The New Generation of Russian Dissenters

Aleksei Navalny after being attacked with “zelenka” in Moscow. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Evgeny Feldman

Cultural change is afoot. Political change cannot be far behind.

Several reasons may explain their motives, but the major one is the fact that younger Russians differ from their forebears in their political and civic attitudes. Studies show that younger Russians from large and medium-sized cities tend to be much more pro-democratic, activist and civic-minded than the older generations.  Thanks to the spread of the internet, open borders and relative economic prosperity, Russia’s younger generation is increasingly integrated into Western culture. Many travel abroad, speak English, watch the same movies and programs, and listen to the same music as their European contemporaries. People who are steeped in Western popular culture sooner or later become attracted to Western political culture as well. Younger Russians are less likely to remember the alleged “stability” that Putin brought to Russia on the wave of high oil prices in the 2000s.

Recent studies also show that younger people are more sensitive to the crisis of values spreading in Russian society due to the corrupt political system: many perceive a lack of honesty and respect in society. Youth interviewed during the protests mentioned the need for better morals, justice and dignity among the factors that led them to take part in the rallies.

Younger Russians also have fewer reasons to favor the current political and economic order. The rolling nationalization of the Russian economy and the economic crisis eliminated many sources of social mobility in Russian society and destroyed private-sector employment opportunities, while the best positions in state-owned corporations are occupied by the offspring of ruling elites. Younger Russians therefore have very limited career opportunities: the unemployment rate among young people under twenty-five is about 20 percent.

While there is little doubt that the Kremlin will use all possible means to disrupt the protests, there are reasons for optimism. First, the authorities have few available tools for brainwashing younger Russians who do not watch state TV channels. To a large extent, this generation is lost to the Kremlin. Second, Russian society is changing and becoming increasingly integrated into the globalized world. Its younger generations are much more pro-Western and pro-democratic than those that came before. This cultural change will ultimately bring about political change as well.

Maria Snegovaya is a PhD candidate at Columbia University and a columnist at Russia's business daily Vedomosti.

Image: Aleksei Navalny after being attacked with “zelenka” in Moscow. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Evgeny Feldman