Russia is a hot topic these days and generally for all the wrong reasons. With problems in Ukraine, a sharply falling currency, food sanctions and a leader who resembles some kind of Disney villain it might seem a bit irrelevant to focus on the political passivity of the country’s youth. However, understanding the indifference of Russia’s youth not only explains a lot about the political decisions made in Russia today but would also help readers in the west get a better grasp of a country which is often misunderstood. Too often, the rhetoric employed by the Western media seems to imply that the country is polarised into those who can’t stand the man himself, Mr. Vladimir Putin, and those who love him. The Russians are seemingly divided into two groups: an oppressed people longing for western-style democracy ,or a bunch of Putinophiles longing for Russia to be a great power once again. However, having lived in Moscow for just over three months now, I feel that most people fit into neither camp. Indeed, as far as the youth of Russia are concerned, I’m not sure how much the vast majority of them really care. This is not to say they agree with what is going on, behind the giant red towers that enclose the Kremlin or behind the large, overpowering columns of the State Duma. But it seems they certainly are not keen on playing an active role in the country’s politics.
Politics is important. Exercising your right to vote is crucial. It is heart-warming to see how active the young people of Dublin have been in encouraging their peers to register to vote yes in the all-important same-sex marriage referendum. I truly hope their efforts allow the right decision to be made. So why do young people in Russia seem so apathetic in comparison? I suppose it might be said that the marriage referendum is an exception, and, frankly, in Ireland, the UK or anywhere in Europe, political indifference amongst young people is not unusual. But in Russia, a country that can be argued to be still, in so many ways, a patriarchal, sexist, racist and generally counter-progressive hub, why aren’t the educated youth seeking change?
Perhaps in the West we have become too complacent with our own freedom. Democracy has not come easily to Russia. In fact, some would argue it has not come at all. The blueprint for the new “free” society engineered by Gorbachev et al was poorly planned and executed in Russia. This was exacerbated by Yeltsin’s incompetence and the economic collapse of 1998. By the early 2000s, or even the late 1990s, a large portion of the Russian population were left disillusioned and often pining for the days when their jobs were secure and life, although censored and controlled, was stable.
Though economics indicators have improved since Putin has been installed, it has not been plain sailing. He is arguably one of the most hated men in the West and his policies have involved the recentralisation of economic and political power, a return to nationalist rhetoric and the emasculation of party politics. The man is hardly likeable and his current actions towards Ukraine and Crimea are infuriating and, frankly, quite frightening. His path is leading Russia towards further alienation from the West. Even his recent premature departure from the G20 summit is saying something about his relations with the rest of the developed world. So why do the students in my obshaga (Russian student dorms) not care? Well, they do care: they’re not stupid and they have opinions. But they are more worried about having enough money to get by, getting a job, having the freedom to travel and writing poetry than getting up in arms about a leader who, despite the current declining rouble, in their day-to-day lives is offering the one thing Russia has truly needed since the collapse of the Soviet Union: a sense of stability.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a vacuum of norms and values across the Russian Federation that has not been filled. According to a number of surveys carried out by sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya, the Soviet social fabric that was ‘torn apart but not replaced’ has left many different groups of young people from around Russia, from students in Moscow to miners in Krasnoyarsk, to feel directionless in life.
It doesn’t help that the youth groups that have appeared, such as pro-Kremlin group ‘Nashi’, founded in 2005, have proved largely unpopular and made a farce of youth involvement in politics. Indeed, even from the beginning, the apolitical youth it aimed to attract surely could not have been fooled by its true aim: to merely replace the ruling elite of Russia with another set of pro-Kremlin cronies indoctrinated each summer at the annual Nashi camp in Lake Seliger. These groups have become increasingly less important. The government has tried to encourage youth participation in politics from above by attempting to introduce a separate minister for youth policy. However, these feeble attempts to attract the attention of the young people of Russia were unsuccessful. Indeed, reports have shown that Russia’s youth are more inclined to support the complete destruction of the political system – even by revolution, than gradual change. Nashi’s first objective, namely to ‘forcibly preserve’ the current political system was evidently doomed to fail. But even if the government can’t attract youth participation, why don’t the Russian youth want to help themselves?
A friend from my obshaga, Ilya, does not want to see the people of Ukraine to be denied their freedom, nor does he want his boyfriend and himself to undergo any more discrimination. But he admits that at the end of the day life isn’t too bad for your average Muscovite. The imminent inflation from the sharply declining rouble does not yet seem to have affected any of my Russian friends at university. And, all in all, they’re pretty happy with their lifestyle here. Ilya loves his university, he loves his friends here and, without wishing to sound horrifically basic, there’s food on the table, enough money in the bank, and a wealth of poetry to get stuck into. Perhaps this is only true of the urban youth, indeed, to dissect this problem fully, it would probably be better to also gather opinions from industrial workers in Irkutsk but, as of yet, I have not made any pals from deepest darkest Siberia.
I ask Ilya about his personal experiences of homophobia in Moscow. He says that often while walking or holding hands with his boyfriend people stare, people point, people laugh but he tries not to let it affect him. I finally ask him whether he would go to a gay rights march in Moscow. He nods his head in agreement but goes on to explain that if he slept in and missed it he wouldn’t really care. Why? Because nothing will change anyway.
This is sad, but it does explain why there is often relatively poor turnout at political protests and even at elections in Russia relative to its size. The Russian people, more than any of their Western critics, are hyper-aware of the deeply embedded corruption that exists in their society. In 2011, there were mass protests against the supposed rigged elections, but just like most protests attacking the government, there were no long lasting gains and the criticisms found themselves kicked under the bed of corruption and bureaucracy that comprises the Russian governmental structure.
It seems fair to say that young people of Russia are so politically apathetic because they feel alienated by their government and powerless to change and, however tainted his politics may be, Putin offers them stability and their daily lives are not really impacted by Russia’s constantly changing political situation. Unfortunately, a symptom of this apathy has manifested itself in the appearance of the Russian ‘хипстер’ (hipster). The hipster creed has blown its way across the plains of central Euope. In Russia its adherents tend to reject political involvement and focus on cultivating a wildly alternative attitude to most aspects of life. It seems to me that more and more of the Russian urban youth are pulled into this wide-rim glasses-wearing whirlpool every day.
You see them mumbling exchanges in the darkest corners of the smoking area at yet another minimalist house night, or hopping in and out of anti-cafés having spent the afternoon playing ping pong with another flat-capped aficionado. These folk are more concerned with the upkeep of their impressive facial hair or making sure they show face at the next pop-up restaurant serving them another distinctly average dish in a hand-painted remodelled ashtray than rallying for freedom. You know the types. And perhaps, it is these folk that the people pining for a more politically active Russian youth should really fear. They don’t abstain from political involvement because they think their vote won’t count or because they are disillusioned with the difference they could make, they are simply more concerned with their image than anything else. Indeed, as long as their limited edition vinyls are intact and that Japanese art film is still showing down the road, politics can do whatever it pleases.
However, increasingly invasive intrusions into their bubble might yet provoke some reaction. The wider government crackdown on club nights and music performances is starting to interfere with Russian hipster life. Ivan Alekseev, who goes by the name of Noize MC, has a huge fan base amongst the young and trendy here in Russia. Unfortunately, after he sang in Ukrainian and accepted a flag from a Ukrainian fan member, his concerts have increasingly been cancelled and called off at the last minute. A few weeks ago, Mykki Blanco, the black cross-dressing rapper, was set to perform in Moscow’s hip, hop and happening Solyanka club. However, at 1 pm that day, the police raided the club and shut it down. Apparently, this closure was due to unsettled debts. But it does seem more than coincidental that the the police chose the day when a black cross-dressing rapper was set to perform, especially as the extreme Eastern Orthodox, anti-LGBT group God’s Will had been trying to shut down the club of so-called ‘perverts’ since the announcement of the concert. If the crackdown on music performances continues to spread to other vital parts of youth culture surely youth activism will start to rise. But as of yet, regard for political issues is still not a priority.
Frankly, whether they are disillusioned, or just more concerned with the height of their beanie, the Russian youth needs to sit up and at least try to get involved in political affairs. Corruption breeds corruption. If young people hold on to their apathy it could have disastrous social and economic consequences for the country’ going forward. Currently Russia is on the brink of a potential economic disaster and there are rumours that from January 2015, websites such as Skype and Facebook may be prohibited. This is not the kind of Russia any young person would truly want to live in – I know I’m feeling rather anxious about the future here myself. After all, fashions change and the progress of this great nation will involve more than a good selection of skinny jeans and the latest New Balance trainers.
Illustration: Sarah Morel