Russian Youth and Civic Engagement

Russian youth today have access to a variety of sources of information Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) и Левада-Центр опубликовали отчет о гражданской и политической активности молодежи в России. Дает понять, как отличаются разные поколения и что делает молодежь оппозиционной

Over the past two decades, the former Soviet space has witnessed a sharp rise in popular uprisings demanding greater pluralism and democratic change. The common denominator in all of these waves of civic activism in countries such as Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and several waves of mass protests in Russia has been that they largely coincided with the coming of age of new generations whose formative experiences took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Unlike their elders whose grievances were largely economic, these new generations were protesting for political reasons. They were demanding free and fair elections, fairer political representation, greater accountability, and transparency.

The young people of today’s Russia — sometimes called millennials, Generation Z, or “Putin’s generation,” — have known political life mainly under the current Russian president. Focused studies of urban youth in Russia find them to be more liberal and opposition-minded than the rest of the population. Surveys of large protests in Moscow from 2011-19 show that younger protesters constituted between 20-30 percent of all participants.1 This crucial demographic could play an important role in Russia’s future political development. Despite this phenomenon, there has been scant empirical research that has systematically examined younger citizens in Russia and behavioral and attitudinal characteristics that distinguish them from older cohorts.

This report uses existing public opinion surveys to provide a comparative and empirical examination of factors that distinguish Russia’s youth from older cohorts in terms of their sociopolitical attitudes and propensity for civic and political activism. It also presents the results of an empirical study of civic engagement among Russian youth run by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in collaboration with Russia’s leading independent public opinion pollster, the Levada-Center, in the fall of 2019. This report will deepen the U.S. policy community’s understanding of the issues that are driving civic and political mobilization in the post-Soviet space and in Russia.

KEY TAKEAWAYS
  • Russian youth today have access to a variety of sources of information and are active users of the internet and social media networks. They are, as a result, less vulnerable to Kremlin propaganda.
  • Unlike older generations, young Russians hold less paternalistic attitudes and are less likely to expect support from the state. The number of Russians below the age of 25 who support human rights is almost twice as high as the number who support the priority of state interests. The opposite is true among older Russians.
  • Young Russians who are more open to the world—have a greater knowledge of foreign languages; watch movies, read books, and listen to podcasts in foreign languages; and travel to Europe and the United States—have significantly higher levels of civic engagement.
  • Many young Russians have a positive attitude towards the West and, in particular, Europe. These sentiments are in stark contrast to the views of older generations.
  • Support for Russian President Vladimir Putin is dropping from mid-2018 levels among most younger Russians. This shift in public opinion, caused by a long decline in living standards and an increase in the retirement age, is reflected in the younger generation even more so than the older cohorts. While young Russians are more aware of the growing repressiveness of Russian authorities, the Kremlin’s restrictions on internet freedoms have accelerated alienation from the authorities.
Credit: Gathering of protestors at Pirogovskaya Embankment, Moscow, Wikimedia Commons
WHAT DISTINGUISHES YOUNG RUSSIANS FROM OLDER ONES?

Many recent studies have pointed out that young Russians—millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012)—differ in many ways from older Russians. In this section, we highlight the differences that are particularly pronounced.

The use of the internet. The sharpest differences between young Russians (between the ages of 18 and 34) and their older compatriots have to do with patterns of internet usage and news consumption. According to survey data, over the past decade, the use of television as a news source has decreased by a quarter (from 90% to 70%) among Russians. By contrast, the number of Russians who get their news from the internet and social media networks has quadrupled (reaching up to 40%). These trends are particularly pronounced among younger generations. Most young people get their news via the internet (up to 65% for the 18-34 age group), primarily from Yandex news, social media networks, and video blogs. In focus groups, young respondents from large cities often admit that they almost never watch television; some do not even have a television at home.2 (By contrast, television remains the main source of information among those over the age of 40, although its importance has been declining).

As a result, Russian youth have become less susceptible to state television propaganda. Younger people are more likely to get a broader, more detailed picture of what is going on in the country — as long as the news interests them. On average, they are much less interested in sociopolitical developments than older generations. And although young Russians have many more tools for critical understanding of reality, most of them rarely use these tools; their interest in politics usually emerges later — by the time they are 30 to 35 years old.

Social media. The rapid spread of social media in Russia, particularly Instagram and YouTube, over the past couple of years has boosted the popularity of video blogs and Instagram channels, which are regularly watched by up to a third of Russians.3 Young people are the main audience for these platforms and use them five to six times more often than older people. YouTube has become a particularly popular platform in Russia allowing emerging politicians, activists, and journalists to gain national recognition from millions of young viewers across the country. New public figures can now reach out to their audiences directly, bypassing the filters of state-controlled television channels. This has split Russian society into two groups — the youngest and the oldest — with their own opinion leaders and role models.

While older Russians watch politicians like Putin, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and television hosts like Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselev on federal television channels, younger ones follow different opinion leaders. Among them are Yuri Dud, a journalist whose YouTube channel has 7.5 million subscribers, and opposition politician Alexei Navalny, a founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, whose YouTube channel has almost 4 million subscribers. At the same time, most young Russians are much more interested in nonpolitical topics and personalities. The greater popularity of celebrities like singer Olga Buzova, professional mixed martial artist Khabib Nurmagomedov, and actress and television host Nastya Ivleyeva is reflected in the number of subscribers to their Instagram accounts — more than 21 million, 20 million, and 17 million, respectively.

Alexei Navalny, and a number of regular co-hosts, regularly upload shows analyzing Russian politics to a growing digital audience among young Russians via the YouTube channels NavalnyLive and Alexei Navlany!

Entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurial spirit is more pronounced among younger Russians as demonstrated through their greater readiness to engage in entrepreneurial activity, to work for themselves, and to start their own business. As we noted in our previous study with the Levada-Center,4 younger Russians have a more positive view of entrepreneurs than older ones. They are also more likely to believe that some of the most intelligent, talented, and capable Russian citizens work in business. Younger Russians are twice as likely as Russians on average to say that they want to start their own business. By contrast, older Russians are more willing to work for hire, in government organizations that guarantee stable (even if not the highest possible) income.5

At the same time, focus groups and surveys of younger Russians show that starting their own business is attractive to them not so much as an opportunity to make more money, but as a chance for self-realization, and gaining independence from their parents and the state. Young Russians’ attraction for entrepreneurship is manifested through the popularity of U.S. entrepreneurs like Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, who young Russians often name among the most interesting and inspiring personalities. (A few years ago, Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs and Pavel Durov, the creator of the social networking service VK and instant messaging service Telegram, were also commonly referenced and remain popular among those respondents who are currently in their early to mid-thirties).

Declining levels of paternalism. There are declining levels of paternalism among young Russians as opposed to older ones. In a 2017 survey by the Levada-Center, only 27% of younger respondents said that they could not live without state support, as opposed to 70% among older age groups.6 In a 2017 study of Russian university students by Valeria Kasamara, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics University in Russia, about two-thirds (65%) of respondents agreed that “fear should not be a determining motive in relations between the authorities and society,” and disagreed with the statement that in Russia “the authorities must be feared of, otherwise they will not be respected.”7

A 2017 study by the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences found that young Russians, especially those under 25, tend to recognize the priority of human rights over the interests of the state, which is in sharp contrast to the views held by older Russians. The share of Russians under the age of 25 who support human rights is almost twice as high as the share of supporters of the priority of state interests (26% versus 11%, respectively), while among those 61 and older this ratio is inverse (13% versus 27%, respectively).8

Attitudes towards minorities. In comparison with older generations, younger Russians demonstrate greater tolerance towards gays and lesbians,9 greater rejection of domestic violence, and more frequent volunteerism. However, even among young Russians, especially those who live outside the largest cities, many still have negative attitudes towards the LGBT community. Moreover, more tolerant attitudes do not always extend to other social groups. For example, young Russians often show the same levels of hostility towards labor migrants as respondents from older age groups.

Young Russians’ attitudes towards the problem of violence against women also do not differ from the sample average. However, based on discussions of this issue in recent focus groups there is a shift in the attitudes of young Russian women. They not only cite this problem as significant (as do Russian women in general in comparison to men), but are also increasingly more willing to talk about it publicly.

Studies of youth subcultures have identified a similar trend towards a growing importance of these issues. In particular, they have found that “traditional” apolitical youth subcultures, such as punk, emo, or goth, are increasingly replaced by new youth “solidarities” that are built around more politicized values, such as gender issues, patriotism, and healthy lifestyles.10 Image-based self-identification has become secondary to ideological and value identifications among younger generations.11

Attractiveness of the West. Younger Russians have more pronounced pro-Western attitudes, particularly towards European countries, than the rest of Russian society. These attitudes are in particularly stark contrast to the views of older generations, where negative assessments of the West prevail. About 60% of young Russians have positive attitudes towards the European Union (EU) and the United States, compared with only 30% among people over 65. There is also a noticeable gap between the opinions of the residents of rural and urban areas: young residents of big cities have more pro-Western attitudes than their peers from smaller towns and rural areas. Studies show that sanctions and disagreements with the West so far have had little effect on the attractiveness of Western countries to younger Russians.12 They still consider countries such as Germany or the United States to be examples or models for Russia’s own development. They also aspire to work and live in Europe and the United States. There is a downside to these pro-Western attitudes: a significant share of young Russians wants to emigrate from Russia. In a 2019 survey by the Levada-Center, more than half of the respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 (53%) said they would like to leave Russia.13

More in-depth conversations in focus groups demonstrate that many young Russians hold superficial and clichéd ideas about life, political systems, and Western culture. They view the West primarily as a place for a prosperous and peaceful life and as a source of new trends in clothes, music, and cinema. For many young Russians, Western culture is an integral part of their identity. They have grown up with Hollywood, Disney, and, more recently, HBO. About a third of Russians under the age of 35 listen to Western pop music, hip-hop, or techno, while older generations prefer Soviet pop music and Russian folk songs.

The abovementioned attitudes distinguish young Russians from older ones. However, while calling for cooperation with Europe and the United States, many young Russians who took part in focus group discussions argued that Russia should remain “sovereign,” “a separate territory,” and be independent of international structures. Such isolationist tendencies cannot be attributed simply to state propaganda. They are probably rooted in opinions popular among the Russian youth that “no one is expecting Russia” in the West and that “they do not like us there.” Young Russians believe rapprochement between Russia and the West is further hampered by perceptions of Russia as backward and weak: if relations on an equal footing are impossible, it is better to stay on the sidelines.

Growing alienation from the authorities. Up until the summer of 2018, a majority of young Russians strongly approved of Putin and Russia’s political system. However, recent changes in public opinion — the result of a steady decline in living standards and an unpopular increase in the retirement age — are reflected in the younger generation the same way as in the rest of the society. These changes are especially pronounced in the 25-34 age group (Russians below the age of 25 have generally remained loyal to the regime). When asked in focus groups to explain their frustration with the authorities, younger respondents (just as older respondents) express concerns about the economic problems and the future of the country, and complain about the retirement age change that hurt their parents. The constitutional amendments introduced in 2020, as well as the very fact of Putin “zeroing out” his presidential term was particularly unacceptable to Russians under 25.

Young Russians also have age-specific disagreements with the authorities. More often than older respondents, they complain about internet restrictions, such as blocking of Telegram and websites, and criminal charges for reposts and retweets. The Moscow police’s brutal crackdown on protesters in the summer of 2019 also had a strong impact on the opinions of young people in Moscow and large Russian cities who followed these events on social media networks. In focus group discussions conducted at the time, young respondents said the action against protesters in Moscow reconfirmed in their eyes that Russian authorities “do not want to let anyone into their system,” “think only of themselves,” and “consider Russians second-class citizens.” Younger Russians were also irritated by the depoliticization of their parents and teachers.14

Civic engagement. It is not entirely clear to what extent these attitudes translate into protest actions. Surveys of protesters in Russia have shown that the share of young people who take part in opposition rallies has remained roughly constant over the past decade. At the Moscow protests in 2019, the share of young participants fluctuated between 20 and 30%.15  “In the unauthorized rally on August 3, 2019, the median age was 30 y.o., but increased in subsequent protests and reached 40 years at the authorized protest that took place on September 29. This is roughly identical to the protests that took place in Russia in December 2011,” according to a report.16

Protest participation is not the only indicator of civic engagement among young Russians. Studies have shown that a typical civically active citizen in Russia is below the age of 30, has a higher education, lives in a large regional center, considers themselves to belong to the middle strata of society, and uses social media networks quite often (at least once a week). On the other hand, a typical inert citizen in Russia is a resident of a district center, over the age of 60, retired, has a secondary specialized education, considers themselves to belong to the lower strata of society, and does not use social media networks.17

Although in recent years many comparative studies have analyzed the differences in attitudes between younger and older Russians,18  until now few studies have attempted to explore the variation within the youth groups themselves. What factors determine greater civic engagement of some young Russians in comparison to others? CEPA and the Levada-Center conducted a joint study to analyze trends within this age cohort.

METHODOLOGY

In 2019, CEPA and the Levada-Center designed a joint public opinion survey to gauge predictors of civic engagement among Russians between the ages of 16 and 34 from cities with more than one million residents. The questions were developed together and then fielded in Russia. There were 40 questions in the questionnaire. The survey was conducted by contacting randomly generated mobile phone numbers. The average duration of an interview was 12 minutes.

The below analysis is based on a nationwide representative survey of Russia’s adult population run from October 29 to November 9. One thousand and fourteen people were interviewed. The margin of error does not exceed 3.4 percentage points. The results are provided as a percentage of respondents.

PREDICTORS OF CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AMONG YOUNG RUSSIANS

Civic engagement refers to activities that are aimed at changing and developing a civil society. It is usually measured in terms of voting in elections, cooperating, and organizing with other people to solve common problems, volunteerism, etc.

In recent years, the indicators of civic engagement among Russians in general have remained fairly stable. Most often, civic engagement by Russian citizens manifests through nonmaterial assistance to those in need, voting in elections, and donating money for social purposes. In a Levada-Center survey that was conducted in April 2020, 38%, 29%, and 21% of Russians, respectively, reported having had such experiences over the past 12 months.19 At the same time, there are significant variations across different types of civic engagement. Russians who are better off are more likely to donate money (the worse off are more active in other ways). People with higher education and residents of Moscow (where online services are more developed) are more likely to sign collective appeals and petitions and contact government agencies. People with opposition views more actively participate in rallies and sign petitions.3

However, young Russians differ significantly on almost all of these indicators. For example, in a 2018 survey by the Levada-Center, a significantly larger number of young Russians compared with the sample average declared their readiness to participate in various types of civic engagement (an excess of 10-20%).

In a survey conducted in October-November 2019 to measure levels of civic engagement, we asked Russians between the ages of 16 and 34 the following question: “Please tell me if in the last 12 months you have…

  • Participated in group sports or interest groups
  • Donated money for charitable purposes
  • Donated clothes for charitable purposes
  • Worked as a volunteer
  • Organized with other people to solve problems, protect your rights
  • Sent an inquiry, complaint, statement to state authorities
  • Signed collective appeals, petitions
  • Participated in a rally, meeting, picket, strike
  • Distributed promotional materials, worked at the elections
  • Voted in elections at any level.”

Below we focus on the individual-level characteristics of our respondents that reveal significant differences in levels of civic engagement.

When it comes to age-related differences (Figure 2), the youngest Russian respondents, between the ages of 16 and 20, show the highest levels of volunteerism. Older Russians are more likely to vote in elections, donate clothes and money to the poor, and organize with other people to solve common problems and protect their rights.

In addition, civic engagement is more pronounced among women (except for participating in group sports or interest groups) (Figure 3). These gender differences might have to do with a fact that men are more likely to prioritize making money over other types of activities. Interestingly, contrary to earlier studies that argued that men are more likely to participate in rallies, we found no significant gender-based differences in self-reported levels of protest participation (possibly because in recent years women’s participation in protests has increased).20

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