Many young people came to the protest rallies all around Russia on June 12. There is an increasingly urgent need to understand: what is it that the “Putin Generation” (those who are now 17-20 years old) are protesting against? What kind of country would they like to live in, what kind of future would they like to have? And how many are there who want change?
In order to answer these questions sociologist, Denis Volkov has analyzed research from the Levada Center.
A rather large “minority”
It was repeatedly noted that the present-day Russian youth, like the youth of previous generations, is less interested in politics than their elders. In general, young people watch political TV shows significantly less often, they are less involved in political parties and social organizations activities, and they are less active as voters. However, being used to operating with big numbers, we tend to forget how important minorities can sometimes be.
Sometimes a ”minority” might mean up to a third of the population. For instance, no more than 10% of young people discuss political issues with friends, though 25% would be willing to be engaged in politics, while about 33% do get directly involved in all kinds of social and philanthropic initiatives. Still, they are a minority among young people, and their share is even smaller than that among other age cohorts. However, these numbers stand for a very large group of people. Therefore, when we refer to the youth and the less active political group, we should keep in mind that in numerical terms they are not that few. Besides, politically active people (of all ages, including the youth) tend to concentrate in large urban areas. That means that their share is significantly higher there.
More tolerant, less dependent
It is well known that young people tend to watch significantly less Russian TV, and therefore a noteworthy number of youths remain beyond the reach of the national TV channels’ direct propaganda brainwashing. Besides, young people are immune to the language of propaganda carried over from the “Cold War” rhetoric and to the narratives designed to provoke nostalgic feelings about the USSR.
They don’t care much about these narratives, don’t know much of them, and do not fully understand their messages. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the youth are completely impervious to any kind of propaganda. But most of what is broadcasted is ignored by this group.
The younger generation has had more exposure to and more interaction with other cultures and different points of view (though here they match and even slightly yield to the 25-39 years old counterpart, but are way ahead of those older than 40.) They travel overseas more often (24% versus 21% in general, during the past five years); they tend to speak foreign languages more than the rest of the nation (25% versus 15%.) Unlike adults, the youth shows more tolerance toward migrants from the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia, gay people (the level of tolerance toward the latter goes from 40% to 50% – although it is not a majority, it still is a significant increase).
Young people, particularly in large cities, feel that they are less dependent on the government and from its pressure. For example, so far there is no practice of the so-called “disciplinary meetings” or dismissals for having “wrong” political ideas in the elite universities of Moscow.
Students act bravely: convinced that they are not going to be dismissed, they not only go to political rallies, but they also dare to answer reporters’ questions while being recorded on video. According to polls, young people are less inclined to feel the need for government support (only 27% among them say that they need government support, while among their elder cohorts 70% think so.) However, at this stage these young people can count on their parents’ support. The question is how much their attitude will change once they become adults.
As a result, there are youth who are less dependent on the government, and who feel less pressure from the authorities. Moreover, they have skewed judgment of the possible consequences of their encounters with government officials, including police at a rally. Therefore, they are less afraid of violating written and unwritten rules and regulations.
Young people are not the most protest-prone population group by far. In general, they are happier with their lives, with more supporters of the status quo and existing political regime among them. Both the opinion polls and the share of young people among those who came to the protest rallies lately support this statement. The youth was a noticeable but not major component among the participants of the action against the war in Ukraine, the march in memory of Boris Nemtsov, and the rally against the so-called “renovations” in Moscow.
Young people are barely seen at the rallies of the so-called “cheated investors,” labor protests, strikes and marches involving physicians, schoolteachers, or long-distance truck drivers. This begs the question: why do rallies and marches of protest organized by Alexei Navalny bring out such large numbers of young people?
It is because from the very beginning, Navalny has used language appealing to the youth. Young people made up the bulk of his volunteer staff during the 2013 election campaign. The same year, young people came out to the State Duma demanding the release of Navalny. Footage of Navalny’s meetings with his supporters in various Russian cities reveal that majority of them are young people.
The older generation has always been displeased with Navalny: “he is too nationalist,” “he is not democratic enough,” “his position on Crimea is too vague,” and “his economic program is too populist.” However, young people, who essentially do not care about politics, do not consider these issues a priority. They make up the overwhelming majority of Navalny’s audience: again, opinion polls and the footage of his rallies confirm this. The large share of young people who joined pro-Navalny rallies on March 26 and June 12 can be explained with scale effect: the more famous Alexei Navalny becomes, the larger his rallies grow.
What makes Navalny so appealing to the youth? The answers are quite evident. First of all, he himself and his team are young people and they talk to the youth in the same language, using the same (and the only available) communication channels. Navalny is practically the only opposition politician who quite efficiently and regularly communicates with his supporters via his blog, YouTube, and meetings with electorate. He is young, modern, interesting, and a dynamic politician, particularly in comparison with the Russian establishment and the old democratic elite. This is why Navalny is the most popular politician among the pro-democracy youth. Finally, he focuses on simple but crucial issues: it is bad to lie, steal, and to be a hypocrite. Corruption and bribes are wrong. Navalny reinforces his words with pictures. It seems to be quite obvious. Many adults who are used to the proverbial sayings “this is the way it is” and “a whip can’t stand up to an axe,” might just smile upon these words. However, for young people, who still have at least some of their idealism, these words can cause an emotional uplift. In this regard, Navalny fills the gap in our political life. This is what makes him attractive.
They are the same as the rest of society
Regardless of everything proven about the youth thus far, the youth generation remains a part of the Russian society, not any other society. Therefore, no matter what kind of questions the Levada Center asks, the youths’ answers differ only slightly from those of an average Russian.
The biggest differences tend to be between the most opposed age groups: the youngest vs. the oldest.
The moods of the Russian youth can not be considered outside of the general context of the processes that affects all of Russian society: the state of the economy (a general assessment of the economic situation and expectations for the future), the rise or fall of the government’s popularity (as seen through the ratings of approval and trust). The worse the economic situation is, the less popular the government is, which leads to a higher chance of popular discontent, including that among the youth.
What is important to understand that the perception of the government is not a constant quantity – it keeps shifting with times. Additionally, the ideas of how the government should treat its citizens continues to gradually change as well.
Just a few years down the line, some of the things that were tolerated, that almost no one cared about, suddenly become unacceptable and turn into causes of public discontent.
This is what happened in 2011, when large cities suddenly refused to ignore electoral frauds. It happened again in 2017, when the so-called Moscow Renovation Program (a housing demolition project), which seemed attractive for a number of reasons, suddenly flared up serious protests. What used to be welcomed with open arms suddenly provoked total rejection. And young people with their idealistic worldview might be particularly sensitive toward this new understanding of what is acceptable/unacceptable in the interaction between public and the government.