Putin’s pesky millennials Sociologist Olga Zeveleva explains what makes today's protesters in Moscow something new for Russia
“I am 20 years old, and in my entire life there has not been a single day of freedom,” a young woman proclaimed before TV cameras at a protest in Moscow on August 10. She was one of roughly 50,000 people who gathered that day to demand fair elections in September's City Duma race, and advocate the release of activists arrested at earlier demonstrations for the same cause. The August 10 rally was the most-attended protest Russia has witnessed since the so-called “Bolotnaya” wave of anti-Putin rallies in late 2011 and 2012. But does Russia's new protest movement belong to the millennials? In a special essay for Meduza, Olga Zeveleva, a fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Sociology, looks at how generational politics and new forms of mobilization have shaped recent events in Moscow.
The news media is often quick to label protests as “youth movements,” but the social category “youth” is hazy, and reliable sociological data are sparse. According to a team of sociologists headed by Alexei Zakharov and Alexandra Arkhipova (who polled a random sample of 306 people at Moscow's most recent rally), 23 percent of those who attended were 25 years old or younger, and 59 percent were 35 or younger. We still lack sociological answers about the more general trends of the 2019 protest wave, and even this poll offers only an approximate snapshot of one event, but we can already see that Russia’s new protesters and their potential support base are markedly different from their 2011–2012 predecessors in two major ways.
First, more and more voters and protesters have grown up knowing only Vladimir Putin as Russia's political leader, and the Kremlin’s old narratives about the dangers of the pre-Putin era are losing their potency. Second, new student solidarity campaigns are making millennials more visible.
It's been a spell since the last protest wave
Time has passed since Russia's “Winter of Discontent,” and new cohorts have taken the stage. While the youngest voters who joined the 2011–2012 protests would have been born as late as 1994, today’s youngest voters weren't born until 2001. This means the trope of the “wild 1990s” — one of the Putin administration's foundational myths — could slowly lose relevance. Under Putin, the Kremlin has successfully pedaled the story that the collective tragedy of the first post-Soviet decade's poverty and lawlessness could resurface, if the president loosens his grip on the state. The binary has been rigid: if not Putin, then 90s-style chaos.
Many young people today, however, know the 1990s not from living memory, but as the Kremlin's beloved boogeyman. In a hit song released last year, 19-year-old pop star Monetochka satirized the 90s' legacy with the lyrics: “I learned with child-like horror / That in the 1990s people turned up dead / And everyone ran around buck naked. / There was no electricity anywhere, / There were only fist fights over jeans and Coca-Cola.”
Last week, Lyubov Sobol, a 31-year-old opposition candidate who was denied access to September's ballot in Moscow, highlighted the continuity between the 1990s and today’s political leadership in Russia:
“[Russian Central Election Commissioner] Ella Pamfilova has blamed me for wanting to return to the ‘wild 1990s.’ I, Lyubov Sobol, was a student in grade school in the 90s, when Ella Pamfilova was a minister in Gaidar’s and Chernomyrdin’s governments. [Moscow Election Commissioner Valentin] Gorbunov, who has been stealing elections for 26 years, has been in office all this time. [Sergey] Kiriyenko, who now heads domestic policy in the Presidential Administration, was the prime minister responsible for the  market crash. Putin was the head of the FSB, and before that he was busy raising hell in St. Petersburg. And these people are blaming me, a schoolgirl at the time, for the wild 1990s.”
After almost two decades of Vladimir Putin, Russia may be growing out of its old binary, where the public is offered a choice between the “wild 1990s” and the “stable 2000s.” As a result, it's increasingly hard for the country's ruling elites to blame opposition leaders for the chaos of those distant years, and the authorities — in lieu of new compelling stories — have decided to silence their critics through violence.
The youngest members of today's protest movement are now for the first time facing off against riot police, watching their friends get arrested and seeing their homes raided, and many are being arrested themselves and listed as witnesses or suspects in an onslaught of criminal investigations. The stakes for these activists are even higher than they were for the men and women who took to the streets in 2011 and 2012.
More than 2,700 people were arrested at demonstrations in Moscow on July 27, August 3, and August 10, and more than a dozen of these peaceful protesters now face felony charges for supposed “mass rioting.” (In 2012, the authorities were far slower to bring “mass rioting” charges against anti-Kremlin activists.) The brutal response at these rallies from law enforcement has landed several protesters in the hospital, and the police have raided the homes of multiple activists, often coming in the middle of the night.
Part of the bigger story here is the violent crackdown on student activists. Of those arrested in late July and early August, more than 300 are students, according to Georgy Tarasenko, who heads a working group that monitors these arrests. Many students now face administrative prosecution, as well as threats from the police and university officials, who say they will punish those who exercise their right to peaceful assembly. Three student activists — Egor Zhukov (21 years old), Daniil Konon (22), and Valery Kostenok (20) — could go to prison for as long as eight years for alleged rioting. They are currently being held in pretrial detention centers, which are known for widespread violations of detainees' rights.
Enraged by this show of force, millennials and student activists have rallied to the defense of many arrested protesters, launching fierce campaigns built on digital infrastructures. Some of this was developed in the Bolotnaya era: for example, the OVD-Info human rights project launched in 2011. Today, it monitors arrests and fields a Telegram bot that offers legal advice to people who have been arrested. Echoing these tactics, the independent student magazine DOXA has set up a group chat called “DOXA-OVD,” where participants share the latest information on student arrests.
DOXA also crowdfunds money to pay off the fines assessed to student protesters, and it's published open letters addressed to these students' university administrations, deliberately dragging administrators into political debates. In recent weeks, DOXA has carried out the functions of a student union, spearheading campaigns that Russia’s academic community has never seen before. The movement has also grown into the international project “Here We Stand,” which supports students that face any form of politically motivated persecution.
Russia’s protesters today are navigating a new set of narratives in a different digital environment than before. They don't buy into the Kremlin’s old foundational myths. They have Telegram bots at their fingertips, entire teams of lawyers on call, and activists from DOXA and “Here We Stand” tirelessly promoting their stories.
These infrastructures will play their part in bringing attention and winning justice for some caught in this summer's police crackdown, but the movement's long-term prospects are unknown, and there's little reason to be optimistic. Policy-making at this level happens behind the closed doors of the Presidential Administration, in dialogue with the country's security officials. Even when the authorities run out of compelling horror stories to tell voters, they will still wield power in Russia's police stations, courtrooms, and prisons.