The Russian population is in the Western media often portrayed as a political apatethic people, drinking the Kremlin’s Kool-Aid. Last week I was skipping through ‘ De Groene Amsterdammer’ when I stumbled upon a piece on political activism in Russia. A high school teacher commented that the Russian youth idolizes Putin because they are, over all, less politically engaged compared to the Russian youth at the start of the nineties. In this blog post, I would like to explore the state of affairs on political engagement of the Russian youth and point out that political activism has not so much decreased as shifted to virtual spaces.
Russian youth has always been regarded an extraordinarily important age group for the Soviet Union, they are the ‘ builders of tomorrow’. With this hope, anxiety about failing to realize this vision co-existed. With the fall of the USSR in 1991, new-born country Russia had reasonable grounds for worry. Professor of Political Science Douglas W. Blum put forward the “ lack of any cohesive national identity”: no replacement has been offered for the all-encompassing Soviet communist ideology under Yeltsin. This clashes with the individualism that persisted among the younger generation (Blum). Furthermore, a 2002 survey exposed a tendency for the Russian youth scene to withhold participating in social or formal organizations (Polozheniye). A Unesco 2006 survey showed that 57 percent of youth voted in parliamentary elections and 63 percent in the age groups 18-29 stated not to be interested in politics (Agranovich 88).
The Kremlin under Putin’s rule finally picked up on this cue and decided to put the socialization of youth under governmental control. With this, the youth democratic anti-fascist movement Nashi was born. It declared itself to be “democratic, anti-fascist, anti-oligarchic, anti-capitaltistic and anti-liberal”. Nashi’s birth was roused by political instability in 2005 evoked by the series of “ Color Revolutions” in post-Soviet states (Krivonos 45). In these revolutions, young people played a pivotal leading part. This realized another fear of the Russian state, namely “creeping radicalization” (Blum 97). The Nashi youth movement is often cited in academic and public discourse as a “ Putin-era technology project” (Heller 2). During Nashi’s existence, it was largely thought of as a “cog in the state machinery” rather than genuinely politically engaged youth (Krivonos 46). However, PhD-candidate Daria Krivonos postulated that within Nashi, there also existed a space for young people to construct their of definitions and justifications of their state-managed political activism. It created ground for personal growth and self-realization. Compared to the Soviet notion of youth being an object of state policies that should be “brought up, moralized and guided”, I think they already came a long way in political engagement (Krivonos 45).
Another channel for political engagement is of course, the internet. Russian blogger and Internet activist Marina Litvinovich stated: since people engage in blogging and social networking, joining party politics is nowadays not necessary anymore (Machleder and Asmolov 5). Internet scholar William Dutton invented the term “ The Fifth Estate” which arose from the internet: here, participating individuals would be able to challenge and influence the power of institutional authority. In turn, these networked individuals create their own institutions as well as its capacity to bring about social change (Machleder and Asmolov 2). This potential of social media for facilitating and empowering social movements has been realized in the form of the “ White Revolution” or “ Facebook revolution” from 2011-2012 which was reaction to the fraudulent Russian parliamentary elections of 2011. Still, Anna Kluyeva, assistant professor of public relations in the digital media studies program, asserts caution in stating that the Internet and social media effectively create a fully functioning public sphere, in the Russian context. This is because the government asserts growing control over the online public spaces in Russia, monopolizing it for their own political agenda and pushing laws regulating online activity (Kluyeva 4663).
This is quite the buzz kill for the future of the engagement of Russian youth in politics, however a 2014 study displayed a wide chasm between the old and the young Russians regarding having an uncensored internet. This is 80 percent among Russians 18 to 29 years old versus 44 percent in Russians over 50. This gap is the widest of any country surveyed. Time magazine interpreted this “censorship gap” to be a sign in Russian public opinion in the longer run (Nicks). In my view, the Fifth State will realize itself fully over time after all, and with that, the Russian populace would be able to pass on that Kool-Aid after all.
Agranovich, Mark, et al. “Youth development report. Conditions of Russian youth.” (2006).
Asmolov G., Russia: Leading Activist Blogger on How Internet Changes Politics, Global Voices Online, http://globalvoicesonline. org/2010/11/30/russia-leading- activist-blogger-on-how-Internet- changes-politics/
According to one survey, as of 2002 only 2.7 percent of those aged 14-30 were directly involved in youth NGOs. Polozheniye molodezhi v Rossii: Analytichesky doklad (Moscow: Masmir, 2005): 100, http://stat.edu.ru
Blum, Douglas W. “Russian youth policy: Shaping the nation-state’s future.” SAIS Review of International Affairs 26.2 (2006): 95-108.
Heller, Regina. “Russia’s ‘Nashi’Youth Movement: The Rise and Fall of a Putin-Era Political Technology Project.’.” Russian Analytical Digest 50.2 (2008).
Klyueva, Anna. “Taming Online Political Engagement in Russia: Disempowered Publics, Empowered State and Challenges of the Fully Functioning Society.” International Journal of Communication 10 (2016): 20.
Krivonos, Daria. “State-managed Youth Participation in Russia: The National, Collective and Personal in Nashi Activists’ Narratives.” Anthropology of East Europe Review 33.1 (2015): 44-58.
Machleder, Josh, and Gregory Asmolov. “Social Change and the Russian Network Society.” Internews Center for Innovation and Learning (2011).
Nicks, Denver. “Russia’s Youth Want Internet Freedom, Widening “ Censorship Gap” “ Time Magazine, 19 Mar. 2014, http://time.com/29255/russias-youth-want-internet-freedom-widening-censorship-gap/. Accessed 13 November 2016.