Why is the Russian government struggling to connect with young people? Does Moscow have anything positive to offer to win over youngsters or is repression the only option? Funding and attention is offered to those who conform, while young Russians who think more critically face bans and arrests. By continuing to rely on trolls and showing lack of creativity in marketing themselves online, the government does not appear ready to corner the market of young internet users, says Adam Tarasewicz.
Journalists of student journal Doxa
by Adam Tarasewicz
Russians young and old criticised the police raid of Doxa’s offices and the arrest of their four editors on 14 April, in what was a twofold repression on journalists and young Russians. The newspaper, founded by students at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics in 2017, published a statement denying ‘inciting minors to participate in illegal activities’ in a video posted (and subsequently taken down) in January this year.
As well as writing about the academic environment in Russia, Doxa publishes investigations, and defends students’ rights in collaboration with human rights organisations. After criticising Russian State Social University Rector Natalia Pochinok for campaigning for the Moscow City Duma, the Higher School of Economics revoked their student organisation status in 2019.
Young people responded with a human chain of solidarity outside court, while a solidarity statement signed by over 250 academics from around the world highlighted the absurdity that students need protecting from Doxa, a group made essentially of their peers. ‘Only one who uses education to manufacture obedience outlaws critical thinking as self-harm’, the statement concluded.
What have the authorities to offer?
The case of Doxa shows the contradiction in the argument, often portrayed in Russian State media, that young Russians are manipulated and persuaded into joining political protests. As Anna Nabibaidze writes in The Article, the regime simply does not listen to young people. So it is not so much the opposition winning their hearts and minds, as the government who is losing them.
Editors of Doxa in court
Why is the Russian government struggling to connect with young people? Does Moscow have anything positive to offer to win over youngsters or is repression the only option? Seemingly, the government is still attached to its heritage of obligatory youth movements and patriotic education. Funding and attention are offered to those who conform, while young Russians who think more critically face bans and arrests. By continuing to rely on trolls and showing lack of creativity in marketing themselves online, the government does not appear ready to corner the market of young internet users.
Recent polling has revealed that Russia’s youth is largely apolitical, as they believe that politics has little relevance in their lives. Nevertheless, 42% of respondents say they trust the institution of the president as a ‘national leader’. At the same time opinion pollster Levada Centre data found that from the end of 2019 to 2020 the percentage of young Russians willing to vote for Vladimir Putin had fallen from 36% to 20%.
Young Russians in the media
Commentators have noted a tendency in the press to infantilise young Russians. When TV presenters such as Dmitriy Kiselyov argue that minors are ‘manipulated’ by ‘political paedophiles’ of the opposition, he suggests ‘that they could not possibly take to the streets without someone else’s prompting’, says Anastasia Starchenko for New Eastern Europe. On the other hand, they vastly exaggerate the participation of youngsters in the protest movement, whereas, in reality, only 4% of protesters at pro-Navalny demonstrations on 23 January 2021 were minors.
This film, telling youngsters how to behave at political meetings, became popular during the Navalny protests
The hypocrisy of official politics, says political scientist Margarita Zavadskaya in a story on the politicisation of young Russians, is laid bare when the government is happy for youths to form Youth Guard battalions ‘to destroy the myth that the opposition controls the street’.
According to Zavadskaya it is inaccurate to describe modern youth as a wholly progressive generation, but educated urban youth these days consider it unfashionable to not engage politically. Young Russians have taken to the streets for issues ranging from Navalny to pension reform.
Moulding the youth: Nashi
In the latter half of Putin’s first decade in power, the Nashi were the headline-grabbing face of Putin’s support base among young Russians. The self-described anti-fascist organisation funded by the government drew comparisons to the Komsomol, the Soviet youth movement.
Putin used to pay a lot of attention to the Nashisty
Membership could be a path to benefits ranging from free cinema tickets to internships at major state companies. In 2005, Yulia Gorodnicheva, a student from Tula, became a member of the Public Chamber, helped, she thought, by the fact she met President Putin through a Nashi summer camp.
A visit of The Guardian to the 2008 Nashi summer camp, a hormone-fuelled melange of propaganda posters and opportunities for flirtation, showed the fun side of the group, as well as their optimism. One member from Vladimir predicted that Russia would become a top 3 economy, and by 2020, it would be a destination of emigration from the West.
Ten years later, in contrast, a 2019 poll by the Levada Centre found that 53% of 18-24-year-olds showed a desire to emigrate from Russia, most frequently citing a craving for a decent future abroad, and escape from the bleak economic situation.
The government helped mobilise the Nashi support but sometimes their excessive actions caused discontent. In 2007 Nashi members laid siege to the Estonian embassy and blocked cars on the Estonian border, in protests over the exhuming and reburying of Soviet soldiers. Opposition party Yabloko called for a legal investigation over whether their actions incited ethnic hatred.
Later in the same year, the Nashi were invited to join vigilante groups by the Central Internal Affairs Directorate of the capital prior to opposition rallies. Under Moscow law, this gave them the right to use physical force to ‘demand that citizens observe public order’. In 2012, in the wake of mass protests in Moscow, Nashi was disbanded.
In 2006 the Nashi movement organised big demonstrations in Moscow.
Yunarmia and Victory Day
Four years later the Defence Ministry set up the patriotic movement ‘Yunarmia’. Once again, the government returned to the same methods, with an extra militaristic focus. According to their website Yunarmia now has around 803,000 members. It is promoted as an equivalent to the Boy Scouts but criticised as another iteration of the Komsomol, aimed at breeding loyalty just like Nashi did.
Much like the ‘Pobeda’ TV channel, it is part of a wave promoting patriotic and militaristic values in Putin’s fourth term. Launched in 2019, ‘Pobeda’ (Victory), shows 24/7 programming on the subject of World War Two.
Yunarmia (The Young Army) claims 800,000 participants
‘The militarisation of childhood is banned by the [United Nations] Convention,’ argues Valentina Grebenik, Executive Secretary of the critical Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, that was founded during the Chechen wars. She is appalled, telling The Moscow Times that nostalgia for the Komsomol generates its popular support among adults.
When The Calvert Journal asked how youth responds to society’s militarisation, Sergei Lapenkov, one of the founders of the Immortal Regiment parade, argued that young people are tired of ‘myths’ surrounding war memory. During the Immortal Regiment on Victory Day (9 May), citizens march through the streets with photographs of their veteran relatives, often accompanied by wartime songs. Originally a grass roots event, the authorities some years ago took over the parade, with Putin marching in front with a picture of his uncle who died during the war. In 2020, due to corona, the parade was held online only which Lapenkov claimed created a more personal experience.
This personal remembrance appears to strike a chord with young Russians. One 25-year-old interviewee told of his ‘totally neutral’ feelings towards Victory Day, but how his plans are to spend his day helping his grandmother, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad.
2019: pop culture and cynicism
But in front of a shrewder and more suspicious internet generation, the government fails to offer young Russians a positive way to engage. Resorting to distraction tactics and internet restrictions, their attempts to adopt pop culture feel cynical.
On 3 August 2019, while 828 protesters against election fraud were arrested in Moscow, including 81 believed to be minors, musicians became the focal point of the political debate as Moscow suddenly hosted a ‘Shashlik Fest’ in Gorky Park. Reportedly more than 300,000 people attended, none of them experienced the blocking of mobile phones that the (relatively few) protesters around the corner encountered.
Many youngsters took part in demonstrations against the curbing of internet in 2017
After the tactic was used a second time at a ‘Meet and Beat’ festival on 10 August, popular act Egor Kreed posted harsh criticism of law enforcement actions against the demonstrators, as a girl was beaten up by the police. The artists IC3PEAK and Face followed through on pledges to perform at the protests.
The same year a scandal erupted when rappers Timati and Guf performed the song ‘Moscow’, an adulation of Mayor Sobyanin who, according to them, changed their capital into a showcase of international standing. But youngsters online claimed the two performers were paid by the government and the song’s lyrics ‘I don’t go to rallies and don’t bullshit’ did not go down well. In two days, the music video on YouTube was disliked over 1 million times and reached the top 30 of worldwide most disliked videos.
TikTok and 2021
A significant change since 2019 took place with the growth of the video sharing app TikTok. Lyubava Zaytseva told BBC Russia that its recent success means people who never would have done so in the past started talking about politics. Politics became trending.
So the authorities started to act, using the old narrative that youngsters are being tricked into street actions. They began to squeeze the free space for social media. In early April, the Russian court fined TikTok 2.5 million roubles (around $32,000) for failing to remove content they deemed to encourage minors to go to protests in Moscow.
Ways of punishing young users have even been expanded to a new trend of public apologies. Such was the case for Pskov resident Yekaterina Belyaeva, who posted a TikTok of her screaming at cops from her car, and joking about the FSB, alluding to the poisoning of Navalny. She was drawn up for ‘disrespect for the authorities’ and forced to apologise on camera. The video was later spread on social media. A Rostov teenager who made comments about security services online even had his confession and apology aired on Russia-1 show – 60 minutes.
Researcher and anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova told the BBC that these confessions are meant to damage the perception of protesters. While a viewer might back a staunch oppositionist, they are less likely to support someone who makes a retraction on camera and says they were wrong.
The office of Doxa after the police raided the premises (picture Doxa)
The authorities also tried to use TikTok to attract young voters. Last year, The Moscow Times reported how a growing army of troll accounts on the app, with default usernames and no profile pictures, started spreading pro-Putin messages in comments sections. But TikTok’s largely young internet-savvy audience, more internationally minded and alert to disinformation, started immediately to ridicule users, being dubbed ‘anti-bodies’.
It is doubtful if adopting TikTok into the government strategy is an interesting option for the authorities. In December, Meduza reported plans to use TikTok to target young voters in this year’s election, as was done in the successful campaign of Perm Territory interim governor Dmitry Makhonin.
Yet, a political strategist told Meduza that the campaign hardly improved Makhonin’s performance, arguing that the effect on the election was a failure, although there was moderate viewer engagement. Official hashtags for the ‘Developing the Kama Region’ campaign largely became lost in typical TikTok content.
Relating to ‘Creative Thinkers’
In the meantime, the government tries to win over young careerists while focusing on the right type of talented children, says Nikolai Petrov of political think tank Chatham House.
Selected youngsters at Sirius develop gifts in children
On the one hand, the Sirius Educational Centre uses Olympic infrastructure and leading tutors to develop gifted children in the arts, sports, and natural sciences, whilst on the other, the government enacts laws on ‘educational activity’.
These laws force academics and tutors to coordinate all activities that can be considered ‘educational’ with the state, which makes it harder to criticise the authorities and work independently. Scientists vehemently protested against the law, that they consider a threat to academic and pedagogical freedom. Sergei Popov, a leading researcher at Moscow State University, told Meduza that the government obviously tries to restrict free education.
In schools, patriotic education aims to teach morality as early as possible. To this end, in January 2021, the government launched the ‘Navigators of Childhood’ scheme, meant to recruit educational advisors for schools through a nationwide competition.
The plans attracted further attention after the protests in support of Navalny. According to Elena Kouzova, the Deputy Minister of Education in Chelyabinsk Region (one of the ten pilot areas), young candidates should be able to work with young people and relate to them using social media, building communication between the younger generations and adults.
However, writing for Crimea Realii, Nikolai Semyon views the appearance of ‘navigators’ in schools in the Crimean city of Sevastopol merely as ‘widening the dissemination of snitching networks’. Rather than listening to the feelings of young people, they are developing further methods of control. In the meantime, in Sevastopol new sports grounds sit empty, and one particular gymnasium cannot teach students Physics as they have no teacher.
Ratings of United Russia fell to 30% (source poller VTsIOM)
While young Russians’ support for United Russia wanes, ‘Navigators of Childhood’ and Komsomol stand-ins such as Yunarmia, find most support with those nostalgic for a past that is unfamiliar to today’s youth. These policies are no longer supported by the economic optimism of the early-Putin era, and show a commitment to old methods which only shut off avenues to relate to the TikTok generation.
The government’s actions, while aimed at the youth, appear more concerned with allaying an older generation’s fears by infantilising young protesters. All-the-while education is largely ignored or restricted while a young, engaged internet audience discuss genuine problems online.
The government incapacity to adapt to TikTok shows that their creativity is far more focused on shutting down discourse, demonstrated by the rise of the public apology. Little wonder then, why young Russians have been sceptical of United Russia’s presence on the app when they have made clear that communication is intended to be a one-way dictation.
Young Russians may not sway the vote share yet, but United Russia’s aim to surpass a constitutional majority in this year’s election already seems a lofty goal.