Russia’s Young Civic Activism: Lessons from the Moscow Protests | Wilson Center

Russia’s Young Civic Activism: Lessons from the Moscow Protests

Police confrontation on Tverskaya Street during the August protests. Source: Shutterstock.com

BY IRINA MEYER-OLIMPIEVA

A series of well-attended protests that took place in Moscow this summer are seen by many experts as part of the larger process of the awakening of Russian civil society. The protests started with demonstrations in support of the investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, arrested on trumped-up charges, then continued with rallies against state maneuvers preventing opposition candidates from running in the Moscow City Duma elections. Later on came more actions to demand the freeing of protesters arrested on bogus charges and even of nonprotesters who happened to be passing by.

The summer’s events in Moscow have two distinctive if somewhat contrary features. The first is the unprecedented brutality of the powers that be in dispersing the rallies and the harsh sentences dealt out to those arrested on clearly fabricated evidence. The second is the surprising response of the authorities, who have shown they can make concessions and even change court decisions in the face of a massive public outcry. Thus the Moscow protests send a mixed message to civil society, with the effect of both threatening and stimulating civic activism.

The lessons of the Moscow protests are particularly important for the political education of the young generation, which will eventually determine the future of civic activism in Russia. Russian youth continue to be a relatively unexamined part of Russian society, which has given rise to vastly different conceptions of their attitudes toward civic activism. Until recently, Russian youth were largely considered politically apathetic, supportive of the regime and disinclined to participate in public actions. Others think that public protests are experiencing a renascence and that the 2011–2012 protests in particular launched the politicization of Russian youth. Though monitoring of public protests indicates that the share of youth in public protests has not changed much since 2011–2012, some recent instances, such as the solidarity of students from the Higher School of Economics in defense of the HSE student Egor Zhukov, who was arrested during the Moscow election protests, speak in support of this thesis.

Of the different youth cohorts, Generation Z, or people who were born and grew up during the presidency of Vladimir Putin, is of particular interest to political scientists. The generation of “puteens” (Economist) loudly announced itself in the 2017 anti-corruption protests organized by Alexei Navalny, which rapidly acquired the moniker “the schoolchildren protests.” The wide participation of high school and university students in anti-corruption campaigns suggests that they are less tolerant of corruption than the older generation and that outrage with corruption could ignite increased political participation among this age cohort.

Focus groups involving university students and convened by the nongovernmental Centre for Independent Social Research in three Russian regions in the spring of 2019 revealed, however, that the younger generation is not so much different from the older, post-Soviet generation in its attitudes toward corruption. Young people are well aware of the scale and systemic character of corruption in Russia and seem unsurprised by the outcomes of the Navalny investigations (“I do not think it was a news for anyone”). They completely distrust the state and are not fooled by the recent burst of arrests of high-ranking state officials, seeing them as a the sign of an “internal squabble” at the political top rather than a step toward reining in corruption. Even as they condemn corruption as the cause of the most pressing problems Russia faces domestically, young people tolerate it as a convenient tool for smoothing over life’s everyday difficulties.

Despite their outrage over high-level corruption, young people do not believe in the efficacy of public protests as a way to counter the impunity of corrupt officials, nor do they see that protests in Russia could lead to meaningful change. The state ignores the demands of the public, while television and other official media suppress information about the protests. According to the focus groups participants, “There is no use for protests because there is no answer from the state” and “What is the point of protesting if it does not reach the authorities?”

Another reason for young people’s civic apathy is fear. Students feel growing political pressure when any public activity, not necessarily directed against the government, “even some small gatherings, circles,... whether they are left or right,” is prosecuted by law enforcement agencies. Young people are not ready to take on the greater risk of participating in public actions until they see that protests lead to visible results.

At the same time, the focus groups brought to light a surprisingly high degree of concern among young people over political issues and dissatisfaction with state-society relations. When asked about the most urgent problems facing Russia, respondents identified political problems as second most important, after economic problems, with “lack of dialogue between the people and authorities” indicated by almost all focus groups. According to participants, the government “does not hear the population,” “does not respect the people,” “does not even notice the people.” In some groups the problem of disrespect for the people was viewed as more important than the problem of corruption. 

The Moscow protests hold both positive and negative lessons for young people. They suggest that protesters can achieve some degree of success in pressing the authorities but also that state repression is growing. Time will tell which lesson youth will learn better. In the meantime, the moods of young people remain somewhat antithetical. While they are pragmatic, even cynical, about corruption, they understand it cannot be defeated “without changing the whole system,” and they do not trust the state, relying only on themselves. They are politically passive, but their outrage with the problems faced by the country, including authorities’ disrespect for citizens, is mounting. They are afraid of protesting and are downright paranoid about the possibility of revolution, but they are ready to join public protests “if other people start to fight” and if the fight is likely to produce visible results. In the words of the young people themselves, for them to become active it is necessary that “outrage with corruption overcome the fear of punishment for participating in protests.”

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Irina Meyer-Olimpieva works at the Center for Independent Social Research, St. Petersburg, Russia as a senior researcher and the Head of the Research Department “Social Studies of the Economy”.
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