Apathy of Russian society: can the youth change it?

Nemtsov picture at a missive protest in the streets of Moscow
Nemtsov picture at a missive protest in the streets of Moscow

It would seem that everything ends now with Mr. Putin, given the mass protests that took place in Moscow‘s Bolotnaya Square, and which shook the Kremlin when around 100,000 people spontaneously took to the streets in protest. After suppressing the protests, Mr. Putin embarked on an even fiercer consolidation of power and the crushing of the liberal opposition.

Taming civil society

In 2012 a law was adopted based on the fact that all Russian non-governmental organisations were christened „foreign agents” if they were receiving financial support from international sources. A „foreign agent “is an infamous Soviet communist concept used to label critics of the regime, and ostensibly spies for the United States or other Western countries. These are the organisations that the Third Secretary deems today as a „Trojan horse“ or a „fifth column“ which work in the interests of the US and which besmirch Russia‘s unity.

The „foreign agent law “sharply restricts the activities of non-governmental organisations which themselves have been increasingly menaced with threats and reprisals. Well-known organisations including Memorial and Golos have been blacklisted. A month ago the Ministry of Justice declared Levada, an independent polling and sociological research centre, a „foreign agent“. Its director, Lev Gudkov, called the decision political censorship, and is convinced that this label will completely paralyse Levada‘s work as it can no longer conduct polls. The state media‘s smear campaigns have harassed the liberal opposition and discredited the NGO‘s secretary in the eyes of the public, while the attacks of cyber criminals and the so-called „Kremlin trolls “on the opposition have made their operations all the more difficult.

In 2014 the Duma issued yet another law restricting the freedom of speech which likened social media celebrities with more than 3000 followers of mass media representatives. This law prohibits bloggers from remaining anonymous and forces information about social network users to be saved for 6 months and kept on Russian servers so that law enforcement agencies can follow them easily. As Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan explain in their noteworthy book „The Red Web“, the Kremlin has of late been putting more and more effort into policing and monitoring the Internet. The main participants of the 2011 – 2012 protests were young middle class people active on social media sites and so it‘s not surprising that the Kremlin has started monitoring the Internet. Over that period several bloggers were imprisoned, apparently for public „extremist“ content which in actual fact was criticism of Russia‘s actions in Ukraine.

Representatives of Russia‘s NGOs do not hide the fact that social and governmental hostility make it difficult to get funding. Their work does not support them because they do not want to incur the ire of the ruling regime, and so they finance projects rarely and only ones to which the Kremlin gives the green light. Some civil society organisations during Boris Yeltsin‘s time received significant funding from abroad, allowing them to develop projects about ensuring human rights and disseminating liberal democratic ideals. Nevertheless, these organisations first and foremost sought to satisfy abstractly defined donor interests, and were so far removed from local realities and facts that they never achieved their long-term goal – to install democratic principles in Russia especially in the outlying regions. When Putin came to power, the third sector was hit by a financial crisis for which there is currently no resolution.

The Crimean effect

Liberals were dealt their greatest blow at the beginning of 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimea and started a war in eastern Ukraine. In Russia, nationalist euphoria rose, and Vladimir Putin‘s popularity ratings soared with most ordinary people feeling pride in their country after a long break. The annexation of the Crimea showed how strongly Russians felt about the collapse of the USSR and their loss of status as a global superpower. It became clear that most conservative people approved completely of the revanchist attitudes in the Kremlin and of their country‘s leadership and fully supported the hard-line foreign policy affirming that Russia must return its „legitimate “influence to the “near abroad“and resist a Western mode of modernisation.

Inspired by the Ukrainians, the hopes of civil society activists to repeat a Maidan-style revolution in Moscow were an instant failure. In a country where the most persuasive of media is television subservient to the Kremlin, most people firmly believe anything that the pro-Kremlin channels churn out. Conspiracy theories pumped into the minds of most ordinary people block any information that could undermine the version prevailing in Russia, that being where Russia is beleaguered and the US and the EU are using all means to destroy it. Mr. Putin however, has single-handedly set it on its feet and resists to the end „Western expansion “in Ukraine and Syria. Most people believe this myth.

In an atmosphere like this, hope is something difficult for the representatives of the Russian opposition who uphold the ideals of Western democracy. And then there‘s the corruption that permeates all levels of society. Corruption demoralises society, drawing ordinary people into a contaminated and underhanded routine way of doing things. The more people get involved in corruption, i.e. the more they taint themselves, the less you get people who can demand with conscience and honesty any other way of life and of doing things. It‘s here that people diverge according to the polls; on one hand they are dissatisfied with the deep-rooted corruption in the country and the greed of the government‘s representatives, and on the other hand, they continue to support Putin, regard with suspicion the opposition, and despise the EU as it seems to be a destructive force of anti-Russian values. There is however an understanding of EU standards in terms of reduced corruption and the enshrined principle of fair and legal management. It is psychologically complicated to criticise corruption sincerely when you yourself are chin-deep in it, even if to a far lesser extent than Vladimir Putin‘ s oligarch friends.

Lack of political self-awareness

Most Western analysts pin their hopes on a decline in Russia‘s economy. With the drop in the price of oil and value of the rouble in addition to the clout of Western sanctions, ordinary people immediately started to feel the economic pinch through decreasing salaries, rising prices etc. That‘s where the truth lies.

All things considered, these protests acquired no political overtone which was so obvious in the 2011 and 2012 protests. Russia‘s society still lacks political thinking, one which more often rebels against specific, individual manifestations of injustice. It does however shirk from seeing a more general and panoramic view of the political system. Most ordinary people do not understand that isolated cases of corruption or impunity of officials are repeating symptoms of a systematic and structural injustice, symptoms which arise from Vladimir Putin‘s kleptocratic system.

Unfortunately, the opposition shows little effort towards putting in isolated grievances against the structural decay of the system. In Russia there is still the resilient belief that economic difficulties will be heroically endured in the name of a higher collective mission – the restoration of Russia‘s greatness. In a geopolitically charged situation, the willingness to live frugally for a while supports true patriotism.

It‘s worth stressing the split within Russia‘s opposition. As in Belarus, opposition parties are unable either to agree on a constructive process for a vision of Russia‘s future, or focus on one or more charismatic leader who could mobilise not only forever angry opposition leaders, but also a wider social stratum. Closer to home, this is the status afforded to anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who managed in 2013 to win just 27% of the vote in the mayoral elections in the first round. The Kremlin tried to deal with him by concocting charges of embezzlement against him but without wishing to incite unnecessary protests. Navalny was not imprisoned but his brother was tried (on trumped up charges of course). One way or another the bigger problem is the fact that Navalny was not accepted entirely by the liberal opposition because of his nationalistic views. They no doubt supported his anti-corruption stance and agreed that the regime had to be changed, yet there was not much agreement on the structure that was supposed to have replaced Putinism.

Representatives of the liberal opposition differ in the way they see people like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in that they do not agree on such tactical issues like participation in Duma elections. Liberals in the opposition do not agree with nationalists, and the left-wing with both of them. It‘s no accident that the country‘s voters associate the opposition movements with chaos and Mr. Putin‘s government with stability and order. The old Soviet dissident tradition lingers on with opposition intellectuals where the most important thing is to set yourself apart from the others by standing your own ground and holding your own. Today, the opposition should try as much as it can to seek points of contact with the opinions, expectations and grievances of the silent majority. Otherwise, a „Russia without Putin “will remain an unproductive pipe dream.

Apathy of the youth

Another group on which the West is placing a lot of hope on is the youth. Unfortunately, Russia‘s young people are more disappointed than inspired. Apathy reigns in the country‘s universities and students are not inclined to take part in political activities or organise protests. That in part determines the above mentioned corruption that has permeated the entire society, including the higher institutions of learning. A culture of bribery and nepotism and the dependence of the universities on the good favour of the Kremlin has a strong bearing on student behaviour and choice. Eruptions of local protests are rare; for example not all students like taking part in the clerical requirement of participation in meetings that support Vladimir Putin and United Russia and to which students are often forced to go in bus loads.

Finally, it must be emphasised that the ruling regime has established its network of youth organisations the most active of which are „Nashi“, Young Guard“ and „Young Russia“. Their aim, by all possible means, including violence, is to popularise the cult of Vladimir Putin amongst the youth and block the spread of any anti-Putin movements. These organisations have for a long time been the face of Russia‘s youth. At their meetings young people aren‘t shy to wear shirts emblazoned with the glorification of Stalin and the USSR or to display pro-Soviet posters. With no experience of communist repression and Soviet daily life, these young people at times fiercely support the cult of Stalin, and at times more so than the older generation.

In general the resurgence of Stalinism is one of the most frightening features of contemporary Russia. Valerija Kasamara‘s research reveals that Russia‘s youth at some point has a higher opinion of the Soviet era than of post-Soviet Russia; they believe that it was a time that was more friendly and uniting, and which had a uniting ideology and „National idea“, one when the country was a world power. These are aspects that they imagine and which are more important than democracy, human rights or liberalism.

The Internet as a source of spreading information amongst the youth makes no fundamental change to the attitudes of the youth, neither regarding the nature of the regime nor of Putin. Overall, the trust that the youth have in Vladimir Putin has always been high; in 2005 more than 70% supported Putin and in 2009 around 80%. Still, in 2011 on the eve of the Bolotnaya protests, this number was drastically reduced because of political motives where economic issues and unemployment were more of a concern. Moreover, the proportions between different segments of society weren‘t all that disparate. In 2014, a study conducted by the French International Relations Institute showed that Vladimir Putin had no competition in that he was the greatest authority of the youth (Vladimir Zhirinovsky was the second). Approximately one third of the youth think that the country must be always be ruled with a „firm hand“.

It can be generally stated that Russia‘s youth, do not believe in the prospect of a revolution and do not trust the opposition. The reappearance of popularity in the cult of Stalin and of the nostalgia for Soviet “greatness” are factors that are seriously distancing Russia from a potential and meaningful rapprochement with the West. As long as society does not address properly the communist past, and the scale of Stalin‘s crimes, Russia‘s opposition will have no chance of changing the current structure. At this time when Vladimir Putin consolidates his power more and more, and representatives of the opposition squabble unnecessarily between themselves, there is no sign that liberal-minded youth or older civil society will be able to change Russia‘s governmental system in the near future.

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