Why young people were Russia's people of the year in 2017

20:28, 10 january 2018

On March 26, 2017, a wave of anti-corruption protests swept Russia. Thousands of people joined what would be the biggest demonstrations in five years. The most surprising aspect of the activism wasn't its size, however, but the youth of the people who turned out. Large numbers of protesters were students at high schools and universities, provoking a national conversation about the politics of the generation that's coming of age today. A couple of weeks into 2018, Meduza looks back at what made teenagers Russia's people of the year in 2017.

Russia's new, unexpected citizens

The anti-corruption protests spearheaded by politician Alexey Navalny generally surprised the Russian public, and the movement's resonance among young people has been particularly unexpected. While this wasn't the first time students joined political demonstrations (many marched in the 2011-2012 protests against election fraud), young people formed the backbone of the anti-corruption movement that took off in 2017.

Since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, the government has enacted a series of oppressive laws, cracking down on free speech, and Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014 sent the president's approval ratings to new heights. In the aftermath of all this, few believed Russia would witness another wave of protests anytime soon.

But then the political landscape shifted again — this time thanks to a new generation of people who have grown up under Putin and grown tired of Russia's unchanging leadership. Remarkably, this new movement wasn't limited to Moscow: the demonstrations were happening in towns and cities across the country.

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

According to social scientists, Russia's young people say they're drawn to protests because they're tired of the government's lies and committed to strong notions of justice and a sense of dignity.

These teens have the authorities worried

The government's concerns about these new younger protesters makes their movement all the more significant. For their activism, students at schools and universities have faced expulsion, police interrogation, and even intimidation by federal agents. In one incredible case, a freshman high schooler from Novy Urengoy traveled to Germany and gave a pacifist speech at the Bundestag — an offense for which several local officials were later reprimanded. The harsh reaction from the authorities conveyed a clear message: Russia's schools are responsible for their students' “patriotic education.”

A Russian high school student speaks at the Bundestag, saying that not all German soldiers wanted to go to war in the 1940s

Students have always argued with their teachers, but now the footage is leaking online

The year 2017 witnessed the emergence of a new genre of viral video: the student-teacher conversation. Of course, this wasn't the first time students and teachers disagreed about politics, but smartphones, pocket recorders, and online social media are now making these exchanges available to the public.

Thanks to this footage, we now have a better grasp of what opinions prevail among Russian students, and more importantly we know how some of them stand up for their beliefs (with some arguing rather incoherently and others displaying remarkable eloquence). The leaked videos and audio tapes also revealed the methods teachers use to silence dissent among their students and shape their political views. Perhaps the best-known case in this trend of 2017 was a conversation in Bryansk between a school principal, a teacher, and a classroom of students.

Talking politics at school

Russia's youth movement has produced lasting protest symbols

The two most memorable moments from the 2017 youth protests were likely this fifth grader speaking at a rally, expressing his support for constitutional reforms...

A fifth-grader speaks at a demonstration in Tomsk

… and Moscow high school students climbing a lamppost at a demonstration (see above).

Teenagers don’t watch TV

2017 marked the death of the age-old wisdom that change in Russia is impossible because the government's control over the all-power “boobtube” has zombified the public. Young people have broken the state's grip on information by replacing television with YouTube. For the new generation, social media stars are more credible than network TV anchors like Dmitry Kiselyov. It was, after all, an investigative report conveyed in a YouTube video, compiled by Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, that sparked the new anti-corruption movement.

The new youth movement is more than Navalny's Army

Social scientists believe Russia's new youth movement isn't exclusively the result of Navalny's presidential campaign and anti-corruption protests. Anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova says social and political activism among Russian adolescents has been on the rise since May 2016, and young people's civic engagement extends beyond rallies into charity and community volunteer work.

Sociologist Elena Omelchenko says rigorous studies are hard to conduct at grade schools, but recent research on Russian university students has shown that social involvement and political activism are increasingly popular.

Text by Alexander Borzenko, translation by Alexandra Besedina