The complicated relationship between Russia’s youth and their President

OPINION

This year marks twenty years since Vladimir Putin won his first election as Russian President, a post that he shows no signs of leaving in the near, or even mid-term, future. Earlier this year, members of his party proposed amendments to the Russian constitution which would ‘zero’ the number of terms that he has already served as President, allowing him to avoid (for the second time) the two-term limit that the constitution places on the presidency. With Russia’s parliament and the Russian Constitutional Court approving the amendments in March, 79% of Russians then went on to approve the changes in a referendum that was rife with electoral fraud and voter intimidation. However, behind the illusion of widespread support, lies the increasing frustration that young people in Russia are feeling towards their leader.

Although his future looks secure, Putin’s popularity is not where it was a few years ago, especially not with younger Russians. Russia’s dismal record with the pandemic hit the President’s ratings, owing to the hands-off approach that he initially took as much of the world went into lockdown. Despite this, Putin’s ratings have been on the rise again in recent months as COVID-19 infections have eased in Russia. Meanwhile, the arrest of Sergei Furgal, the governor of the far-east Khabarovsk region, on counts of involvement in murder led to mass anti-Kremlin protests which are the some of the largest that Russia’s Far East has ever seen. Young Russians have led the charge here, making up a majority of demonstrators. The poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny has also done little to restore faith in the government, though the Kremlin denies involvement in this. Russia’s opposition also made some gains in the September 2020 regional elections, with Navalny’s allies winning victories in eastern regions of the country, even though these regions tend to be less liberal than Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Again, young people, who make up the bulk of Navalny’s supporters, certainly had a hand in this.

Saint Petersburg holds an ‘exceptional’ factor compared to other large Russian cities due to its strongly-European character. This is, to some degree, also mirrored in the political attitudes of its inhabitants. Putin was born and educated in Saint Petersburg, studying law at Saint Petersburg State University. During my time at Saint Petersburg State University, a professor remarked that, in the city, the President is perceived to be somewhat disloyal. The Saint Petersburg-Moscow rivalry is a bitter and historic one, which leaks into politics in more ways than one. This professor suggested that Saint Petersburg generally holds a critical view of the establishment that Moscow encapsulates – and that Putin’s move to Moscow from Saint Petersburg upon entering politics represented a betrayal of his hometown.

This is not to say that Russia’s second capital is a hotbed of anti-Putinism. In the city’s gubernatorial elections in 2019, Aleksandr Beglov, a loyal Putinist, won 64% of the vote. This was again a vote marred by fraud and voter intimidation, but it would be shortsighted to claim that Putin and his supporters don’t have any support in the city. Among older generations, there is certainly a sense of veneration for the man currently in the Kremlin, as the man that restored law and order to the country after the horrors of the privatisation era in the 1990s. As Russia went from a socialist state-planned economy to a capitalist market economy following the breakup of the Soviet Union, crime enveloped the country, as oligarchs assumed control of previously state-held companies, while many ordinary Russians found themselves losing a lot amidst colossal inflation and gang-rule.

During his time as both a KGB officer and as Russian President, Putin has certainly overseen and no doubt conducted egregious human rights violations. Still, in the eyes of many older Russians, he is the man that brought an end to the nightmares of the 1990s. My old landlady, a cheerful, typical Russian babushka-type figure, is a perfect example of how many older voters regard the Kremlin. She told me with certainty that Putin will not use the new constitutional amendments in order to stay on in power, as his critics have predicted. Rather, she assured me that, come 2024, he will honourably stand down. For her, and for many in her generation, the Russian President is the strong leader that saved Russia, but not an autocrat who will rule for life.

I became acquainted with many younger Petersburgers who regard their leader with suspicion, something which was not changed by his amendments to the constitution. It is worth noting that most young people that I spoke to were generally quite progressive. A student I befriended criticised the constitutional referendum when the amendments had already been approved by the constitutional court, regional parliaments, and the State Duma. He noted that coverage of the proposed amendments on state-owned TV channels and billboards was highly selective. As far as he was concerned, no reference was made by the media in the lead-up to the referendum to the zeroing of Putin’s terms or his immunity from prosecution, but instead focused on proposed social reforms such as a fixed minimum wage.

I encountered similar cynicism and distrust towards the Kremlin among other young people that I met in the city – at least among those that openly discussed politics. Another student told me that many Russians watch Putin’s annual New Year Addresses, hoping each year that he will announce his resignation, as his predecessor Boris Yeltsin did in 1999. This seems to be in line with the findings of a poll conducted in April 2020 by the Centre for East European and International Studies, a German-based research facility. 40% of young Russians (aged 16-34) surveyed stated that Putin should ‘definitely’ stand down when his current term ends in 2024. A further 26% answered that they would ‘rather’ that he stands down.

Of the dozens of people that I spoke to, some lamented the fact that they did not see Russian politics changing for the better any time soon, expressing a desire to leave Russia, primarily for the US or for Europe. This is representative of a wider trend among younger Russians. According to a September 2019 poll by the independent organisation Levada, 53% of respondents aged 18-24 answered that they would ‘definitely’ or ‘most likely’ emigrate from Russia. Still, in a country as rich in culture and history as Russia, it is nothing short of tragic that, at least based on my experiences, so many of the country’s progressive youth wish to leave. The finger must be pointed at the Russian President for this.

My walks through the city were rarely void of small-scale demonstrations against the Russian President, especially after the controversial constitutional amendments were proposed in January. These often unfolded along the city’s main avenue, Nevsky Prospect. Such demonstrations tended to consist of just a handful of people, with one placard, which would be passed around between the protestors. One local told me that by protesting like this, they were evading arrest, as the police cannot intervene if there is just one protestor. Indeed, there were frequently police present at these mini-protests, who would be keeping an eye on things, though never intervened as far as I could see. Strikingly, these demonstrators were always young people – but what was more remarkable was the complete lack of interest that these scenes would attract from passers-by, highlighting an apathy towards politics that characterises much of the Russian population, and Russia’s youth in particular.

Some of my peers and acquaintances were more than happy to express their frustration with Russia’s political scene. Yet, many others, who were by no means fans of the President, had no wish to discuss politics at length. It seemed that young Russians are more likely to describe themselves as apolitical than young Brits. This sense of disillusionment from politics is surely linked to the fact that many young Russians have only ever really known one leader, who looks likely to stay on in power until 2036.

But this may well be exactly what the Russian President wants. In Western democracies, politicians are increasingly trying to appeal to young people to capture the youth vote in the lead-up to elections (which is problematic in itself). In Russia, the state envisages a different role for the youth. The authoritarian leader derives much of his appeal from older generations who admire his ‘tough guy’ reputation. To them, he is the man who brought stability to Russia after the turbulent privatisation years. Young people who were born at the turn of the century and are now coming of age, who lack any other leaders with whom they can compare Putin, are unlikely to regard him in the same way. Instead, they may associate him with corruption or a stalling economy, both of which means they face poor job prospects.

The Kremlin would therefore rather that young voices are depoliticised. Last year, Putin dismissed the efforts of Greta Thunberg to encourage climate action across the world. Although few in Russia heeded her message anyway, the President asserted that the 16-year-old was being used by others in a ‘cruel, emotional way’, which ‘deserves only to be condemned’. These remarks reveal his scorn for youth engagement in politics, which is further evident in threats of fines and expulsions from school or university against young people who participate in political protests.

Even so, there are signs that this is changing. Across the country, when demonstrations against the Kremlin have broken out, young people have increasingly been at the foreground, notably in the anti-Putin protests that rocked Moscow in 2019 and the 2020 Khabarovsk protests. With all the aforementioned threats to his popularity, Putin may find that an unexpected and undesirable consequence of his staying on beyond 2024 might be the further politicisation of Russia’s youth.

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