Be­tween Kom­so­mol and protests:

The tra­jec­tory of stu­dent move­ments in for­mer USSR coun­tries over the past 25 years

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Arseniy Sit­nikov

Stu­dents in gen­eral in the for­mer Soviet Union coun­tries and the move­ments that emerge in­volv­ing them are a sort of symbiosis of the new, am­bi­tious trends typ­i­cal for mod­ern youth around the world and the ar­chaic paternalism in­her­ited from Soviet times.

A typ­i­cal con­tem­po­rary protest in Rus­sia looks roughly like this. Moscow or Saint Peters­burg, a lo­ca­tion agreed with the au­thor­i­ties or if not, then a march with a cre­ative at­tempt to get round a ban, but not ac­tu­ally too ef­fec­tive. Then pro­test­ers, mainly mod­er­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the in­tel­li­gentsia, are ar­rested and take self­ies in the po­lice van – a must-have for any mem­ber of the op­po­si­tion. An­other op­tion is the mon­stra­tions, which usu­ally end in the same way with ar­rests (be­cause a per­son car­ries a poster), self­ies and posts on so­cial me­dia. This pic­ture was un­ques­tion­ably changed by the anti-cor­rup­tion protests that swept Rus­sia af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Pres­i­dent Dmitri Medvedev en­ti­tled He Is Not Di­mon to You. Ar­rests, pho­tos, posts, the in­abil­ity to rally to­gether in or­der to pro­tect the protest as a whole – all this had hap­pened be­fore, so at first glance there was noth­ing new.

What was sur­pris­ing was, first of all, the ge­o­graph­i­cal reach of the protest, be­cause this time the cap­i­tals were joined by al­most all the re­gions, of which there are many in Rus­sia. It is clear that the main elec­torate of Vladimir Putin and pro-gov­ern­ment par­ties is not con­cen­trated in the two large cities that have a larger amount of pro­gres­sive peo­ple. There­fore, protests on the streets of Yeka­ter­in­burg, Tomsk, Vladi­vos­tok and other places dis­tant from the cen­tre of the coun­try and its civil so­ci­ety were more un­ac­cept­able for the regime than the usual op­po­si­tion in the cap­i­tal for which fa­mil­iar po­lice vans were care­fully pre­pared in ad­vance. The sec­ond and per­haps main dif­fer­ence of the anti-cor­rup­tion protests was their core de­mo­graphic, which was made up of young peo­ple – un­or­gan­ised, with­out an es­tab­lished goal and ways to achieve it. It was a cer­tain dis­play of banal ou­trage at the huge theft to which the eyes of young peo­ple who have a high sen­si­tiv­ity to in­jus­tice were opened through a medium ac­ces­si­ble to them – a YouTube video. No­body knew what to do with this ou­trage, be­cause if it was man­i­fested pre­vi­ously, then only be­cause of niche is­sues and on a small scale. Due to their lack of ex­pe­ri­ence, the par­tic­i­pants who found them­selves on the squares of their towns af­ter scar­ing the au­thor­i­ties and the lead­er­ship of their ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions did not have much to do other than chant un­clear slo­gans and climb lamp­posts to mock the po­lice­men who were try­ing to ar­rest them. This is a telling mo­ment, be­cause the sit­u­a­tion with protests in gen­eral is more or less equally hope­less – they sort of tried, but there is no re­sult or other op­tions than obey­ing the regime.

The au­thor­i­ties used not only the usual phys­i­cal meth­ods, but also their tra­di­tional ad­min­is­tra­tive pres­sure. But again, the in­ter­net left no chance for such be­hav­iour to re­main within the walls of the au­di­to­ri­ums or of­fices where the most ac­tive were called to ac­count. Stu­dents quickly recorded talks the lec­tur­ers and uni­ver­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors were giv­ing them on the dis­grace and harm of par­tic­i­pat­ing in protests, the fact they were or­ga­nized by Amer­ica and other ab­sur­di­ties, post­ing them on­line. How­ever, a harsher method – ex­pul­sion – was used on them. In­deed, Oleg Alek­seyev, the co­or­di­na­tor of anti-cor­rup­tion protests in Kalin­ingrad, was re­cently ex­pelled from uni­ver­sity. Not for his po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, of­fi­cially. He was ex­pelled for cor­rup­tion, as he al­legedly tried to give a bribe to his phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion teacher. Oth­ers were in­tim­i­dated, and the na­ture of the anti-cor­rup­tion protests was dis­cred­ited.

When the sit­u­a­tion in the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion is looked at, one can­not ig­nore nu­mer­ous pro-gov­ern­ment stu­dent or­gan­i­sa­tions, youth wings of po­lit­i­cal par­ties and other tools of ad­min­is­tra­tive lever­age to cre­ate a pic­ture wor­thy of the Soviet past: ev­ery­one in the same uni­form with the same flags and posters, some, per­haps those more true to


the idea, car­ry­ing por­traits of Putin. This in­cludes Nashi [Ours] cre­ated by the Pres­i­den­tial Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Young Rus­sia linked to the rul­ing United Rus­sia party. They also have some more ag­gres­sive for­ma­tions up their sleeves, so that it is not al­ways nec­es­sary to in­volve the po­lice in fight­ing the op­po­si­tion. These can hardly be called stu­dent move­ments as a demon­stra­tion of the col­lec­tive as­pi­ra­tion of the young for change. It is merely yet an­other ex­am­ple of ma­nip­u­la­tion and ex­ploita­tion of the con­cepts stolen from healthy so­ci­eties. An av­er­age TV viewed, when look­ing at the cov­er­age of such ral­lies, is sup­posed to think that “we also have ev­ery­thing, ev­ery­thing is the same as in the West, only bet­ter!".

While the Rus­sians still try to dis­guise some things as democ­racy, play­ing around with word­ing, in­ter­pre­ta­tions or the il­lu­sion of open di­a­logue (which boils down to Di­rect Lines with Vladimir Putin with re­hearsed “un­ex­pected” ques­tions), the Be­laru­sian regime does not wear any masks. There is a pro-gov­ern­ment youth or­gan­i­sa­tion named the Be­laru­sian Repub­li­can Youth Union whose name and sym­bols al­lude to the Soviet Kom­so­mol. Jok­ers have even dubbed it "Luko­mol" af­ter the dic­ta­tor's sur­name, Lukashenka. Al­ter­na­tive ideas are not sim­ply un­wel­come, but are ac­tively sup­pressed. Dur­ing protests on Free­dom Day in March 2017, the world was shocked by the bru­tal­ity of the mili­tia, which sub­jected de­mon­stra­tors to ex­treme force. It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how much time it took to bring to­gether such a large num­ber of peo­ple un­der cur­rent Be­laru­sian

cir­cum­stances. These were not peo­ple who naively be­lieved op­po­si­tion politi­cians and went out "for a walk" with posters. It was com­pletely ob­vi­ous that the re­ac­tion of the au­thor­i­ties would be ex­tremely harsh, so the world – and the Be­laru­sian lead­er­ship – was sur­prised by the num­ber of the marchers who took it to the streets nev­er­the­less. They were not afraid and made a con­scious de­ci­sion to take part. One of the main forces of the protest were stu­dent or­gan­i­sa­tions, which were branded “ex­tremely rad­i­cal”, al­though they have so lit­tle in com­mon with rad­i­cal­ism that it is not worth men­tion­ing. Among the most well-known is the Stu­dent Bloc, whose ac­tivists were also ar­rested on Free­dom Day. It is im­por­tant that this was one of the first demon­stra­tions of pub­lic and open re­sis­tance by stu­dents.

A promi­nent ex­am­ple for Kaza­khstan was ral­lies against leas­ing land to for­eign­ers in spring 2016. This, ob­vi­ously, has noth­ing to do with stu­dents, but the au­thor­i­ties still de­cided to ap­ply all pos­si­ble pre­ven­tive meth­ods against them. On the day of the protest, the halls of res­i­dence were all locked and ev­ery­one had to sign a pledge not to par­tic­i­pate in the rally, in ad­di­tion to the usual lec­tures on the dis­ad­van­tages of any dis­con­tent. All this be­cause of a protest on a non-stu­dent topic. In the past Kaza­khstani stu­dents only took to the streets when tuition fees were in­creased. By the way, af­ter the land protests Nazarbayev ended up mak­ing con­ces­sions on the is­sue. But more im­por­tantly he showed his great fear of stu­dents be­com­ing a driv­ing force in his coun­try – how­ever un­likely that may be.

In Ukrainian pol­i­tics and on the streets of the gov­ern­ment quar­ter, more and more Ge­or­gians can be found try­ing to make noise and ap­par­ently as­pir­ing to be­come the pro­fes­sional front­line of protests against the "wheeler-deal­ers". Pre­vi­ously they came to Ukraine as over­seas re­form­ers. Mean­while, in Ge­or­gia it­self, lo­cal stu­dent or­gan­i­sa­tions have no in­ten­tion of giv­ing up their sta­tus as the van­guard of protest move­ments to any renowned and ex­pe­ri­enced rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies from abroad. There are many op­tions: left, right, green and oth­ers – in short, one to suit ev­ery taste.

Though Te­tiana, a stu­dent at the Free Uni­ver­sity of Tbil­isi who I got to meet dur­ing her visit to Kyiv, has no link to our po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses – she just came to the Ukrainian cap­i­tal as part of a stu­dent del­e­ga­tion to es­tab­lish con­tacts with Taras Shevchenko Na­tional Uni­ver­sity. Our guest ad­mit­ted that she does not usu­ally even take part in demon­stra­tions at home. And the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents will never be ac­tivists. Even in coun­tries with a long and proud tra­di­tion of pow­er­ful stu­dent move­ments, this fig­ure is far be­low 50%.

But this is not a prob­lem, be­cause the most im­por­tant thing is that knowl­edge about cer­tain move­ments reaches broader stu­dent cir­cles. When the in­ter­est of the stu­dents goes be­yond the cur­ricu­lum, dorms or tuition, the mo­bi­liz­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion is well-known among the stu­dents of many ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions around the coun­try and is even part of a cer­tain net­work, then the move­ment can have the real power and strength. That means there is a cer­tain pas­sive re­serve that pe­ri­od­i­cally joins large protests de­pend­ing on the de­gree of in­ter­est in a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem.

The spe­cific char­ac­ter of Ge­or­gia as a small coun­try with an ac­tive civil so­ci­ety gives grounds to speak about such or­gan­i­sa­tions that have a real im­pact on the so­ciopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. This is a bright ex­am­ple that stands out against the gen­eral back­ground of the post-Soviet coun­tries. The coun­try has the Green Fist, which started its ac­tiv­i­ties in 2013 with a cam­paign against the max­i­mal use of nat­u­ral re­sources. Or the rel­a­tively new Au­di­to­rium 115, which was started a year ago to fight against stu­dent gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives at one uni­ver­sity that were ac­cused of cor­rupt prac­tices and is now a gen­eral move­ment for re­forms to the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Not to men­tion fem­i­nism, move­ments for equal­ity and a group push­ing for new drug pol­icy with the in­ter­est­ing name White Noise.

The only thing that was able to make Te­tiana stop be­ing a sim­ple ob­server were re­cent protests against Rus­sia's creep­ing oc­cu­pa­tion and the tacit con­sent of the Ge­or­gian au­thor­i­ties, which pre­tend not to no­tice more and more in­stances of "bor­deri­sa­tion" in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries of Abk­hazia and South Os­se­tia. Stu­dents do not let oth­ers for­get about the events of al­most a decade ago and in­sist that it is nec­es­sary to con­tinue fight­ing for their ter­ri­to­ries, rather than sim­ply ac­cept­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion as a fact, which they ac­cuse the gov­ern­ment of do­ing. This is an in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ple of stu­dents' real in­flu­ence (the cam­paigns got a great deal of me­dia at­ten­tion) on is­sues not re­gard­ing the ed­u­ca­tional process, tuition fees or stu­dent gov­ern­ment.

Lead­ing the young. Those in power in Rus­sia seek to bring up a loyal gen­er­a­tion that is no dif­fer­ent from its soviet pre­de­ces­sors

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