Between Komsomol and protests:
The trajectory of student movements in former USSR countries over the past 25 years
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
STUDENTS 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
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