The Kremlin faces no shortage of problems, but one of its biggest comes in a rather unlikely form: teenagers. A wave of protests swept across more than 82 cities in Russia in March, driven in large part by the country's youngest political activists. Pictures of teens climbing street lamps, speaking to crowds and being arrested by bulky policemen flooded the internet, causing many Russian media outlets to publicly wonder whether the burgeoning movement was the most youthful the nation had ever seen. Generation Z, an as yet unknown and unstudied segment of Russian society, had entered the political scene as a group of fully formed and politically conscious individuals.
Few saw it coming. After all, Russia's older generations still remember communism and the Soviet prioritization of the state's welfare above all else; demanding the right to the pursuit of happiness was unthinkable.
But this year's demonstrations have been slowly building for six years. In 2011, a public weary of corruption at the highest ranks of government took to the streets to protest rigged elections. A seed of dissatisfaction with the country's political system was planted, and in 2017 it fully bloomed into economic rallies that decried the deterioration of the Russian economy and a persistent slump in salaries. What linked the two movements? The unfairness of it all.
It's no surprise these protests drew teens in droves. They flocked to the streets not because of Western sanctions or foundering industries, but because of a sullen sense of injustice that, at some point, becomes impossible to ignore. Six years ago, some children accompanied their parents to the anti-corruption rallies; today, some parents follow their kids (many of whom are now between 17 and 19 years old) to the protests. Next year around 4 million of these teenagers will be old enough to vote — and some of them seem to have made up their minds to use that power to take action.
Bored, Informed and Unpunished
How did Generation Z become so different than its predecessors? For one, its members were born and raised in the era of President Vladimir Putin; they have never known another leader. One of the recent bouts of protests' mottos was "Putin is boring," an attitude that is prevalent among today's youngsters. They want to see a new face.
For another, Generation Z grew up in the internet age. More than 70 percent of Russian youths use the web to read the news, keeping up to date with the massive amount of information spreading rapidly through social media.
Finally, they are the first generation that "hasn’t been whipped." This phrase was first used in the 18th century when a royal decree exempted nobles from corporal punishment. Though Soviet schools included no legitimate corporal punishment, their philosophy sent a clear message to students: Obey or be punished. Generation Z, on the other hand, was raised by parents who by and large have adopted humanist methods of upbringing, creating an unprecedented level of equality between adults and children.
The YouTube Revolution
For years, Russian society has thought of its teens as apolitical adolescents who care more about surfing memes and videos than participating in politics. But clearly there's more to the story. The Kremlin is not the only entity losing the ability to present a satisfying picture of the world to Russian youths; most media outlets are, too.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, however, has not. Understanding the power of YouTube and other social media platforms, the Kremlin critic has drawn many teens to his cause. Rather than watching state-run television channels that feed Putin's propaganda to citizens across the country, youngsters have turned to the internet to find objective reality.
And in Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF), some have found it. After investigating allegations that Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev owned a massive undisclosed estate, the ACF created a video sarcastically named "He Is Not a Dimon for You" and published it on YouTube. ("Dimon" is an unceremonious nickname for Dmitri.) Instead of building a somber case with lengthy texts, Navalny's organization pieced together catchy, easy-to-digest sound bites with well-drawn infographics into a package intended to poke fun at the "funny guy" Medvedev. The video went viral, and the country's teens demanded that something be done about the prime minister's proclivity for extravagance. Putin ally and billionaire Alisher Usmanov tried to counter Navalny's stardom in May by launching two attack videos with the slogan "I spit on you, Alexei." Though Usmanov did indeed gain millions of views online, the attention largely centered on unflattering memes and Telegram stickers of the oligarch.
The Voices of Change
In the months since the March protests, Russian analysts have written page after page of explanation on the demographic shift underway. But on an open platform asking teens about their decision to protest, it became clear that they can — and are eager to — speak for themselves.
Despite the good humor of their responses, it's impossible to miss the sense of fatigue underpinning them as well. Marat, a high schooler, said:
"We live in this country, we will not allow rogues to plunder the state — read: our money. It's necessary to go for such 'a walk' because these crooks are getting scared, they have a lot to lose, that's why they brought on us tons of police and arrested more than 1,000 people only in Moscow."
A student named Ivan shared his frustration:
"I don’t like that our country is run by thieves and crooks, that the resources of our state are not fully used for the benefit of the people. I believe I had every right to go out for a rally to demand from the authorities the answers to all the allegations about corruption."
Svetlana, another high schooler, added:
"For more that 6 years, we are taught in school about an unknown, alluring and hypothetically existent thing as 'democracy in the Russian Federation.' In the class I readily respond to a teacher: 'Russia is a social state that guarantees citizens rights, pensions, benefits to vulnerable categories of the population. Yes, and we all are happy, of course, Miss Teacher. So it’s written.' And I’ve got A. But that it's all a lie, which everyone around agrees to, knowing that one's only right is to remain silent."
A young man named Eugene echoed her concerns:
"We [students] are against the violation of our personal cyberspace, we don’t want that clown Medvedev to continue hanging noodles on our ears that there is no money. And what can a student 16-17 years do? We are not eligible to vote yet. Only through rallies we can show the authorities that we are not happy."
Some sociologists doubt that there were more teens at this year's rallies than there were in the demonstrations that began in 2011. But many have noticed an important change in the public's mood. An independent mobile research group led by sociologist Alexander Bikbov conducted a series of interviews on the streets of Moscow on March 26. One slogan in particular caught the researchers' attention: "Return of Hope."
Contrary to the sense of helplessness and despair that has pervaded Russian society for the past few years, responses conveyed renewed purpose and determination among the protesters. Several interviews showed that people joined the demonstrations to support one another, to show strength in numbers and to encourage others to participate. In Bikbov's opinion, the theme of "togetherness" so absent in 2015-16 runs strong today.
Times have changed in Russia, and a new generation grew up when no one was looking. That generation has learned to volunteer for causes, collaborate with one another, declare their opinions and stand up for what's fair. Inspired by the openness of the internet and tired of the rhetoric television has to offer, these young adults are smart and driven. But most important, they do not want to leave Russia. Instead they want to change it for the better, and if the March movement was any indication, their voices will not be easy to silence.