Smells Like Teen Spirit

Re­cent anti-cor­rup­tion ral­lies will go down as Rus­sia’s most youth­ful protests

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING FORWARD - By Daria Litvi­nova d.litvi­nova@ime­

When 12-year-old Gleb took to the stage at an an­ti­cor­rup­tion protest in the Siberian city of Tomsk last week, few in the au­di­ence would have ex­pected the moment to go vi­ral.

“It doesn’t mat­ter who’s in power — Putin or Navalny,” Gleb said to rounds of ap­plause. “The most im­por­tant thing is to change the sys­tem — the gov­ern­ment sys­tem, ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and health­care sys­tem.”

Al­though Gleb’s speech im­me­di­ately made head­lines and scored al­most one mil­lion views on­line, he wasn’t the only ado­les­cent to take to the streets in a wave of anti-cor­rup­tion demon­stra­tions that swept Rus­sia on March 26.

By chant­ing, giv­ing speeches, climb­ing lamp posts and get­ting de­tained by the po­lice, Rus­sian youth be­came the face of the anti-cor­rup­tion move­ment across Rus­sia last week.

In the wake of the protests, pun­dits dis­agree on how this youth ac­tiv­ity is chang­ing Rus­sia’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape — if it is at all. Some paint the high-school­ers as a fear­less new force back­ing Alexei Navalny, the Krem­lin’s main chal­lenger in the 2018 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Oth­ers ar­gue they are a nat­u­ral part of grow­ing dis­sent.

“Younger peo­ple — high-school stu­dents in­cluded — have par­tic­i­pated in protests be­fore,” De­nis Volkov, a so­ci­ol­o­gist from the in­de­pen­dent Le­vada Cen­ter poll­ster, told The Moscow Times. “They were there with Navalny on Chistye Prudy in 2011, they ac­tu­ally started the Oc­cupy Abai protest in 2012, and they ac­tively at­tended the Nemtsov march.”

‘Cor­rup­tion is ev­ery­where’

Be­cause most of the ral­lies were unau­tho­rized, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to tell how many at­tended — not to men­tion how many of the pro­test­ers were teenagers.

The Moscow Times’ anal­y­sis of on­line groups de­voted to the ral­lies (set up by Navalny’s sup­port­ers) shows that on av­er­age 16 per­cent of group mem­bers were 18 and younger.

Nonethe­less, teenagers found them­selves in the spot­light. Mass ar­rests in Moscow, says so­ci­ol­o­gist Ella Paneyakh, con­trib­uted to that.

“The po­lice de­lib­er­ately picked mi­nors from the crowd — un­like in 2011-12, when they were afraid of elic­it­ing public out­rage,” Paneyakh told The Moscow Times. “Now they’re not bound by this fear, so they tar­get those who are most vul­ner­a­ble, weak and eas­ily in­tim­i­dated.”

Even at early ages, Rus­sia’s younger gen­er­a­tion — less eas­ily in­flu­enced by pro­pa­ganda — sees how state pol­icy im­pinges upon their pri­vacy and dig­nity, says Paneyakh. By the time they fin­ish high school, they are fed up with state in­ter­fer­ence. Navalny’s film served as a trig­ger, and this is why they’ve taken to the streets.

“Cor­rup­tion is ev­ery­where,” says 18-year-old Nastya, a pro­tester from the Far East­ern city of Vladi­vos­tok. “They take bribes in uni­ver­si­ties and ex­pect them in hos­pi­tals. [State tele­vi­sion] says that things are great, when in re­al­ity peo­ple barely sur­vive on their 20,000-ru­ble in­comes!”

Eigh­teen-year-old Olesya, who at­tended the rally in Moscow, echoes Nastya’s sen­ti­ment. “Pen­sion­ers are beg­ging for money in the streets, while [Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev] is ski­ing and en­joy­ing ex­quis­ite wine.”

Sev­en­teen-year-old Leonid, who protested in Yeka­ter­in­burg, says he has seen the sys­tem from the in­side and is tired of putting up with it. “My un­cle works in so­cial ser­vices,” Leonid said. “He told me how they voted for United Rus­sia be­cause they were or­dered to.” Leonid says he is “against cor­rup­tion and cen­sor­ship.”

For 17-year-old Dmitry from Novosi­birsk, it was cen­sor­ship and pro­pa­ganda that drove young peo­ple to the ral­lies. “The [au­thor­i­ties] have ‘bro­ken into’ the In­ter­net and have started boss­ing us around there — just like they do in ev­ery other sphere,” Dmitry told The Moscow Times.

“We don’t watch tele­vi­sion, be­cause pro­pa­ganda dom­i­nates there,” Dmitry said. “We use the In­ter­net. But [the au­thor­i­ties] at some point started say­ing that we can’t write about this and are not al­lowed to talk about that. That’s why young peo­ple took to the streets: They have nowhere else to speak up.”

For oth­ers, it was about unity. “To­day, the regime is try­ing very hard to paint the op­po­si­tion as some freak­ish mi­nor­ity,” says Py­otr, an 18-year-old stu­dent who protested in St. Peters­burg. “They repeat this over and over again. It’s re­ally easy to be­lieve that you’re all alone, that you’re this freak­ish mi­nor­ity.”

“Ral­lies help us re­mind our­selves and the au­thor­i­ties that Rus­sia is not just them and the Krem­lin’s sup­port­ers — It’s us, too. You can feel it when thou­sands of peo­ple around you chant slo­gans you agree with.”

The big pic­ture

Many teenagers polled by The Moscow Times say that they were in­spired by Navalny’s films about cor­rup­tion in the Krem­lin’s high­est ech­e­lons. This is not sur­pris­ing, says Volkov from Le­vada: young peo­ple are Navalny’s tar­get au­di­ence, and he’s do­ing a good job en­gag­ing them.

“His team is work­ing on ex­pand­ing their au­di­ence and set­ting up di­a­logue with youth.” he says. “Other po­lit­i­cal forces are not even try­ing.”

But not ev­ery­one who par­tic­i­pated in the protests is ready to throw their weight be­hind Navalny. “He’s not the leader I’m ready to fol­low,” says Leonid, who ques­tions Navalny’s ex­pe­ri­ence. Dmitry from Novosi­birsk echoes this skep­ti­cism: “I don’t know any­thing about his ex­pe­ri­ence gov­ern­ing.” He adds that he’d vote for him be­cause “who else is out there?”

An­a­lysts sug­gest the protest gen­er­ally un­der­mines the Krem­lin’s nar­ra­tive of “sta­bil­ity” and the rul­ing elite’s elec­toral plat­form. The fact that many young peo­ple who took to the streets on March 26 will be of vot­ing age next year will be a con­cern for Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties, who are anx­ious to en­sure a de­cent vot­ing turnout in 2018, says po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Yeka­te­rina Schul­mann.

“Af­ter the 2016 Duma elec­tions it be­came clear that res­i­dents of big cities, eth­ni­cally Rus­sian re­gions and young peo­ple don’t show up to vote. So they’re go­ing to have to fight to get peo­ple to come to the vot­ing booths.”

“The ques­tion is not how peo­ple would vote, but whether they will vote at all,” she says.

David Khare­bov con­trib­uted re­port­ing.

A record num­ber of peo­ple 1,030 - were de­tained in Moscow dur­ing the March 26 rally.

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