Tatyana Schukina: Why Russian Schoolchildren Protest

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Tatyana Schukina
VK
September 10, 2018

“Gendarmes Savagely Nab Teenagers”

Who are the teenagers who go to protest rallies? Blind rebels who would oppose any system or children who have realized this country has no future?

Yes, I believe my views are oppositional, sometimes to extremes. But I want to at least try and examine this topic objectively.

I think there are both kinds of children at protest rallies. The scary thing is that if absolutely all children came to protest rallies merely to have a laugh, feel they were part of something meaningful, and yell at the government, basing their arguments on someone else’s words, it wouldn’t be so terrible.

At the [anti-inauguration] rally on May 5, my friends and I saw a boy who was six or seven. He wore a blazer and had a school bag on his back. He marched with the crowd. He was not yelling, but he was part of the rally.

One of my friends wanted to take the piss out of him.

“Our little rebel. You against the system, too?” he said.

“Systems are inevitable,” the boy replied. “I’m against this one.”

We freaked out. We delicately asked him whether he was frightened.

(The atmosphere was frightening. There were tons of paddy wagons and helmeted polizei wielding truncheons. The crowd was screaming. Protesters were getting nicked and marched off to the paddy wagons. Some people were crying.)

The boy laughed.

“It’s frightening when they explain to me at school why I could be punished if I’m strolling out here,” he said.

“You’re frightened you’ll be punished?”

“I’m frightened I don’t know why I would be punished,” he said.

I’m scared that children talk like that. I’m scared that children speak beyond their years and in their own words. I’m scared they could be sent to jail or expelled from school in their own city, yet no one can properly explain to them why. For pictures posted on the internet? For attending peaceful protest rallies? Even though the authorities herd children to a rally if it’s a pro-Putin rally. That’s the difference. Children are simply bused to pro-United Russia rallies and hold placards made ahead of time for them.

They go to opposition rallies on their own.

I know the schools are flooded with propaganda. I know because I was a schoolgirl until recently. I also know that political campaigning and propaganda is legally forbidden in schools.

I remember one September first, the first day of the school year. We sat in our classroom, and the teacher told us about the plans for the years. Another teacher walked around the room, taking snapshots of diligent pupils at their desks. A slide with an image of Putin flashed on the screen. It was captioned, “Russian Federation President V.V. Putin.”

It was no big deal. The next slide flashed on the screen.

“Wait, bring Putin back. I’ll take a snapshot of the class with him in the background,” the teacher with the camera yelled to the pupil running the projector.

It was a trifle. Totalitarianism is made up of trifles such as children seated in front of the supreme leader’s picture. But wait, it’s the twenty-first century. Everything’s cool. The picture is digital.

That teacher takes a class snapshot with Putin in the background. Another teacher stuffs ballot boxes on election day. Yet another teacher tells pupils why they are forbidden to attend protest rallies. Finally, a fourth teacher takes children to a pro-United Russia rally. But children don’t understand what’s happening. Children ask questions. Children are interested in politics. Children understand this is where they will have to live. Children watch investigative reports, children see the poverty, and children go to protest rallies.

Thanks to Leokadia Frenkel for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photograph courtesy of Reuters and Ms. Shchukina’s VK page

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Sixteen Blue

“Putin Has Been in Power My Whole Life”
On the occasion of International Children’s Defense Day, The Village spoke with 16-year-olds about Vladimir Putin, social networks, and future plans
Lena Vereshchagina
The Village
June 1, 2016

Vladimir Putin has been in power, as president and prime minister, for over sixteen years. During this long period, a whole generation of people has come of age who never lived in the “pre-tandem” era and have a faint idea of what political succession is and why it is necessary. On the occasion of International Children’s Defense Day, the Village met with four 16-year-old schoolchildren and talked with them not only about politics and the permanent leader but also about social networks, the Soviet Union, and their priorities in life.

Vasya, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin
Vasya, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin

I am in the tenth grade at a French-language magnet school. I studied for six months in the US in the ninth grade. Things are definitely different there. I wound up at a private school where everything revolves around providing a full-fledged education. There was virtually no free time, and the schedule was quite hard. Under those circumstances, it is probably easier to find yourself. I remember I was invited to attend charcoal drawing lessons. They had everything to make them happen: a wonderful studio with huge windows and an unlimited supply of charcoal pencils. The atmosphere at my school in Russia is less creative.

Now I am in the physics and mathematics stream. Mom influenced my choice of specialization. She said the hard sciences were a good occupation for men. I am interested in programming. I would like my job to jibe wholly with my personal interests, for my profession to be my mission in life. At the same time, Mom has advised me to seek work abroad. Russia is going to stay put, after all, and working abroad can be a very rewarding experience.

We have not had a TV at home since 2006. When wired Internet became available, we immediately began using it alone. I try and spend as little time on the web as possible. I am aware that the flow of information from the social networks is unlimited. You read one thing, you get distracted by another thing, and you look through something else. You can fritter away your whole life like that. I try and be on the Internet for short periods of times. Sometimes, when I am riding the subway to practice, I get on the web and look at something.

I read voraciously. When I have free time and want to read a book, I read it without stopping. I can not pick up a book for two weeks, but then come home from school and blaze through the entire second volume of War and Peace in three hours. It took me two or three hours to read it. I read fairly quickly. I read it when I was ill, and then I immediately grabbed the third volume. Besides what is in the school curriculum, I read books Mom recommends. She gave me, for example, Yuri Lotman’s Conversations on Russian Culture and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature.

I imagine the Soviet Union as a strict regime. I know that people could not just go abroad in those days. You could not just pick up and go to England or France. People had fewer opportunities.

The main principle I saw abroad was that power must change hands. But we have had the same president for sixteen years. Vladimir Putin has personally done nothing bad to me, and I wish him all the best.  But I realize it is beneficial for him to hold this office, and profitable for his friends. Power does not change hands, and accordingly society makes no progress in any direction. I think it is good when there is at least elementary competition. Some people in my class do not care about this. They are happy about the annexation of Crimea and believe it was legal. Some have never been abroad, but think the US and Europe have been behaving aggressively towards Russia, and now we are going to get up off our knees and show them all. Due to this, I have no desire to socialize a lot with my classmates.

My grandmother and grandfather live in Smolensk. They watch a lot of TV, and everything shown on TV is the unquestionable truth to them. It is really hard to talk with them about politics, so we have agreed not to touch the topic. Mom and I do not discuss politics, because we get home late and try and talk about peaceful topics.

Nika, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin

I am a pupil in the Higher School of Economic’s magnet school in the liberal arts stream. I study literature, philosophy, cognition theory, and subjects related to philology. In the future, I plan on applying to the HSE and majoring in philology.

I read everything I can get my hands on, because for now I am only learning to distinguish good literature from bad. For example, I read the stories for teenagers Mom buys me, the things on the reading list at school, and beyond that. Right now, I am reading Leo Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness. I also love Iain Banks and Richard Bach. I read about four books a month.

In my free time, I hang out and watch movies. What kind of movies? Everything under the sun. I like something simple. I watch a lot of TV series, even more than movies. They are somehow easier to process. My favorites include The Big Bang Theory, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and Game of Thrones. I never watch TV. Only occasionally do I watch morning cartoons with my little brother.

My friends and I often discuss plans for the future, important world events, life at school, and other kids. I think the life of modern schoolchildren would be impossible without social networks. Many of our teachers also have accounts on them, and they often put our homework assignments on VKontakte to simplify things. I don’t spend more time on the social networks than anyone else: a few hours a day.

Some of the classes in my school are taught by teachers who are only twenty-five or so. In fact, we are not so different from them. They also spend time on social networks and socialize with their friends in a similar way.

I imagine the Soviet Union the way it is shown in old movies, meaning there are jolly schoolchildren and ice cream, it is always a beautiful time of year, and there are lots of tyrannical adults who tell the young people what to do. The 1990s, in my opinion, were really cool. You could easily get what you wanted without hassle. Without making any effort, you could make a fortune.

I don’t understand anything about Russian politics. I just know that Vladimir Putin runs the country, and some reforms should be implemented, but they are not being implemented. Or they are being implemented, but not in the way many people would like. But I cannot make heads or tails of it. At home, we do not touch on the topic, because my mom is not interested in politics. At school, if someone talks about it, I just listen and draw my own conclusions.

Putin has been in power my whole life. It is funny. I just don’t how it could be otherwise. I think everything is okay, and there have been no visible changes in my life over the past ten years. I think Putin has done a good job as president: no wonder he has been in power for such a long time. Meaning he has experience and knowledge that he can draw on. He is fairly influential, and the whole nation listens to him, so I think he is okay.  The other politicians whose names come to mind are Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sergei Shoigu, and Vitali Klitschko.

Arina, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin
Arina, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin

I go to an English-language magnet school and am in the engineering stream. My favorite subjects are English, Russian, mathematics, and probably physics.

In the second grade, we went on a tour, and the guide asked us, “Who wants to be president?” No one replied, but I thought, “Why not?” I said out loud I wanted to be president. Since then the idea has stuck in my head. Now I am involved in youth politics and am a member of the Young Guard of United Russia. I have learned a lot of things about politics there. I have been growing personally, and meeting and socializing with lots of interesting people from this area. I don’t know what way life will turn, but maybe in the future I will be able to join the party, and if I don’t become president, I can simply be involved in politics. Politics attracts me, because I feel I can change things. I like situations in which there are business-like relationships, turns of events, excitement and competition, socializing with interesting people, and the possibility of taking responsibility and making important decisions.

I communicate with people on social networks, but I cannot say I hang out there. Sometimes, I make a point of not going on Vkontakte to read the news so I can get more done in real life, not in virtual life. I think life was more interesting before the advent of the Internet. Children were more focused, more interesting in learning and growing. But now the Internet does everything for them.

I don’t have much time to read. We are assigned a lot in school, so mainly I have to study the literature in the curriculum. My favorite Russian writer is Alexander Pushkin.

We are different from the generation of 25-year-olds. We have more technology, information, and stress. I look at children younger than me, remember what I was like at their age, and realize I didn’t know the words they know and couldn’t do the things they are able to do. I think 25-year-olds think the same thing about us.

It is a pity the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a good time. I cannot say that people lived very badly then. After all, the country was developing its industries, and the factories were working. But now, when practically none of it is left, it is hard to recover.

If you believe the stories, films, and history lessons, the 1990s were a time of bandits. Money and connections reigned then, and there were many murders. I have nothing more to add.

My classmates and I mainly take about our classes at school and the events we have there. I discuss politics with Dad. He enjoys talking about it.

I am fine with the fact that Vladimir Putin has been in power so long. After all, for anything to change, something like fifteen to twenty years have to pass. If any reforms are taking place, they include plans for the future. Such reforms are taking place right now. Of course, there are downsides to Vladimir Vladimirovich’s policies, but they are not overwhelming.

Putin is a strong and worthy president for our country. In the current circumstances, another leader would have done worse or would have been crushed. But not Vladimir Vladimirovich. I respect him.

Masha, 16. Photography by Ivan Vanyutin
Masha, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin

I go to the Physical and Mathematical Lyceum, but I am in the socio-economic stream. I love social studies, history, and English, and mathematics, too. I hate physics and computer science.

I have also been studying German so that in the future I can go to university in Germany, a plan my parents have really been encouraging. I would not even think about leaving Russia were it not for them. I think students suffer in our country, and lecturers are not at all amenable to them. In Europe, on the contrary, they try to help and support students, and if they don’t get something, they explain it to them. I would like to work in the social sphere, for example, as a psychologist in some company, but for the time being it is just a dream.

My classmates and I often discuss the news, but not political news. Rather, we gab about what is happening in the world. And of course we gossip.

Throughout the day, I periodically log onto the social networks to reply to messages and read what friends have posted.  But now I have been conducting an experiment. I deleted my page on VKontakte, and I try to use the phone only in cases of real need. Then I started reading a book, and real life became more dynamic.

I read a lot, but I am rarely manage to read what I want. I spend a lot of time reading what is in the school curriculum. I have very little free time: every day there are tutoring sessions, extra classes, and evening courses. But when I get a free minute, I spend time with friends or alone, read, watch movies or play the guitar.

My parents and I have a tradition: we often watch TV series in the evening together, sometimes Russian series, sometimes American. But I don’t watch TV at all. There is simply no time for it.

I think people who lived in the Soviet Union had it very hard, simply because there was no freedom of choice. There were things you had to do, and things you could not do. Joseph Stalin was a very controversial person. Although maybe he was doing the best he could. I can believe this was what he thought.

I know that there was perestroika in the 1990s. According to Dad, things were very hard, because there lots of bandits.

I know quite a lot about current politics. My parents are ardently in the opposition. Since I was little, I have been hearing from them how bad Vladimir Putin is and how horrible Russia is.  Of course, I discount half of what they say, and I keep track of events in the country myself. I don’t like everything, of course, but I try to be nonjudgemental.

The accession of Crimea is one of the most significant political changes of recent times, of course. I think everything in Russia changed dramatically in the aftermath. Those two viewpoints: Crimea is ours or Crimea is not ours; I think everything went wrong then. One also immediately recalls Nemtsov’s murder. It is unclear why a leader of the Russian opposition was murdered on the street.

I have lots of thoughts about Putin. I said that Stalin, perhaps, had good intentions, but for some reason I am certain that Putin doesn’t have them. He says one thing, and then does the complete opposite, at least when it comes to fighting corruption. Corruption is well developed in Russia, but Putin tries not to do anything about it. There have also been reports (I don’t know whether they have been confirmed or not) that he has bought houses in Italy and Spain.

It is hard to imagine anyone else in Putin’s place, because he has been president my whole life. I even get a bit scared that he will never resign. Things are also complicated by the fact that I don’t see any other candidates for the job.

I am not sure that things will be better if someone takes his place. I think it depends not on the government, but on society itself. He has not just been sitting there for so many years. People have voted for him.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of The Village. See my previous posts in this occasional series on young people in Russia today and the moral panics generated around them by the media, politicians, and the public.

____________

The Kids Are (Not) Alright

Piter_april15_35

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”

_________

Survey

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
Anna Zhelnina
May 26, 2015
Vedomosti

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