Enter Pioneers, all in ranks, some with plywood planes and lorries,
Others with piquant denunciations, handprinted in block letters.
From the next world, like chimeras, shades of pensioned janissaries
Nod their approval to the kids, whose snub noses gleam with ardor.
They crank up “The Russian Balldance” and dash in the hut to Dad,
Chasing out sleepy Dad from the double bed where they were made.
What can you do? Such is youth.
Strangling them would be uncouth.
—Joseph Brodsky, “A Vaudeville”
Students at the Russian State University for the Humanities disrupted a lecture by Nikolai Starikov, a member of the Anti-Maidan movement. They were supported by some professors. How, in your opinion, should the conversion of public universities into hotbeds of liberalism and a source of manpower for a Russian Maidan be stopped?
• Regularly rotate teaching staff, weeding out teachers known for making Russophobic statements and being involved with dubious Western NGOs — 83 votes (25%)
• Actively campaign for vocational education as an alternative to countless “lawyers” and “economists.” People who are busy with real work do not rebel — 33 votes (10%)
• Follow the recipe used by Tsar Alexander III, who pacified Russia for a long time after the terror campaign by the Populists: reduce the number of higher education institutions and raise tuition costs for fee-paying students — 53 votes (16%)
• Leave them alone, let them sow their wild oats. Students have always been rebels, but once they graduated and wised up a bit, they became conscious and law-abiding members of society — 168 votes (50%)
Total votes: 337
Source: Kultura newspaper
Editor’s Note. The survey results were current as of 1:30 p.m. Moscow time on May 27, 2015. Thanks to the invaluable Andrei Malgin for the heads-up.
“We’re still little,” or Delegating political responsibility to adults
May 26, 2015
Recently, debates about how bad things are in Russia—whether they are very bad or whether there is light at the end of the tunnel—have been topical. For example, an article by Maria Snegovaya and Denis Volkov, published in Vedomosti (January 20, 2015), dealt with the political mood of Russian young people. The authors came to a relatively optimistic conclusion. Young people were much more democratic and focused on Western values than the older generation. This attitude on the part of young people gave the authors hope for social and political change in the foreseeable future.
Research carried out by the Higher School of Economics in 2012–2013, as part of the European project MYPLACE: Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement, found that the views of Russian young people were much more complicated and confusing than has been suggested by the usual divisions into “pro-Russian” and “pro-Western,” “pro-Putin” and “oppositional” camps. Our data consisted of 1,200 surveys, answered by young people 16–25 years of age in Saint Petersburg and Vyborg, and sixty in-depth interviews with survey participants where we had the opportunity to discuss the political views of respondents in greater depth. The interviews showed the survey data had to be treated with caution. Even if a person had come across as liberal in the survey, it did not mean they did not consider Stalin an effective manager, and Putin, a democratic leader.
Entrusting Russian young people with one’s political hopes is, at very least, premature. They have noticeable problems with political consciousness. Until we got to politics, the vast majority of our respondents gave the impression of being quite conscious, informed, independent citizens. But when it came to political issues, many felt insecure and did not want to analyze them. In part, this explains the comfortable, quite normative choices of answers in the questionnaire. It was easier to check off that you support freedom of speech, the ability of citizens to shape events at home, and other “correct” answers.
On the other hand, young people have traditionally delegated responsibility to “adults” and “those who know best.” This position—that we are “little”, that we have to finish our educations, and get our own lives up and running—is a powerful barrier to collective action. It is curious this stance is a response to the attitude of “adults” towards young people. In the Russian discourse, young people are usually imagined as dependent objects in need of refinement, “patriotic” and other mentoring, but not as subjects of their own destinies. (Elena Omelchenko, director of the Center for Youth Studies at the Higher School of Economics, has long argued this point; see, for example, her article “Youth Activism in Russia and Global Transformations of Its Meaning.”) Young people willingly accept this position and do not want to change anything. Consequently, they do not shape the participatory skills, the civic skills they would need for political engagement in adulthood. Postponing interest in politics “for later,” young people practically postpone it forever. No wonder that a variety of civic education programs designed to instill the habits of citizens in young people are so popular all over the world.
When pinning hopes on young people, we need to consider two other things. First, young people, as they grow up, often forget about tolerance and the experiments of adolescence. Second, in Russian society there is not the radical ideological and cultural gap between the generations of parents and children that would be necessary for the kind of revolutionary outbursts of student unrest the world saw in 1968. For our respondents, parents and older relatives are the only people who can be trusted, and when making decisions, young people are guided by their opinions. Some respondents from the older age group (21–25 years of age) voted the same way in the 2011–2012 elections as their parents had. Moreover, family discussions of political change and parents’ opinions of the 1990s, the “restoration of order” in the 2000s, and even Soviet times have a much stronger impact on young people than any TV propaganda, which our respondents fairly easily identified and ignored, in contrast to the views of their elders. It is often forgotten that Russian society is experiencing a crisis of confidence in public institutions as well as in people outside the closest circles of friends and family. Our respondents are far from being ideological rebels in their families. Even if you do not agree about something with your parents, only they can be counted on for support, and only they want the best for you.
Under these circumstances, it was to be expected that the interviews showed the young people were extremely alienated from politics in general. Politics and everything associated with it was a “dirty business” in which involvement was absolutely senseless. This feeling of meaninglessness has been another important factor blocking attempts by even critically minded and informed young people from participating in political and civic processes. “Nothing can change” and “Everything has already been decided for us” were the phrases they used to explain their own lack of involvement. This, however, is not an exclusively Russian trait. Studies of European young people have also demonstrated a long-term, growing disillusionment with formal politics, declining interest in political parties, elections, and so on (see Flash Eurobarometer 375, April–May 2013).
Interpreting sociological data and trying to use them to make forecasts is a complicated and often thankless task, especially when it comes to mass mobilization, revolutions, riots, and similar “flash” events. Researchers of social movements have long been struggling with the question of why people do, nevertheless, take to the streets. Even in the most difficult conditions, when there is strong dissatisfaction with the situation, policies, and the regime, protests may or may not happen. That is why the analysis of attitudes and stated opinions is not an effective way of predicting behavior. People do not always do what they say, and even if they honestly believe in liberal values, it is not a given that at the crucial moment they will back up their statements with action. On the other hand, if they keep silent, it does not mean this will always be the case.
The author is a senior fellow at the Center for Youth Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg. All texts were translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of anatrrra.livejournal.com