Angry Young Russians?
In the next year’s presidential election in Russia, 18–34 year olds will constitute 30 percent of eligible voters. While Vladimir Putin pretends to keep his options open about running for re-election, many wonder how the young Russians who grew up entirely under his rule will vote in March 2018.
Is this new generation more democratic? Maybe not.
Young Russians are angry about social problems in the country and are prepared to protest for a solution, but at the same time they tend to have little interest in traditional politics. This year, opposition leader Alexey Navalny moved the younger generation to take part in mass anti-corruption protests across the country in March and June. On July 23, young Russians again stood on the frontline at a smaller demonstration in Moscow to challenge Internet censorship.
Younger Russians are certainly less susceptible to the regime’s propaganda as they inform themselves online, not through state-controlled television. They are more open, mobile, and tolerant of migrants and the LGBT community than those over 40 years old. According to recent polls by the independent Levada Center, this group is also more likely to speak a foreign language and travel often. At the same time, though, independent and state-related pollsters find that Russia’s youth is actually more conformist than the population in general.
In January, Levada reported that 64 percent of youth (defined as 18–24 years old) approved of the government, in contrast to 50 percent of the general population. Putin’s approval rating among them was 91 percent. The Kremlin-friendly Public Opinion Foundation published similar results in March, claiming that 69 percent of 17–34 year olds approve of the general direction of the country. Yet another poll from Russia’s Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM) shows that support for the ruling elite is higher among the young. The majority describe themselves as happy, according to the Higher School of Economics, and 48 percent prefer cautious tuning of the country’s existing structures to radical change.
Polls also describe this generation as being indifferent to political programs and society as a whole. Just 8 percent of students take an active interest in politics and 65 percent cannot define their political preferences. 41 percent of 18-30 year olds believe that patriotism is more expected among older people, and people in their 60s agree. Russians between the ages of 17 and 34 place high value on peace in the family, prosperity, and health but not personal freedom and independence.
So, it is not surprising that young Russians do not come out en masse to join rallies called by traditional regime opponents to defend political rights and freedoms. Nor that 36 percent of youth say they can join a protest as long as the issue is of importance to their family, and 16 percent say they have recently taken part in demonstrations. About 10 percent are ready to join protests according to Levada Center.
As corruption is the main concern for 66 percent of youngsters, it is no wonder they joined Navalny’s anti-corruption protests, inspired by his investigation on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Last Sunday’s demonstration in Moscow also brought together young Russians to defend freedom of speech on the Internet, their natural habitat.
Another trigger is politicization of the public sphere and education. After the Kremlin-friendly mass youth movement Nashi ceased to exist in 2013, the regime’s efforts at patriotic education moved to the schools. Talking to journalists during the Navalny protests, schoolkids complained about ideological indoctrination.
Navalny was able to mobilize young Russians because of his online popularity and, importantly, his failure to offer a more concrete political agenda that could scare off apolitical youth. At the same time, young Russians were more visible in these protests because the older opposition constituency had thinned down due to Navalny’s lack of political clarity and the threat of the police violence.
The different poll results illustrate an important phenomenon. On one hand, Russia’s youth is not political in terms of support of political parties, programs, or issues. There is no such tradition in the post-Soviet space as a whole, and the new generation is still part of Russia’s old social and political fabric.
At the same time, this new generation is frustrated about social problems. As power structures in Russia remain centralized and quite detached from society, people are angry about the unfair redistribution of wealth. Economic difficulties are then perceived as social injustice, perpetuated by the government rather than the political system that allows it. Basically, that is how popular discontent causes the poll ratings of Medvedev to plunge, whereas Putin remains popular because he is associated with Russia’s restored international standing, not domestic economic failures.
In reality, the protest mood in Russia is strongest not along age lines, but along levels of education and income. It is the destitute middle class from small towns that is particularly ready to rise against social injustice and corruption, and it takes the young generation along. Angry young Russians are now an important part of the protests, but they might not necessarily revitalize the opposition to Putin.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.