Essay by Fedor Krasheninnikov

An inconvenient youth

An essay by Fedor Krasheninnikov for the discussion in Yekaterinburg

The relationship between young people and the government in modern Russia is based on three underlying ideas. First, there are few young people, and thus the number of those who are ready to be politically active is even fewer. Second, the current generation of youth is completely different from the Russian ruling elite in their youth. Third, the current ruling group is not prepared for this generation and is not going to change, as they assume that it should be the task of young people to adopt their moral and aesthetic values in order to have a voice in decision-making.

The fact that there is not many young people in modern Russia helps the regime a lot. Demographic indicators make it possible to simply not take youth into account politically and instead bet on the older generations, which are considered to be safer for the regime to interact with. Moreover, demographic decline saves Russian regime from mass street protest to some degree. Therefore, all the talk of a “Maidan” in Russia benefits those who would earn money on fighting against it – for millions of young adults to take to the streets, it is essential that there are a lot of young people in the country, so that even their politically active minority would be significant in number. We must also not forget the fact that Russian youth is dispersed throughout a vast amount of territory, which is difficult to travel through due to logistics difficulties and financial reasons.

Nevertheless to say, young people have the potential to be the vanguard of political action – clear signs of this possibility have been visible in 2017 and 2018. The Russian regime’s reaction to the ongoing processes is cynical, yet effective. It chooses to marginalize youth through government-controlled media broadcasts targeting older age groups, spreading the idea of immaturity, a lack of seriousness, and a general sense of social danger among the young generation. In fact, a policy to widen the division between the two generations has been adopted. Older age groups are declared to be bearers of culture and traditions, while all the alien and dangerous values are being imposed by young people. In response to this perspective, justification of repressive practices seems only logical: school teachers and university professors should shout and intimidate their students and the so-called “siloviki” (higher-ups in the military-security establishment) should arrest young trouble makers for the most ridiculous reasons. If they do not, then in Russia it will be “the same as in Ukraine” — an argument that is still readily accepted and is enthusiastically received by older audiences.

Something similar happened in 2012–2013 when the government was cynically playing “eager beavers” and “corporate slaves” against each other.

On the other hand, the fact that there is not many young people in Russia makes possible to work with them effectively. Someone is bribed and incorporated into the government, someone is intimidated and neutralized, and the majority is mostly just ignored. In either case, arrests and emigration of the most actives ones both work in favor of the regime. This is the reason why we shouldn’t expect any exit visas in the near future: it is very advantageous for the government to have all of the dissenters leave the country, young people included.

Otherness among youth

The biggest problem that current government faces in its work with youth is the fact that a young generation is nothing like Russian policymakers were their age and nothing they imagine them to be. This whole rhetoric of youth as a unity has always been questionable, but now it seems to make no definite sense whatsoever. Even in the late USSR youth consisted of many groups with different approaches to life and its values, and over the years since the collapse of Soviet power Russian society has changed dramatically.

The Russian people have never been so different and have never lived so different lives as in recent years. Life in Moscow is different from life in St. Petersburg, life in the capital is different from life in cities with millions of residents (and each of them also has its own characteristics). Life in small towns and in the countryside is completely different. But the most important differences are caused by financial situation of families. Rich and poor people go to different schools, live in different areas and face very different problems.

However, the Internet and especially social networks have created a completely new reality. Generations who “grew up” in social networks are different from those who discovered them as an adult or haven’t discovered them at all. Access to information on the internet shapes completely different views of the world; the possibility to post information and become more popular due to one’s online activity shapes a new type of leadership, which is common among young people and completely incomprehensible to older generations.

The openly pro-Western orientation of youth, as indicated in all studies, is a separate issue. And if in Soviet times pro-Western sentiment was “acquired”, that is, one had to make an effort to listen to Western music, watch Western movies and buy Western things, then modern Russian youth is pro-Western simply because of the way they live; they listen to the same music as their peers from around the world, watch the same series, read the same books, wear the same clothes (or dream of it). Even those who think of themselves as patriots and nationalists, Russian youth still remains within the Western paradigm of life and consumption. Clothing, technology, traveling, education – all of this is in modern times inextricably linked with the West, and no alternative concepts exist beyond marginalized groups.

Otherness among youth creates an interesting situation: it is quite difficult, if not impossible, for the regime to come up with something that will make people living in different social, geographical, and domestic conditions unite only around the fact they share the same age group. However, all the talk about the need for a state youth policy comes down to the creation of something like a new Komsomol, where younger citizens will be united and controlled by the government. The fact that this didn’t really work, even in Soviet times, and certainly didn’t save the USSR from collapse is ignored, which is also understandable: there is nothing more interesting and meaningful than outdated Soviet relics in the minds of Russian authorities, so it’d be impossible and unprofitable for them to acknowledge the futility of these ideas. And how to receive monetary support from the State? Individual work is expensive, hardly possible at all, and has no benefits whatsoever. It is another thing to receive billions to develop a certain structure and report on progress using beautiful charts and fake statistics. In fact, the whole idea of state youth policy in Russia is designed around that.

And, of course, neither Komsomol slogans nor nostalgia for the Soviet past can really motivate young Russian citizens. Even the fact that a portion of young people agree to play by these rules and assent to slogans proclaimed “from above” should not be taken seriously. Young fans of the USSR are basically just one of the many subcultures, so this isn’t a question of some deep-rooted conviction, much less of willingness to throw an iPhone away and go participate in some shock construction project.

Generational contradictions

The current Russian government, at least those members of it who hold high office, consists dominantly of elderly politicians, who joined the Komsomol in the 1970’s and 1980’s and then became intelligence agents. Their life paths are almost identical. The Russian government has never really tried to conceal the fact that whereas it relies on a much broader segment of the population, older age groups are the main priority. The reasons are many, including rational ones.

What has been said above about relatively low number of young people and a great difference between them and the ruling group explains why the official “youth policy” in Putin’s Russia is just an empty ritual and not a tool for social mobility. One can grow old bouncing from the Youth Parliament to the Youth Government and the Youth Electoral Commission, but still get no access to real power (unless, of course, a young politician has good political cover). Even becoming a deputy does not guarantee access to the levers of power, so one can obediently sit on the back bench for years, quietly voting for everything he’s been told to vote for.

The authorities with good reason regard young opposition activists as potentially dangerous competitors whose main trump card is their age. However much elderly Russian politicians try to present themselves as ageless, they are nonetheless getting older every year. On the other hand, the younger people who either leave the country or are intimidated into keeping silent are constantly replaced by new young people coming of age. In essence, we are now witnessing a particularly cruel and cynical generational struggle, with older politicians unwilling to hand power over to the most talented and promising representatives of the younger generation. The older generation currently has no intention of leaving power immediately; in addition, they have children, relatives, and lovers, and it is they who are the intended recipients of the eventual transfer of power. The older generation regards any prospect of broader participation in government as terrifying.

In mature democracies, young people not only have easier access to power structures, but in some cases they even occupy top executive posts in government; a prime example of that is Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz. It is not the case that any sort of demographic boom in Austria has increased the proportion of young people to the point where they control social change; it is simply that a well-functioning political system focuses on the future, on the development of and adaptation to new conditions. It is for that reason that young politicians and managers are in demand; after all, they will be the ones who lead their countries in the future, and who will deal with their peers – who will sooner or later hold the reins of power in other countries as well.

The Russian regime, as has been noted, focuses exclusively on maintaining the current status quo, and so young people may choose either to serve the interests of the authorities, or to give up any claims to power.

This neophobia, the fear of new generations participating in the political process, can be seen everywhere. In well-functioning democracies, local government, municipalities, are the first step in building a political career. After all, locally important issues are of interest even to those who are not interested in politics; issues like ecology, a comfortable environment, and public transport, all really matter to people. It would seem that at least in that area young activists could have a chance to fulfill their promise.

But local government structures in Russia are just as closed-off to outside participants as other levels are. And it makes sense: the moment someone unapproved by the authorities higher-up is allowed to come to power, there will be problems. The main difference between a politician who is accountable to voters and one who has been (essentially) appointed from above is that the first cannot be simply called into the office of a higher-up to receive instructions on how to vote. The appointed politician, however, does not even need any instructions; he knows from the start that at every turn he must vote and speak just as his older colleagues do, and must not have any opinions that differ from those of his superiors.

New Russia

The cynicism of Putin and his entourage is obvious; they are relying on the support of those dependent on them to help them hold on to power forever. The dependents are those who for various reasons depend on the regime for their positions: the siloviki; employees of state-owned enterprises and holding companies owned by oligarchs; certain categories of public sector workers whose privileges can be withdrawn. It is obvious that young people, unless they belong to one of the above categories, have no role to play in this scheme. However, their age gives young people greater energy and willingness to resist pressure, which is seen as a threat for the regime.

If the leaders of the Soviet Union had been more cynical and pragmatic, they would not have prevented those who wished to leave the USSR from doing so. But the Soviet regime compared to Putin’s was a dictatorship of romantics; Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko believed to their dying days that socialism was the true path, and that problems only arose because someone somewhere was not working hard enough. The Soviet regime attempted with an iron hand to force people to be happy and at the same time sincerely believed itself to be the government of working people. These ideological principles had perhaps somewhat lost their novelty by the end of the Soviet period, but they still remained fundamental axioms.

For Putin and his entourage, any arguments about the welfare of the people are just ritualistic phrases. This government does not feel any obligation to make people’s lives better, and so it has no problem if those who disagree with its policies, do not want to go to prison, or endure humiliation emigrate to Europe and America. The current Russian leadership is even less concerned about economic emigration: those who want to live in a different economic environment can also safely leave the country, and are allowed more or less without penalty to take their money out with them. In a sense, this represents a positive trend for what is known as the “new aristocracy” – Kremlin officials, Russian siloviki, and their families, as they are the ones who ultimately become the owners of the businesses people who leave Russia sell. If we regard Putin’s Russia as a cynical enrichment project for this group of people, then all the actions of its leadership make perfect sense.

We will have to spend many years dealing with the sad aftermath of Putinism, and the fact that a portion of Russian young people is now responding to slogans proclaimed by the current regime will sooner or later become an issue. Just as the Soviet past served as the breeding ground that led Russia to Putin’s regime, so the breeding ground of Putinism in the minds of modern youth will result in revanchism. Nevertheless, at some point young people will have to take responsibility for the country, and that is an encouraging thought: there will be new people, and in that way Russia will inevitably be renewed.