Life under one leader: Kremlin’s relationship with the Russian youth
When a Kremlin spokesman refuted the claim that President Putin is afraid of Alexei Navalny, he failed to mention that the regime nurses an underlying fear of the Russian youth.
At the end of January 2021, massive protests across Russia demanded the release of Alexei Navalny amid growing socio-economic dissatisfaction, flourishing corruption and blatant hypocrisy of the authorities. According to OVD-Info, Russia’s independent human rights project combating political persecution, at least 4,000 people in 125 cities and 5,754 people in 87 cities were detained on January 23rd and January 31st respectively. On February 2nd, after the announcement of the court verdict against Navalny, his supporters called for political actions in Moscow and St. Petersburg, resulting in at least 1,144 detainees as of February 3rd. In Moscow alone the protests were the largest in seven years, a fact Russian state-owned television could hardly ignore. On January 24th, Russia’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov alleged that most protesters were minors manipulated by the “Berlin patient” and stated that “there are people so low, they drag children into politics, like political pedophiles.” With the usual apocalyptic flare, he concluded: “Is this bad? It’s horrible”.
This was an expected reaction. The Russian authorities have restricted all legal means of expressing popular dissent against Navalny’s arrest by banning sanctioned protests under the pretext of COVID-19 precautions and dispersing unsanctioned actions by default. Yet tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets and struck the nerve of pro-government structures by showing up in such significant numbers. Already on January 23rd, all of the pro-Kremlin state television channels launched a coordinated disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the power of protests. With a tone of righteous indignation, every news anchor pushed the idea of a staged teenage riot and the Russian youth being utterly devoid of any subjectivity and civic interest — as though they could not possibly take to the streets without someone else’s prompting. “Children are pliable, easily convinced,” Irada Zeinalova stated on Weekly Review. “Some go because they feel adults don’t listen to them, others because they are afraid of being different or just want to be ‘in.’ They [adults] brought to the streets those they had no right to bring. Adults have no right to take advantage of the childhood disease of leftism [levizna — a Russian word used in a particularly demeaning sense towards the left] and ideas of a bright future with their own hands.”
While it is true that many teenagers have joined the protests, overall the demonstrators came from various age groups. According to sociologists who interviewed over three hundred protesters in Moscow on January 23rd, only 4 per cent of them were minors. It seems that federal television reporters have tactically pursued minors among the demonstrators, cherry picked the most reckless of them, used interviews and awkward slips of the tongue out of context and persistently ignored any older demonstrators. Every television news report showed footage of the same young girl saying “I saw [a call for protest] on TikTok, on Instagram. They promised a party, but it sucks.” Another widespread clip, in a striking resemblance to an idyllic Soviet-era poster, showed an educational conversation between a policeman and two middle school students who look as if they just misbehaved. “Schoolchildren and those under 40 already have a very vague idea of what revolutionary upheavals and violence as a way of solving problems in Russia had led to,” Sergei Brilev said on Saturday News. “Kids didn’t catch 1917 — well, no one remembers it anymore.” Patriarch Kirill of Moscow gave a sermon on what he referred to as the crisis of the younger generation: “We see how often our young people literally fall into madness, losing all reference points in life.” Dobrov on Air, an analytical program on the Ren-TV channel, claimed that “rebellion runs through the veins of teenagers simply because of their age, not their political aspirations. They will figure out their views later. In the meantime, they have become a bargaining chip in someone else’s dangerous game.”
It is an interesting statement that deserves special attention. The truth is, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia does not seem to shy away from rallying youth support for their own causes. Following a mass protest wave in March 2017, President Putin signed a law allowing criminal punishment for those encouraging minors to engage in activities that put them in danger (Russia’s Investigative Committee cited Article 151.2 of the Criminal Code as it launched a probe against Navalny supporters in early 2021). Shortly after Navalny’s call to take to the streets ahead of Putin’s fourth inauguration on May 7th 2018, the Youth Guard — the youth wing of the United Russia party named after Molodaya Gvardiya, a Second World War anti-fascist Komsomol organisation — reportedly announced plans to form a battalion “to destroy the myth that the opposition controls the street.” Rosmolodezh, the government agency responsible for implementation of the national youth policy, was transferred under the direct supervision of high-level officials from the presidential administration. In response to growing youth activism, in December 2018 the Russian parliament passed another law that vaguely stipulated the administrative prosecution of any organiser of “unauthorised” public actions involving minors.
In November 2019, Konstantin Kostin, chairman of the Civil Society Development Foundation and head of United Russia’s expert council, pointed out that the party needs to create conditions to attract diverse electoral age groups ahead of the September 2021 parliamentary elections, including young Russians between 18 and 24 who will be casting their votes for the first time. They indeed represent a solid basis of support for the regime — earlier in 2019, 65 per cent of Russians under the age of 25 expressed their support for President Putin. According to Olga Amelchenkova, co-chair of a youth engagement group established within United Russia around the same time, “The party [United Russia] should be of interest to young people. Young people have unconventional solutions to different problems, but, unfortunately, older colleagues are not always able to hear us, so our working group will be a conductor of young people’s ideas. It is important to cultivate and promote a new image of a young politician.” On January 29th 2020, Russia’s Minister of Education Sergei Kravtsov announced the launch of the Kremlin-supervised framework “Childhood Navigators,” which in 2022 will grant Russian schools educational counselors to advise children about political rallies.
Here comes the key contradiction in the Kremlin’s unique logic: United Russia “protects” young Russians from politics by preventing their opposition against the government and taking them to party-sponsored rallies, therefore children’s participation in political actions remains an inexhaustible source of propaganda speculation. “Why are they trying to drag our children into illegal protests, using the adolescent maximalism of those who do not understand politics?” appealed United Russia deputy Evgeniy Revenko in the wake of the ongoing protests. “This must be stopped immediately. It is our duty, the duty of adults, to keep children from taking a rash and dangerous step.”
In other words, it is encouraged and admired to follow your heart’s calling and take part in the Kremlin-sponsored spectacle of traditional values, but any alternative civic engagement and free expression of political views, whether it is an adolescent maximalism or a mature position, will be squashed by police batons. Either you appear in front of the cameras according to the script or you lie face down in the snow. In fact, the ruling party has been leading a strategic campaign aimed at controlling and shaping Russia’s youth and disintegrating their protest potential — it is unlikely they will remain uniformly happy with the situation in Russia for long. As the popularity of social media platforms beats the ratings of state television channels, mass youth participation in opposition politics becomes part of the Kremlin’s broader troubles. The Levada Center, Russia’s independent polling group, reported that 26 per cent of the adult population has seen Navalny’s YouTube film “Palace for Putin,” and younger Russians with regular access to social networks are more likely to have watched it — 37 per cent in the age group between 18 and 24. “When all normal children at age 14 greet the opening of another courtyard or square under the flags of United Russia, there are still unconscious elements who allow themselves to doubt that black is white, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength,” mocked Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov.
Desperate times call for absurdity
The Kremlin fears Russians, and as the old guard’s nervousness increases, so too does the perversion of their reality. They will follow and provoke 14-year-old teenagers, beat largely peaceful protesters bloody, detain “foreign agents” and independent journalists and still emerge as the moral victors in the spotlight of their late-night talk shows. Russian state-media propaganda adheres to the principle established back in the 1990s: twist reality, omit inconvenient facts, create chaos and make people believe anything. As one would expect, in order to discredit Navalny protesters, the state-controlled disinformation strategy had to resort to spreading the story of “political pedophiles” who are instigating uncontrollable rallies on Washington’s cue and exploiting the vulnerability of easily-influenced minors.
Such a peculiar state media obsession with sexually charged language is by no means new. From late 2013 to early 2014, when hundreds of thousands of protesters in Ukraine demanded Viktor Yanukovych’s resignation on Maidan, a Russian disinformation campaign denounced the pro-EU demonstrators as being opposed to Russia’s “traditional values” and provoked a particular agitation around the EU’s “aggressively promoted homosexuality” — as absurd as it sounds. According to Zarine Kharazian, an analyst at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, Russia’s heteropatriarchal disinformation playbook had long been relying on homophobic or deviatory rhetoric targeting pro-democracy activism. “I do think it’s an attempt to paint opposition protests as ‘Western’ and fundamentally at odds with ‘traditional Russian values. The equating of homosexuality and pedophilia is based on common homophobic tropes of homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ or in some way ‘perverted.’ And beyond Maidan, these homophobic narratives have also been applied to protests in Armenia, Venezuela, Georgia and elsewhere.”
In the wake of the Navalny team’s decision to put the anti-government protests on hold and stop mass detentions, Amnesty International Researcher Oleg Kozlovsky imagines the Kremlin is popping a bottle of champagne for surviving another wave of protests. “It is unclear how long the system, already working at its limits, would have lasted, but the opposition fell short of strength.” Be that as it may, Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s top aid based outside Russia, has called on Russians to gather in the residential courtyards near their homes on the evening of Sunday, February 14th to spend several minutes shining candles and mobile phone torches. “No OMON [riot police], no fear,” he stated in a Telegram post. “Maybe it’ll seem like these 15 minutes will change nothing — but in fact they will change everything.”
Anastasiia Starchenko is an editorial researcher at New Eastern Europe and an MA graduate of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. She focuses on socio-political and cultural developments in Eastern Europe and Russia.
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