A New Generation of Janitors Takes to the Streets

Photo: Alexey Abakumov


“A generation of janitors and night watchmen,” sang Soviet rock pioneer Boris Grebenshchikov in 1987, “have lost each other in the expanse of an endless night”. Though he was expressing the frustration of another generation and another economic downturn, the lyrics seem particularly relevant after protests across Russia this past weekend saw heavy youth involvement. Why did Russia’s young people – including a surprisingly large number of teenagers – turn out? And more importantly, what does it mean for Vladimir Putin as he pursues reelection next year?

The economy isn’t working for them…

If the protests over electoral results in 2011 and 2012 were driven predominantly by Russia’s urban middle class, which was subsequently pushed out of the political arena, this weekend’s “On Vam Ne Dimon!” (He’s Not Dimon to You) were sparked by opposition activist Alexei Navalny and made possible by the participation of young Russians from 15 to 29 years old. This cohort makes up roughly 20% of Russians.

age breakdown
Source: Rosstat

Why are they angry? A quick look at their career prospects and labor market is illustrative. In Fall 2015, the unemployment rate among Russia’s youth was some five times higher than 30 to 40 year olds. According to Elena Panina, Duma deputy and head of the Moscow Confederation of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, only 30% of those who approached state employment services for help found work. At the time 31.6% of Russia’s urban unemployed were between 15 and 24 (a demographic that accounts for roughly 10% of Russia’s population), with half of that group older than 20.

To note, youth unemployment isn’t a unique issue to Russia, but a feeling of economic hopelessness coupled with popular outrage over corruption harnessed by Navalny (“fairness is what we lack”, as it was put by writer Yekaterina Vinokurova), is a recipe for public anger. Moreover, Russia’s labor market outlook hasn’t brightened much since that data was collected: those figures likely have not improved. There is little realistic hope for the youth that their situation will improve in the near future

… and the propaganda isn’t working on them

To a large extent, the Kremlin’s messaging, and the means of delivering it, are simply not salient to local youth. For one, data from Levada Center shows young Russians are far less trusting of television as a news source than older generations. They’re more likely to get their news on the internet where the Kremlin’s control is not nearly as strong. The problem, however, goes beyond the means of delivering the message: it is with the messaging itself.

Source: Levada Center, Chart by Zach Witlin

For the time being, the Kremlin lacks a message that truly resonates with young people. Appeals for Russia to retake its rightful place on the world stage after post-Soviet humiliation have no meaning to those who don’t remember the Soviet Union. Similarly, appeals to the stability provided after the chaos and economic turmoil of the nineties don’t work on those who have come of age since then. And while it is undeniable that Russians have grown significantly wealthier under Putin, if you were born in 1995 and turned 18 in 2013, the economy has never looked robust, and that’s unlikely to change for some time. A strong line against the West is also less salient: young Russians were supportive of the Crimea annexation but the Levada Center has found that they see issues with the current geopolitical issues as specific to Ukraine, not as a broader civilizational conflict. Lastly, if “the sanctions do not work” as local leaders so frequently claim, why is the economy struggling?

Russia one and Russia two see eye to eye

Many observers noted after the protests that what was particularly surprising wasn’t their size, but their reach: it was not a shock that Russians turned out in Saint Petersburg in Moscow, it was that they did in far-flung cities like Makhachkala and Perm. To understand the significance of this spread, a look at political scientist Natalia Zubarevich’s work is helpful. Zubarevich identifies what she terms ‘four Russias’: post-Industrial Russia (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), Industrial Russia (one-company towns and smaller cities), Rural Russia, and Peripheral Russia (Dagestan). Some 60% of Russians live in the first two, and Russias two, three, and four are where Putin draws his support.

Protests in Russia, until now, had tended to be confined to one Russia at a time. When Muscovites and Petersburgers took the streets in 2011 and 2012 over political dissatisfaction, those in industrial areas were nonplussed. The recent economic downturn has hit industrial Russia far harder than its urban centers, and labor unrest has tended to be over specific economic grievances and frequently features appeals to Putin, not against him: “Putin, where are our wages?”. Protests by long-haul truckers got media play in 2015 and 2016, but that demographic is both tiny and diluted across Russia’s immense geography. In short, until now there hadn’t been a common grievance that could mobilize people across Zubarevich’s multiple Russias. With his corruption crusade, Navalny seems to have found one.

What this means

Russia is not in revolutionary throes, and Navalny is not on the verge of an electoral shock. It’s not certain yet whether he will even be allowed to run. As my local friends who attended protests tell me, many who took part were there against corruption, not in support of Navalny. What all of this does mean is a serious headache for the Kremlin, which has set itself a goal of 70% turnout and 70% support for Putin in 2018. First, while protest turnout was not large by any means, those who attended did so knowing they might well be arrested. It begs the question: who would have attended had protesting been a less risky endeavor? Second, while the Kremlin can easily sideline Navalny by jailing him, doing so risks driving down voter turnout in the election. One option is for the Kremlin to coopt his message, but the immediate question is how would it credibly do so? Many have commented that Prime Minister Medvedev, whose alleged corruption was the subject of the protests, to go. He has been the fall guy before, but on the other hand, if he is replaced, it will likely be during the actual campaign: the Kremlin is loath to be seen as pliable.

All in all, Putin and co need to devise a means of appealing to young Russians. Doing so, however, may require something not commonly associated with Russian leadership: being “cool.” Perhaps they can borrow more than Navalny’s anti-corruption message: they can borrow his tongue-in-cheek delivery, drones, memes, and production value, too.


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