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Russia's latest protests are no child’s play

They’ve been dismissed as a “teenage rebellion”, but the protests that shook Russia recently reveal how the country’s youth is slipping through the state’s fingers. Русский

During a protest in Tomsk on 26 March, the fifth-grader Gleb Tokmakov publicly proposed reforms to Russia’s political system. Image still via YouTube. Some rights reserved.Russia's anti-corruption demonstrations on 26 March, which took place in over 80 towns across the country, have already been described as a “teenage protest”. This was the polite option, by the way: some referred to it as the “zit revolution”. Russian officialdom is still maintaining its stunned silence, pretending as if nothing happened last Sunday — or at least, nothing more than the Break in Spring festival, an initiative of the Moscow Mayor’s Office. Meanwhile, the most sophisticated of Russia’s state propagandists have already (and happily) taken up this simplistic image of events. 

For the propagandists, the focus on teenagers is an exceptionally convenient interpretation. It allows them to develop a wealth of possible “correct” interpretations for what happened on Sunday. The image of a crowd of unintelligent, gullible children can solve many problems. From discrediting protest leader Alexei Navalny (a popular Russian tabloid has already compared him to Father Gapon, a leader of the ill-fated Russian revolution of 1905; and he’s been called a paedophile live on state radio station) to distorting the essence of the protests themselves.

Russia’s public officials have reason to be concerned about another “lost generation”. Russia’s schoolchildren really are slipping through the state’s fingers 

“They’re just kids!” so it goes. Just kids who are fed up with the dull monotony of life, and who have no business being interested neither in politics nor corruption. It’s just that no one’s “working” with them — this is why they head out onto the streets and squares, yielding to the call of “provocateurs”. It’s almost a latter-day Pied Piper.

Concerns about “not working properly with children” or the “absence of a proper youth policy” have al been raised anew. This is understandable, there’s an opportunity to carve out budgets for “proper youth policy”. And there’s a wide spectrum of participants in the race for a slice of that hypothetical pie — from pro-Kremlin political scientist Sergey Markov to Kristina Potupchik, former press secretary of the Nashi patriotic youth movement and member of Russia’s Civic Chamber. Indeed, Potupchik exhibits a desperate liberalism, lashing out at radical conservatives like Vitaly Milonov, Yelena Mizulina and online crusaders against “teenage suicide groups”, whom she blames for the fact that young people and teenagers attended protests. All the while, she recalls the good old days of the mid-2000s, when Nashi was at its prime.

“Whether it’s members of Nashi, or those teenagers who walked down [Moscow’s] Tverskaya Street, all these young people stood up for their futures and a comfortable life, lived by clear, understandable rules. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Navalny or [pro-Kremlin youth leader] Yakemenko who calls them out on the street. Because nobody else is, right? There’s no point criticising them. We need to listen to them and work with them, and not simply sweep the problem under the carpet,” writes Potupchik on The Question. Potupchik thus suggests (simply and without trying to force her opinion) that there was no difference between members of a youth organisation founded by the Kremlin to oppose the “unnatural alliance of liberals and fascists, united by their personal hatred of Vladimir Putin” and whose protests were sponsored by the Russian state budget, and people who took a deliberate risk in publicly protesting corruption at the highest echelons of Russia’s government.

Growing up, rising up

But let’s try to deal with the intricacies of the protests. First, the “teenage rebellion” is a myth. Yes, Sunday’s protesters were on average much younger — that’s especially clear if you compare the events of 26 March to last month’s march in honour of assassinated opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, the last major opposition protest in Moscow. Schoolchildren were also present at the Nemtsov march, but they were by no means in the majority. Of the 1,500 people detained then by the police in Moscow on Sunday, there were only a little over 40 protesters under the age of 18 — approximately four percent of the total. Based on my personal recollections of last weekend’s events, I’d risk guessing that the proportion was roughly the same. The majority of the protesters in Moscow were young people of student age, hardly schoolchildren. Those who witnessed the demonstrations in St Petersburg, Tomsk and other large cities say much the same.

You can’t get away with calling the people who came out on Sunday “easily led”. They understood perfectly well what they were opposing 

This point is important, because it destroys the entire chain of reasoning which has already begun to form around the “new protest generation”. You can’t get away with calling the people who came out on Sunday “easily led”. The slogans they chanted show that the attendees understood perfectly well what they were opposing, and who they’d come up against. “Today Dimon [Medvedev], tomorrow Vova [Putin]!” What more evidence do you need? 

“It doesn’t matter what party you’re for – you’re certainly against thieves!” reads this placard at a protest in Moscow, 26 March. Image still via Radio Svoboda / YouTube. Some rights reserved.Nevertheless, Russia’s public officials have reason to be concerned about another “lost generation”. Russia’s schoolchildren really are slipping through the state’s fingers. The state is trying to monopolise everything. It’s desperate to control people’s thoughts. It imprisons citizens for reposts on social networks, and beats them over the head with television propaganda with no less zeal than a police baton charge. It comes out with absurd bans on activity on the internet. It comes into schools with “lessons on patriotism”, the Ministry of Defence’s Youth Army movement and plans to storm an exact copy of the Reichstag. The last one isn’t a joke. This idea belongs to Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Minister of Defence. An exact replica of the Reichstag is already under construction.

The state is trying to instill a perfumed image of Russia’s past, to enforce a ban on criticising any figures of authority and it only wants to penetrate childrens’ minds even further. Olga Vasilyeva, the new Minister of Education, has already given several interviews about how the state needs to expand its range of instruments for educating children about patriotism and morality.

This generation has their own celebrities — video-bloggers with a million subscribers, whom even our intellectuals can’t figure out 

But all these measures will miss their target. The television, with its endless propaganda shows, just sails straight past children — they simply don’t watch it. Propaganda works, it’s effective, the president is, in fact, popular, and foreign policy adventures are met with unexplainable adoration, but all of this is for adults only. In the world of, let’s be honest, Soviet people, practices of information consumption have remained at the level of the early 1990s, if not the late 1970s. But the attempt to inculcate Soviet methods of education into Russian everyday life is, all the same, destined to fail. All this officious, jingoistic patriotism, forced on people by the state, together with militarisation of public consciousness can only (and seemingly does) provoke hatred and disgust.

The kids are alright  

The new generation — the generation that’s grown up under Putin — has their own world. They’ve never lived without the internet. They’re reprimanded for never having experienced or seen real problems — the end of perestroika and the early 1990s. This generation’s peers in their 40s rebuke them for this, without even noticing that this is the discourse of the old women who sit outside apartment blocks, ready to see a “prostitute” in every girl who walks past in a short skirt. Sure, this generation didn’t experience the 1990s. But they shouldn’t have to take a terrible past as their landmark, they want a normal future.

This generation has their own celebrities — video-bloggers with a million subscribers, whom even our intellectuals can’t figure out. They have their own groups on VKontakte, the Russian social networking site. They have their own humour, their own language. I don’t want to appear as if I understand this strange world (I’m more at home on Facebook for the semi-retired), I’m just stating a fact. Sometimes adults, who are concerned with patriotic education and saving kids who “stray off track”, try to enter this world, and they do so with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. Recent hysteria over online “suicide groups” is evidence enough of this. But at the same time, by entering this teenage world, adults just make the gap between these respective universes even greater. Clearly, Russia’s adults have gone astray in trying to remake their children’s mysterious world according to their ideas of how it should be. 

A school playground named after Dmitry Medvedev in Vladivostok. Alexey Navalny’s investigation into the wealth amassed by Russia’s prime minister was a major catalyst for the recent protests. Photo CC-by-2.0: cea+ / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Of course, those people who assert that the state has scared the younger generation off with radical conservative initiatives from MPs such as Vitaly Milonov and Elena Mizulina are right. The problem is, however, that Milonov and Mizulina are not from Mars, and nor are they agents of the US State Department, but the very essence of the Russian state — the state itself. And this is a state that, in consciously choosing to step back into the past, has nothing to offer its youth apart from a patriotism limited to loyal applause and militarised youth groups, which are busy preparing “invalids and veterans of future overseas wars”. That said, they don’t all have to serve overseas. 

This is a consciously chosen ideology, and one that all state institutions are diligently working on. The all-too prominent Mizulina and Milonov are just slightly more radical in their public statements than the rest, that’s all. The state’s ideological field is bare but for a picture of Soviet man that’s been painted in the red, white and blue of the Russian tricolour. And this ideology is doubly false, because it’s not the idealists who are asking people to love this country and, if needs be, die for it, but corrupt officials and thieves with their yachts, collections of trainers, palaces and villas. To force children to consume all of this is far from easy, no matter how much money you assign to “proper youth policy”.

This is a state that has nothing to offer its youth apart from a patriotism limited to loyal applause and militarised youth groups 

The biggest surprise, though, is that children aren’t meeting the propagandists’ hopes. It seems they aren’t idiots to be manipulated. Take the now infamous conversation in a rural school in Bryansk between pupils and the principal, the rebellion of 10th graders in Samara region after they refused to give their teachers money for school repairs without a receipt (this is how the fight against corruption really looks), and, of course, those teenagers who came out into the streets on Sunday — they came out against lies and against injustice. Sure, they’re not yet the majority of the protesters. But they’ll come out on the streets again.

One practical thought to finish: Russian intellectuals love to hold surprisingly long debates on matters that aren’t worth debating. One of their time-honoured classics (which can start discussions that last for up to two weeks) is whether it’s right to beat your children. Just so it’s clear, it’s not. And the Russian state, which sent riot police to deal with Moscow teenagers on Sunday without a second thought, will have another opportunity to confirm this principle for itself. Grudges are felt more keenly at that age, and it’s hard to forget them. And they won’t, you’ll see.

 


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