Vladimir Milov

Expert of Free Russia Foundation, Russian opposition politician, publicist, economist and energy expert

Olga Khvostunova

Free Russia Foundation’s fellow

Russian Youth: A Look Inside the “Black Box”

The 2017 protests across Russia surprised many observers both inside and outside the country—no one quite expected to see so many young people, including high school students, taking to the streets to express dissatisfaction with the current political leadership.

For years, young Russians were criticized for political apathy, conformism, and proneness to trade freedoms and rights for careers and consumerism. Last year, as a new crop of Russian voters came of age in time for Vladimir Putin’s re-election for his fourth presidential term, numerous media outlets across the globe called them the “Putin generation.” Still, the 2017 protest sentiment that seeped into 2018 was a crucial political phenomenon: this series of protests highlighted the complexity and diversity of the Russian youth—the social group that over the last years has been misunderstood or overlooked by both the Kremlin and independent observers. This fact puts young people at the center of political discussions with regards to Russia’s future and raises a plethora of critical questions. What is actually going with the young Russians? What are their values, attitudes, beliefs, and how are they shaped? Are these youngsters, in fact, disinterested in politics and loyal to the regime, as has been pointed out so many times before, or have they become aware of the regime’s flaws and begun to look for opportunities to overcome them?

This report is an attempt to look inside the proverbial “black box” that Russian youth (formally defined here as the group aged 17-25 in 2019) turned out to be to many observers. The report taps into two different approaches to studying youth—the traditional generational approach and the so-called “solidarities” approach, which allows for a deeper understanding of the youth’s subcultural differences and behavior strategies. A combination of different approaches underscores the fact that diverse, sometimes opposing groups co-exist under a broad term of “Russian youth.” To address this issue and provide a more comprehensive and nuanced picture of the future generations of Russians, this report dissects the following aspects of the new phenomenon: sociological characteristics of the Russian youth and their key attitudes (as shown by various national polls); the way they differ from or match those of their counterparts in several CIS countries (particularly, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan); the Kremlin’s youth policy and the efficiency of the pro-government youth organizations within a larger context of the Putin regime’s strategy.

The analysis conducted in this report led us to several important conclusions: 1) the phenomenon of Russian youth is understudied, complex, and laced with internal cultural, subcultural, and value-based conflicts that should not be underestimated and must be researched in further detail; 2) the notions of political apathy, conformism and cynicism among Russian youth are often not rooted in reality, as many youngsters tend to mistrust existing political infrastructure and prefer to organize on a grassroots level and online to solve small, pragmatic issues (this comes as a global trend, as young people in the West also grow increasingly disappointed with traditional forms of political participation); 3) Russian youth’s access to global internet and social networks exposes them to a much more diverse and rich information space (the space that the Kremlin has not been able to fully control), which inevitably shapes a different set of attitudes and beliefs among young people compared to older generations of Russians; 4) despite early success in engaging and mobilizing the youth, the Kremlin’s youth policy has failed on crucial points of consistency and strategic vision for the future as it is largely driven by the regime’s goal of its own survival. Based on this analysis, the report also offers some recommendations for Russia experts, media and policymakers.

Going forward, the analysis conducted in this report yields cautious optimism: as younger generations of Russians will begin to take over the country’s labor market and political force, their vision of the world—shaped by digital culture and more diverse information as well as by different experiences—will diffuse current tensions and create opportunities for opening up of the country.

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