies?

To sum up: the number of teenagers and young people under 25 who took part in street protests in winter 2011 was approximately the same as in 2019. However, in the last three years the mass media have been paying much more attention to them: in 2017, five times more articles with the words “schoolchildren at the rally” were published than in 2011 (according to the Integrum database). Why?

The answer lies not in an increased number of young Trotskyites or libertarians taking to the streets but in the evolution of the adolescents’ rights to independent behaviour – not only in the personal sphere but also in the public and political space. A study by the sociologist Svetlana Yerpyleva, found that even the schoolchildren and students who participated in the protests of 2011 often did not recognize their own right to independent political expression and considered themselves dependent on the opinion of a politicized adult. One of her underage respondents, a member of the movement “For Fair Elections”, says about young people like himself at the rally: “Parents are responsible for a minor. According to the law, minors can’t have a point of view (I mean, they can’t vote in elections, for example). This [the protesting] can lead to problems for the parents and the school”. In 2011, schoolchildren and students who attended rallies or supported the movement “For Fair Elections” generally did not consider themselves independent political actors.

By early 2017, things had changed. We know this thanks to our group’s constant monitoring of youth political mobilization and rallies in four cities. Teenagers began to perceive the participation in public political actions as their personal right. To them, the very opportunity to defend this right is more important than, say, supporting Alexey Navalny (with whose position many schoolchildren and students do not quite agree), though the anti-corruption agenda is widespread among the politicized youth. Speaking about their motivation, schoolchildren often say they want to protect their future. One 17-year-old respondent said: “I joined the protest because 25 years later, I don’t want my son to ask me ‘Dad, why didn’t you do anything?’” Another participant of the Moscow rally, an 18-year-old, says almost the same in an interview: “I am a citizen of the country where my children will live. I want better conditions. That is the problem”. Greta Thunberg comes to mind, with her famous “You adults don’t give a damn about my future!”

What’s more: often, schoolchildren explained their presence at the rallies with the desire to protest not only in their own name but also in the name of others (usually, the parents). From the point of view of a teenager participating in pickets and rallies in 2017–2018, the country must be saved, and adults don’t join protest demonstrations because they are hostages of the state: “Teachers didn’t go to the rally, of course. It’s dangerous for them. They are paid by the state, after all” (a 15 year old from Moscow, March 26, 2017). Parents, too, are seen as endangered by political activities: “My father believes that participating in the rally could harm him, and me in the future.” Some of our young interlocutors stressed that rallies were nothing for adults: “My father is too old for this” (the father of our 15-year-old interlocutor was only 43). Thus, the young – often the children of apolitical parents – demand the right to independent political expression. They feel responsible as citizens, which is why they often hold the Constitution in their hands during protests. It is not surprising that one young man participated in the “Moscow walk” on March 26, 2017, carrying a bright poster in which prime minister Medvedev was depicted as a guilty-looking small boy.

This overturn of the children/parent roles, albeit in a much broader context, had been predicted in 1970 by the American anthropologist Margaret Mead. Imagine: a grandfather holds his grandson in his arms and knows exactly how this boy will spend his life – namely, just like he and his own grandfather had done. In a traditional culture of postfigurative exchange, the parents and the parents’ parents are the only source of knowledge and experience for their children, and thus an undisputed authority. However, due to the speed of progress, the twentieth century encountered a new – cofigurative – type of cultural exchange: both children and parents can simultaneously learn new things; the sources of knowledge are peers, not ancestors. Fathers are no longer the only authority, which can be very painful to them. Back in 1970, Mead had prognosed that a new type of cultural exchange would soon emerge – prefigurative, in which the younger generation will teach the old ones. The age at which children see their parents as an undisputed authority would be greatly reduced, and teenagers would consider themselves entitled to defend their own values, paying no attention to “old people”. This is precisely what we observe.

The problem of the older generation is the desire to pass on their experience to the young. Today’s Russian youth has no use for their parents’ experience of standing in line for many hours in the 1990s or making rugs from old tights. That’s certainly good for them – but the older generation might feel empty and useless. The different cultural track records lead to misunderstandings and the rejection of the experiences made by one’s teenage children: after all, he or she is so different from you at the age of 15! Thus, the conclusion is often drawn that teenagers’ claims to making statements in the public political space are dangerous and must be fought.

There is a struggle for the right to public political behaviour; the youth agenda has broken into the “adult” media world. By March 2017, young people and teenagers have become newsmakers. Ruslan Sokolovsky, arrested for playing Pokémon Go in church, the girls known as the “Khabarovsk Animal Killers”, the leaders of so called suicide-themed online groups Filipp Lis and Eva Reich, the Pskov “Bonnie and Clyde” Denis Muravyov and Ekaterina Vlasova, the rape victim Diana Shurygina… For the first time, people aged 13–20 appear in the media discourse mostly not as victims but as actors with their own voice and will. The young generation‘s claim to a political voice of its own seems bold and important to some. To others, it is frightening; it “destroys traditional values”, i.e. the monopoly of the elders on public political expression. This is where the fear of “destructive youth” comes from.

An attempt to preserve or recreate the old norm – with teenagers having no right to public political expression – is only possible if one pretends that there are no internal changes, that the political activity of teenagers is due to invisible and hostile adults pulling the strings. That’s the source of the conspiracy theory discussed at the beginning of the article. Thus, we should not be surprised that, in 2019, the Sevastopol Children’s Ombudswoman Marina Peschanskaya explained the phenomenon of Greta Thunberg by saying: “It is clear that she [Greta] is being managed by adults, and therefore her activity violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: they use the girl for selfish purposes without considering the child’s emotional and mental health.”

Parents and teachers echo her words. Alexey, a 50-year-old sports teacher and organizer of a youth sports camp called Zarnitsa, says in an interview: “Those Navalnys have seduced a lot of innocent young people […] He’s drugging you youngsters! Just look, the young people are addicted, it’s like a drug.” Alexey shared a story that was traumatising for him – in a small Russian town where he lives and works, a talented eighth-grader, winner of important competitions in mathematics and computer science, suddenly decided to organize a local Navalny representation: “Parents can’t bring this eighth-grader to reason! Just imagine, he says, ‘I want to go to the Vologda headquarters.’ I say, ‘Stop being stupid!’ He’s a smart boy, you know, but we just can’t talk him out of it. It’s the whole computer thing, that’s how this rubbish got into his head, through the computer. For some reason, he doesn’t believe Putin, he doesn’t believe me, but he does believe Navalny.”

For him and many others, it follows that you must take the right to political expression away from young people and regain control: otherwise children won’t believe Putin, teachers and parents. Many are prepared to fight. In 2017–2019, teachers from Smolensk, Dzerzhinsk, Tomsk, Bryansk, Vladimir and Moscow kept telling their students the same thing: “You are schoolchildren. You must study and have no right to do anything else. You must do what is prescribed for your age, i.e. what we did at your age. Everything else is destructive behaviour.” A teacher from Ivanovo expressed this position very clearly: “stick your noses into your textbooks and stay put”. These teachers believe that, lacking their life experience, teenagers have no right to think about politics and the future of the country. What’s more, these teenagers become their enemies.

Such teachers are joined by the Investigation Committee, the State Duma and the authors of the guidebook analysed in the beginning. But the most nervous father, a father deeply afraid of losing his monopoly on political expression, is our paternalistic state. As one teacher put it, “we are all guerrilla fighters now, trying to track down enemies among the children.”

Photo: Alena Agadzhikova (www.agadzhikova.ru)
Photo: Alena Agadzhikova