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A Brave New World for the Kremlin

April 10th 2017

Russian soldiers Red Square

Every country faces generational change. Evolutions in technology, culture, social mores and global affairs can leave a gulf between young and old that neither can easily bridge. In Russia, that gulf is especially vast. As of this year, 27 percent of Russians were born after the fall of the Soviet Union, and that number will jump to nearly 40 percent within the next decade. The rising generation was never Sovietized. Most of them, moreover, are too young to remember the tumultuous 1990s, a decade of war, financial crisis and political disarray.

Unlike the older generations, they don't recall President Vladimir Putin's promises to save Russia or the measures he took to stabilize the country after its post-Soviet tailspin. In fact, they've never really known life without him. For Putin, the situation poses an unfamiliar challenge.

Shortly after the longtime leader came to power, his administration launched a series of initiatives to woo young people. Large youth groups such as Nashi formed, promoting nationalism and prescribing support for the president as every Russian's civic duty. The ideological groundwork these organizations laid sustained the Putin administration's popularity for nearly two decades of political stability and economic prosperity. After about a decade, though, the groups fizzled. The younger generations didn't take to them as their predecessors had. Having spent their formative years in a stable and strengthening country, they lacked the experience of living in a broken state. Today, much of Russia's youth population is still playing by its own rules, to the Kremlin's dismay.

Over the past two weekends, people took to the streets en masse across Russia to protest government corruption, the stagnant economy and rising poverty levels. A large number of the protesters were people in their 20s. The movement's sizable youth component led several government members to dismiss the protests as a "teenage tantrum." And in the days since, videos and stories have emerged of teachers berating their students for taking part in the demonstrations. One teacher in the central Siberian city of Tomsk was recorded calling her students unpatriotic, ignorant, liberal fascists and Anglo-Saxon lackeys.

The protests' demographic makeup is no less troubling for the Kremlin. Though opposition heavyweight Alexei Navalny initially organized the demonstrations, the movement quickly spread beyond his support base. Russia's traditional opposition groups were not responsible for organizing the younger protesters; instead, they represent a grassroots movement that rallied across Russia on social media. The rise of social media among younger generations presents a couple of problems for the Kremlin. For one thing, as the recent protests have demonstrated, the technology is a powerful tool for organizing mass demonstrations. For another, it is superseding traditional state-run media, particularly television. Reports surfaced Wednesday that the Russian government is considering overhauling its television news outlets because fewer and fewer young people are tuning in to hear the Kremlin's message. A survey by independent pollster Levada found that less than half of Russians between 18 and 25 trust state-run television, compared with more than 73 percent of Russians over 55.

The Kremlin has already started cracking down on social media since the government passed a series of draconian laws last year, including a measure requiring all online groups in Russia to relocate their servers to Russian territory. Some social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have refused to adhere to the new laws. But others are starting to comply. Two days after the April 2 protest, popular blogging platform LiveJournal released a new user agreement that could enable Russian security services to access users' information. Reports have also emerged that the government is censoring posts on YouTube and Russian social network service VKontakte. A Russian lawmaker has even proposed banning all youths from social media. As an alternative, and more realistic, solution, the Kremlin recently announced the launch a program of "moral and patriotic upbringing" for young people online.

Still, it's unclear how much the Kremlin can hope to influence a generation that's so tapped into messaging beyond its control. The Putin administration first unified the Russian people behind a plan to end the chaos that had reigned in Russia during the 1990s and later with a promise to restore the country's international influence. The younger generations have come to expect a strong and stable country, having known no other version of it. But now, the current economic stagnation, coupled with continual scandals of government corruption, is sowing seeds of discontent among the country's youth — with help from the internet. More than addressing these concerns, the real challenge for the Kremlin will be finding a way to relate to Russia's post-Soviet population, which is only getting bigger every year.


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