Russian youths are taking to the streets, but let's not over-hype the revolt of the “Putin generation” just yet

If we're going to understand how young people in Russia are becoming more political, we need to ask the right questions before applying our own labels. 

Tom Junes
20 June 2017

They’ve been dismissed as a “teenage rebellion”, but the protests that took place on 26 March and 12 June suggest that some of Russia's youth are slipping through the state’s fingers. (c) Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.On 26 March and again on 12 June, Russian cities saw thousands of protesters take to the streets. These demonstrations were framed as anti-corruption protests and, in their coverage, one after another media outlet has drawn attention to the significant participation of Russian youth, students and in particular teenagers. 

While youth protest in itself is significant, as it shows that there is clearly some resentment building up among the younger generation in Russia, does this necessarily signify a generational revolt in the making? Does the sudden outbreak of mass protest by Russia's youth indicate that political change could be on the horizon? 

The protests are understandably being depicted as anti-Putin protests given that they were called for by today’s most renowned Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny. But does this necessarily mean that Russia's youth is taking to the streets based on values espoused by the west? These are questions left unanswered by the media reports on the protests. 

The Putin generation 

With the outbreak of protest the concept of a “Putin generation” is en vogue. But who are these youths that make up this generation? Broadly speaking, these would be young people born in the 1990s and early 2000s who have no memory of the Soviet Union and hardly any firsthand memory of the Yeltsin era. The upcoming presidential elections in March 2018 will see the first cohort of voters who have known no other leader than Vladimir Putin (if one disregards the veneer of the Medvedev presidency) go to the ballot box. 

The fact that the “Putin generation” might be prone to revolt has been pondered upon by western and pro-Putin think tanks alike. But such speculations do not chime with empirical studies. Russia’s Levada Center has produced quite some surveys showing a more qualified portrait of Russia’s younger generation. Where do we place young Russians when it comes to their values? These surveys show a generation of youth that is largely apolitical — or rather engaged in politics as “passive spectators” as only four to five percent of youth are socially and civically active, the lowest percentage for all age-groups — and concerned mostly with “personal success”. For young Russians, it seems that careerism and consumerism trump politics. More so, Putin's national approval ratings, which continue to hover around 80%, reverberate similarly among the young

Much has been made of the Kremlin's youth policy in the Putin era. The ability to recruit youth in support of the regime has been seen as a factor determining its consolidation and strength

Levada’s surveys show a small minority of five to seven percent of young Russians who are liberally and democratically minded. They see their upward social mobility blocked and their perspectives of “personal success” nipped in the bud. It is from this group that the youthful protesters have now emerged. They hardly represent a “generation” as such, but rather what researchers would call a “generation unit”. They are a small group that deviates from the norm and while they have been socialised in the same conditions as their age-peers, their personal experience has incited them to react differently to the surrounding reality.

The actual “Putin generation” remains largely conformist and is not bent on challenging the regime, at least for now. 

The Kremlin and Russia's youth 

Much has been made of the Kremlin’s youth policy in the Putin era. The ability to recruit youth in support of the regime has been seen as a factor determining its consolidation and strength. In particular, the emergence of organised pro-Kremlin youth organisations such as Nashi has been compared to the Soviet-era Komsomol in a general trend to depict the Putin regime as reviving totalitarian practices in Russia. Nashi boasted about 120,000 members in its heyday, which was a pale comparison with the Komsomol, even in the latter's years of decline. Moreover, Nashi, funded by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs, was plagued by the same ills that have afflicted the Russian state such as corruption and embezzlement of funds. It also foundered in its self-professed role to provide young cadres for the Putin regime. 

Ultimately, Nashi, which was set up to counter the danger of an Orange Revolution taking place in Russia, failed to live up to its mission during the 2011-2013 protest cycle. As a result, it was deemed redundant and left to die a silent death. However, new initiatives to mobilise Russian youth in support of the Kremlin’s policies did emerge. One such undertaking was Projekt Set', which fits more within the Kremlin’s populist turn since 2012, and focusses on glorifying Putin's personal rule. Set’, in contrast to Nashi, was not framed as a mass organisation. It is a collective of vehemently loyal activists and artists producing pro-Putin agitprop and Youtube videos.

Russia’s Putin-era youth lack a clear historical consciousness, a situation that makes them prone to accept patriotic slogans or nationalist propaganda uncritically

All in all, the Kremlin's youth policies did not wield any impressive achievements. They can only be seen as successful because of the absence of a strong current of youth contestation. On the other hand, organisations like Nashi and Set’ did enable a rise of nationalist sentiments among Russia's youth, further bolstered by the propaganda offensive in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and the occupation of Crimea.

But Russia’s Putin-era youth lack a clear historical consciousness, a situation that makes them prone to accept patriotic slogans or nationalist propaganda uncritically. Levada surveys show that 90% of Russian youth today doesn’t even know about the August 1991 coup and victory of the democrats. More worrying could be that a 2014 youth poll on VKontakte (Russia's popular Facebook clone) showed that Hitler and Stalin were more popular historical figures than Putin. To be fair, in the same poll, Hitler was also the most disliked historical figure, just outpolling Yeltsin and Putin. 

The prospect for change 

Of course, it’s still early days to make any predictions, which has not impeded speculations in the international media. The last cycle of mass protests in 2011-2013 shows that it is plausible to expect more protests in the coming months, especially in light of the upcoming presidential elections. However, more often than not protests in Russia have not crystallised into long-term political movements. It thus remains to be seen whether the recent protests will break with that pattern. 

The man riding the current protest wave, Alexei Navalny, has adopted the tactics of Russia’s extra-parliamentary opposition to mobilise momentum for his presidential bid next year. Using the internet, Navalny has managed to attract a greater number of participants in demonstrations than the extra-parliamentary opposition ever managed to muster during the mid-2000s. By focusing not on Putin, his expected opponent in the presidential elections, but Medvedev in his online video that sparked the initial protests in March, Navalny has managed, for now, to deflect from Putin's consistently high approval ratings and capitalise on the resentment among the young by steering it against the system and its elites. 

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12 June: Russian police officers detain a participant of an . (c) NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The regime’s reaction (massively arresting protesters) has ensured that both the protests and Navalny’s presidential campaign received more coverage than could be otherwise expected in Russia's regime-controlled media landscape. However, not all protesters who engaged in the demonstrations were there to explicitly support Navalny, even in Moscow as shown by the participation of the movement to oppose the demolition of the city’s “Khrushchevki”, the five-story apartment blocks built under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. 

Finally, are the protests a sign of weakness of the regime or that political change could be imminent? No. While the protests do represent cause for concern for the Kremlin, it is highly unlikely that they will produce any power struggle among the country’s elite. In Russia, political change essentially comes from the top. Though the regime has demonstrated its willingness to resort to repressive measures against the protesters, it should not be excluded that Putin will make (another) show of cracking down on corruption in the coming months.

This would be in line with the populist turn the regime has undergone since his third term as president began, and it could split the protesters or take the wind out of their sails. A similar tactic was recently applied in neighbouring Belarus, where Lukashenka first moved to cancel the application of the so-called "parasite tax" and then proceeded with a mix of repression and smear tactics to discredit the protests. Too often in the past commentators have oracled the end of the Putin, but they have been proven wrong and in as many times. The Putin regime has shown it can adapt to new challenges. 

What the youth protests have failed to do so far 

It has to be stated that Russian youth coming out and protesting has caught some observers by surprise. Many questions remain, are these youths self-organising, are they leading or following calls to protest? Are they just letting off steam by giving voice to their grievances? Honestly, at this point we don't know and the situation in Moscow or St Petersburg may not be the same as in Vladivostok. 

Can we identify a specific youth cause around which young people are rallying? There have been many reports and videos on social media showing youths chanting slogans against Putin, but simultaneously no common platform has been issued. True, anti-corruption is a broad enough theme, but it is also vague and local conditions can lead to specific grievances

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12 June: a protest participant holds a placard "Corruption should become unseemly" at a rally in St Petersburg. (c) NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.So far, the emphasis on youth taking to the streets in high numbers has masked the lower participation of older age-groups in the protests. Can Russia’s youth find common cause with its older citizens? A widely voiced grievance according to young interlocutors was that there is a lack of upward social mobility. Yet, such sentiments could impede inter-generational solidarity.

Insofar as the protests are linked to a presidential campaign and the upcoming elections, observers will see in them a momentum building for Navalny. But will the young protesters go out and vote in 2018, and if they do, will it be for Navalny? After all, at this moment he is in fact the anti-establishment candidate, but what if other candidates appear? In any case, the youthful protest vote by itself will not swing the election, even if Navalny is permitted to run. 

Ultimately, at this point the case for seeing a generational rebellion in Russia is shaky. Though youth can play a vanguard role, their protest needs to resonate broader within society. Parents and teachers will most likely as before try to reign in their children. Despite the massive arrests, both in March and now in June, the protests have not provoked any wider outrage leading to inter-generational mobilisation.

For observers of student politics, disproportionate police violence represents a classic example of how youth protest can serve as catalyst to galvanise broader segments of a society. In the early morning hours of 30 November 2013 in Kyiv, students were brutally beaten by Ukrainian riot police. As a result, Ukrainians came out in indignation at police violence, a catalysing event in what would become the Revolution of Dignity. We have yet to see this happen in Russia.

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