This is a pertinent question today, after March 26 saw a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations sweep across Russia. The protests were organised by Alexei Navalny, an opposition politician and anti-corruption activist who has announced that he will run for president in Russia’s next presidential election in 2018. The media and many political commentators have depicted the latest protests as Russia’s most youthful protests yet, with teenagers speaking out in front of crowds and getting arrested by police. The Kremlin subsequently publicly accused Alexei Navalny of paying children to attend the rallies. Additionally, in recent weeks, many videos and audio recordings have circulated online that show teachers and school principals across Russia speaking to their pupils about politics, discouraging them from attending rallies, and encouraging them to support Putin. So what do we know about these young people?
The media and many political commentators have depicted the latest protests as Russia’s most youthful protests yet, with teenagers speaking out in front of crowds and getting arrested by police. The Kremlin subsequently publicly accused Alexei Navalny of paying children to attend the rallies.
There are not that many studies about the political views and political behaviours of young people in Russia, but some do exist. The Centre for Youth Studies in St. Petersburg (part of the National Research University Higher School of Economics) has continuously focused on youth for many years now. Their studies have focused not only on protests, but also on far right youth groups, volunteers, and “Nashi”, a pro-Putin government youth group. So young people have always been quite active, the latest protest wave is not a new phenomenon in this sense. We have seen young nationalists in the streets, and we have even seen young “Nashi” members in conflict with their “liberal opposition” peers on Moscow squares.
The interest of social scientists towards young people as a group spoked after the “Bolotnaya protests,” a wave of rallies that took place in 2011-2012 in Russia. These protests really challenged the myth that Russian people (both young and old) are generally politically passive. Below I’ll list a few articles that resulted from attempts to analyse that wave of political activity. One of the main surprises of this period was that young people can voice their protest politically in the same spaces and using the same rallying cries as other age groups in Russia.
We cannot really expect sociological studies to directly predict how people will behave in the future, or, for example, how young people in Russia will act politically in the future. This is just not part of what sociologists aim to do. Sociology (or at least qualitative sociology) works on what is happening now and explains why something is happening.
This is how qualitative sociological studies usually unfold – first we see something that is surprising or unexpected, and then we start studying it. Many disciplines in the social sciences work along these very same lines – they try to explain the world, instead of trying to predict certain events or imagine new worlds. For this reason we cannot really expect sociological studies to directly predict how people will behave in the future, or, for example, how young people in Russia will act politically in the future. This is just not part of what sociologists aim to do. Sociology (or at least qualitative sociology) works on what is happening now and explains why something is happening (or not happening). The difficulty (or even outright impossibility) to predict events stems from the fact that qualitative sociology assumes that every person has individual freedom to act. We call this “agency”, or the opportunity for people to challenge existing trends, or, alternatively, to follow existing trends.
The main thing we can learn from existing studies on Russia’s youth is that young people are informed and are thinking about what is happening on the political arena in Russia. They are also often critical of what they see. But the important thing to remember is that opinions do not always translate to action, and that is why we cannot predict protest based on information about dissatisfaction. For example, David Snyder and Charles Tilly, in their famous study “Hardship and collective violence in France, 1830 to 1960” (1972), showed that hardship and dissatisfaction donot predict mobilisation. In order to dissatisfaction to translate into action, we need an array of other factors that we cannot even fully list at the moment because we don’t know for sure what the list ha to include. Charles Tilly claimed that we can predict mobilisation if we use political opportunity theory, which says that no matter how awful their lives are, people won’t act until the see that their actions will get them results – which can only happen when the state (or whoever they are protesting against) is weak, disintegrating into factions, and cannot go through with repressions. In order for this theory to work, though, we cannot just study “potential protestors” – we have to also understand what is going on with the state.
The main thing we can learn from existing studies on Russia’s youth is that young people are informed and are thinking about what is happening on the political arena in Russia. They are also often critical of what they see. But the important thing to remember is that opinions do not always translate to action.
Political opportunity theory has been harshly criticised: sometimes the threat of repressions results in the opposite – it stimulates protest instead of stopping it (we all this the “paradox of repression”). People can come together in solidarity, and people can act out of certain emotions, like being offended or feeling that something is deeply unfair. For example, the LGBT protests following the police raid at Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969 happened “suddenly” in response to a routine police act. But sometimes protests are responses to non-routine events, like killings or the torture of activists by police officers, as we saw in Egypt and in other countries during the Arab Spring. The emotional dynamics of these kinds of things are difficult to predict, since they happen so quickly. And it is most often the case that we can pinpoint and analyse these “trends” and events after they happen, and to show how certain factors led people to do certain things that they would be unable to even think of under “normal” circumstances.
For studies on youth in Russia and their political engagement, you can look at these English-language texts:
- 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.
- Krivonos, Daria. “And After That We All became Like Brothers Emotions, Affectivity and Communication in a Pro-governmental Youth Movement in Russia.” Young 24.2 (2016): 102-117.
- Omelchenko, Elena, and Guzel Sabirova. “Youth Cultures in Contemporary Russia: Memory, Politics, Solidarities.” Eastern European Youth Cultures in a Global Context. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016. 253-270.
- Pilkington, Hilary, and Gary Pollock. “‘Politics are bollocks’: youth, politics and activism in contemporary Europe.” The Sociological Review 63.S2 (2015): 1-35.
- Erpyleva, Svetlana. “Freedom’s children in protest movements: Private and public in the socialization of young Russian and Ukrainian activists.” Current Sociology. October 13, 2016.
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