Russia’s Youth Uncritical of Putin’s Politics

Russian youth continues to be a topic for commentary on Russia Profile. The husband-wife team of Yelena Rykovtseva and Alexei Pankin comment on the conservatism of Russian youth and the differences between the lives of Soviet post-Soviet Russian youth. These two commentaries are nicely supplemented by an article in the Moscow News on the new radical and pro-Kremlin youth group, Young Russia.

I’ve never been an advocate of generational conflict or a stark divide between generations, but my own research and reading is suggesting more and more that a generational analysis might prove fruitful. This “clash of generations” is an overarching theme in Rykovsteva’s and Pankin’s articles, where they decry Russian youths’ unwillingness to question the government and their passive acceptance of Russian life. Their ire comes from the fact that both grew up in Soviet times when their lives were haunted by the contradictions between Soviet propaganda and Soviet reality. This contradiction, Pankin argues, was what pushed those of his generation to question authority and strive for changes. The “Khrushchev Generation” begot perestroika.

However, their mistake was making “fetishes of freedom and democracy instead, seeing them not so much as tools in our hands as an aim unto themselves, a means of entering paradise.” It seems that this fetishization has for the most part attained ideological hegemony among today’s Russian youth. Whereas the contradiction between formal and actual freedom drove the Soviet system to suspension, the new system seems to feed off its opposite. The fetishization of actual freedom, in the form of the abundance consumer items, popular culture, individual freedom, etc, has allowed for the restriction of formal freedom—state structures and organizations based on openness, democracy, and civil society. Such is the heart of Pankin’s statement, “Today’s young people are more restricted in their freedom to move in their immediate environment, but much freer to move around the world. For us it was the other way around.”

For Rykovsteva, this is the reason why the Russian government can speak to something like education reform without actually doing anything. She writes,

The issue is that young people in today’s Russia are not rebels by nature. Everything has changed. The KVN television program, which pits university students against each other in a sort of humor and satire competition, was an oasis of free-thinking in the Soviet years, but hardly anyone jokes about politics on today’s version, or, if they do, they take care not to upset the authorities. In the past, the youth were, a priori, critical of whatever the authorities did. Today’s young people are, a priori, sympathetic. There are always exceptions, of course. Besides those like the reporter who changed jobs to support the authorities, there are others who are fired for criticizing the authorities. It just seems to me that the first group is bigger than the second.

Such views are fueling the membership of groups like Nashi and now Young Russia. Young Russia, the Moscow News reports, is rather new on the scene. It boasts a membership of 2000. Forming in April 2005 by students at Moscow’s Bauman University, Young Russia seeks to unite “sensible youth that loves its country and takes upon itself the responsibility for its future.” What they really seem like is a pro-government answer to the National Bolsheviks, which Young Russia has declared enemy number one. In one incident last week, members of Young Russia pelted a Natsbol leader Eduard Limonov with eggs. The Natsbols responded with boots to the face and air guns that fired rubber bullets. A 14 year old passerby was sent to intensive care after he got caught up in the melee. In another incident, 17 Young Russia members were arrested attempting to break up an anti-censorship rally. Many believe that the group is being financed by the Kremlin but these allegations have been denied by the group’s press secretary Alexander Kalugin.

The truth of the matter is that Young Russia is yet another of the several pro-Kremlin youth organizations that have sprung up to prevent democratic change in Russia. With this, it is difficult to write off Yelena Rykovtseva’s and Alexei Pankin’s trepidation as simple generational conflict. There are many qualitative difference between their and the new generation of Russian youths. A politics accepting of the status quo, it seems, is one of the glaring ones.