CAN THE YOUNG ACTIVISTS OF ‘GENERATION PUTIN’ BUILD ON A SUMMER OF PROTESTS?

Evan Gershkovich

MOSCOW—In late September, some 25,000 people gathered in central Moscow to demand the release of political prisoners who were jailed during the wave of demonstrations that rocked the Russian capital this past summer. At their peak, the protests, demanding fair elections, had crackled with urgent energy. But the mood on this cold, rainy Sunday was more reflective, as participants assessed the movement’s accomplishments and laid out future plans.

The speakers, who stood on a stage looking out over a street named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, included seasoned veterans like Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician, and his political ally Lyubov Sobol, who had unsuccessfully tried to run as an opposition candidate in the summer’s local elections. But the lineup also featured newer faces—young activists who had grown up knowing only Vladimir Putin as their leader and who, after the summer of discontent, wanted to continue what they had begun.

“Tell me, did you get tossed in police wagons this summer? Were you hit with batons for nothing?” Valeriy Kostenok, a 20-year-old activist who had been arrested in August for throwing two plastic water bottles in a police officer’s direction, asked the crowd. “Do you want this to continue?” he went on, referring to the movement. “Will we keep fighting together?” After each of his questions, the crowd resoundingly responded, “Yes!”

Beginning in early July, the protests captured national and international attention both for how long they lasted and for what sparked them: elections for Moscow’s city council. Though observers from all political camps agree these elections are politically insignificant, Russia’s opposition decided to take them seriously, in an effort to stake out whatever ground it could in a political system that Putin and his allies have monopolized since he was first elected president in 2000.

Throughout June, opposition candidates had canvassed Moscow’s neighborhoods in an effort to collect the roughly 5,000 signatures, depending on the district, required to get on the Sept. 9 ballot. But when the city’s election commission began counting signatures in early July, it summarily invalidated entire chunks of those the opposition had gathered, arguing that many of the signatures were faked or belonged to dead people. The opposition countered that Putin’s administration was simply using falsified bureaucratic excuses to keep them off the ballot. Even candidates with considerable grassroots support were blocked from running, among them Ilya Yashin, a municipal deputy who, according to a July poll, would have won in a landslide had he been allowed to run.

The protests captured national and international attention both for how long they lasted and for what sparked them: elections for Moscow’s city council.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-July, Yashin and other barred candidates, including Sobol, rallied about 2,000 protesters and marched through downtown Moscow, demanding that opposition politicians be allowed to participate in the elections. By the next weekend, the number of protesters had grown to an estimated 20,000, chanting “Russia without Putin!” and “Down with the czar!” At the height of the protests on Aug. 10, about 60,000 people took to the streets.

At first, the authorities let the opposition vent its anger. But as the protests grew, they began to crack down. By the end of the summer, law enforcement officers had detained roughly 2,500 people and opened criminal investigations into some of them, charging 20 people with inciting mass riots or hatred toward law enforcement. The charges, some of which resulted from flicking a police officer’s visor to tossing a water bottle in a police officer’s direction, were widely seen as groundless.

Most of those arrested over the summer were released within 48 hours. Kostenok, the activist who addressed the crowd on Andrei Sakharov Avenue in September, was released a month after his arrest, along with four others. But six men, all but one of whom are in their 20s, still face between two and four years behind bars for their roles in the demonstrations; another four are under house arrest until Dec. 27 as courts consider their cases.

In the meantime, the elections that spurred the protests have come and gone, with Putin’s ruling United Russia party having lost a third of its seats in the city council. Although almost all of the opposition candidates were blocked from running, Navalny had urged his supporters to vote for anyone but United Russia candidates, even if that meant voting for what are known as “systemic opposition” candidates—that is, those representing parties that are opposition in name only, as they are approved by the Kremlin. On the eve of the vote, Navalny endorsed candidates most likely to defeat the ruling party in each district. Those candidates picked up 20 of the city council’s 45 seats.

As the opposition takes stock of its accomplishments and licks its wounds, Moscow’s streets are now quiet once again. But on the horizon, more opportunities are already coming into view: parliamentary elections in 2021, and a presidential vote in 2024, when Putin will once again be forced to either sit out the election or amend Russia’s constitution, which limits presidents to two consecutive terms. For the young activists who came of political age this summer, the Moscow city council protests were only the beginning.

“Since I was born, Putin has held Russia in his grip,” Artyom Tyurin, 19, who volunteered for Sobol’s campaign, told me. Tyurin is a member of what has become known as Generation P, for the generation that has grown up knowing only Putin as the country’s leader. “While he’s in charge, it’s highly unlikely that the situation in this country will improve,” he added. “We will keep battling for fair elections. That’s the only way to change what is happening. Next is 2021, and then the years after that will get very interesting.”

A Life Under One Leader

Like many of the Russian activists who have grown up under Putin, Tyurin was not old enough to participate in, let alone be fully aware of, the last round of sustained mass demonstrations in Moscow against his rule.

The Bolotnaya protests—named for the Moscow square that was their central hub—began in December 2011, triggered by voting fraud in parliamentary elections that month, including massive ballot-stuffing in favor of United Russia candidates. The demonstrators were also protesting Putin’s decision earlier that fall to once again run for president in March 2012. At the time, he was completing a term as prime minister, having swapped roles with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 after his first two-term stint as president.

In a foreshadowing of how they would respond to this summer’s protests, the authorities snuffed out the Bolotnaya protests by briefly detaining hundreds of demonstrators, while handing out multiple-year prison sentences to a dozen of them. They also tightened the screws on protesting in general, passing a raft of new laws designed to keep activists from the streets, including one that allows prosecutors to request a prison sentence of up to five years for anyone who attends multiple public gatherings that aren’t officially authorized.

Putin went on to win the subsequent presidential election and was inaugurated for his third presidential term on May 6, 2012. On the day of his inauguration, the authorities cracked down on a protest march, bringing to an end the dissent that had begun that winter.

With the protests effectively defanged, a shocked opposition mostly faded out of view. It became even less visible after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that proved highly popular, sparking a wave of patriotic fervor and boosting Putin’s approval ratings to 87 percent, according to one poll.

Since then, however, the initial euphoria over the annexation of Crimea has subsided, with little to show for it but a stagnant economy bruised by years of Western sanctions. As real wages and standards of living have fallen for the past five years, popular dissatisfaction has become steadily palpable, with polls showing that nearly half of the population believes the country is heading in the wrong direction.

The first signs of a renewed protest movement began after Navalny’s organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is funded by public donations, published a blockbuster YouTube video in March 2017. In it, Navalny documented how Medvedev, who had returned to his post of prime minister, had enriched himself by collecting bribes funneled through organizations linked to his close friends.

Russian opposition politican Alexei Navalny delivers a speech during a rally to demand the
release of jailed protesters, in Moscow, Russia (Photo by Valeriy Melnikov for Sputnik via AP Images).

Before the video’s release, Navalny had already emerged as a key opposition figure during the Bolotnaya protests. He then ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013 on a promise to end corruption by city officials, nearly forcing the Kremlin-backed candidate into a runoff. In 2018, he aimed for even higher office, with an attempted campaign for president. In contrast to Putin’s focus on projecting Russia’s renewed might on the world stage, Navalny called for a domestic-focused politics: reducing economic inequality, fixing the justice and health care systems, and developing the country’s infrastructure. In the end, though, he was barred from the ballot, and left to focus on what has made him and his foundation for years a thorn in the Kremlin’s side: publishing investigations detailing official corruption, and organizing protests. The Medvedev documentary, which has garnered more than 32 million views on YouTube, spurred a handful of rallies in the spring of 2017.

But Putin’s public approval nonetheless remained high. Last year, he was reelected for a fourth presidential term with 77 percent of the vote, amid high voter turnout of 68 percent. Having extended the presidential term to six years ahead of the 2012 election, the Russian leader is set to leave office in 2024 having served as president for 20 of the previous 24 years, while maintaining control over policy during his four-year stint as prime minister. Reports have surfaced, though, that the Kremlin is toying with the idea of changing the constitution to allow Putin to remain in power beyond 2024.

Tyurin, the young Sobol volunteer, is tired of Putin and disgusted by the current regime. He grew up in Nizhny Tagil, a small provincial city in central Russia typical of the Putin strongholds that helped deliver his 2018 election win. In 2012, Nizhny Tagil had become synonymous with loyalty to Putin after a local factory foreman was featured on the president’s annual televised call-in show, when he takes questions and comments directly from Russian citizens. The foreman decried the city-dwelling Bolotnaya protesters, accusing them of threatening the stability that Putin provided, which has long been the foundation of his appeal among the blue-collar, heartland supporters the caller symbolically represented. Today, Putin’s core supporters still point to his stewardship of the country through a sustained period of economic growth buoyed by rising oil prices, after the impoverished and turbulent decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Tyurin and his generation did not live through that era and can only judge Putin by their present circumstances. Many are unconcerned with what they see—or are simply tuned out of current affairs. According to a recent study by Mikhailov & Partners, a prominent communications firm in Russia, two-thirds of Russian youth have no interest in politics.

“It’s only a very thin slice of the population that is ready to go out and protest,” said Natalia Zorkaya, a sociologist with the Moscow-based Levada Center, an independent polling organization. That includes activists like Tyurin, who says he avoids the propaganda of state-run television, instead trusting his own eyes. “And what I see,” he said, “is a stagnating economy, rampant corruption, a lack of competitive elections, and a government that squashes dissent, spits on international norms of human rights, and interferes in foreign politics.” In 2017, after the Medvedev video came out, Tyurin began volunteering for Navalny.

“We have to keep protesting. If we don’t, this government will keep stealing from us until there is nothing left to steal.”

Oleg Khorkov, a 19-year-old classmate of Tyurin’s at the Higher School of Economics, a liberal university in Moscow, told me that he too started volunteering for Navalny because of the Medvedev revelations. “By that point I had a sense that Russian officials were stealing from us,” he said. “But until that video came out, I didn’t understand the full scale.”

Khorkov’s time volunteering for Navalny led him to discover other opposition politicians, among them Mikhail Svetov, an up-and-coming blogger-turned-politician from Russia’s burgeoning Libertarian Party. Like Navalny, Svetov gets his message across via YouTube, where his channel boasts over 100,000 subscribers. It is a platform over which the Kremlin has little control, and one that people between the ages of 18 and 24 are more likely to turn to than television, the Levada Center found. Earlier this year, The Economist also reportedthat 82 percent of Russians between the ages of 18 and 44 watch YouTube.

Khorkov found Svetov’s libertarian message of limited government appealing. “It’s attractive to a Russian because only a Russian knows how truly bad big government can be,” Khorkov told me on the sidelines of the late September rally. “We had 70 years of the Soviet Union, with its famines and gulags and repressions, and now we have the Putin regime.”

After moving to Moscow last summer, Khorkov joined the local branch of the Libertarian Party, which hasn’t yet been registered as an official party by the Russian authorities. He is now the assistant to the head of the branch office. As the party took the lead in organizing many of the rallies this summer, Khorkov spent much of his time organizing and promoting them on social media. He plans to ensure that street protests remain relevant despite the current lull.

“What I ultimately want for Russia is for it to be a free country with a normal economic system,” Khorkov said. “For that to happen, everyone, no matter their political views, should be demanding one thing: that this government must go.”

“So we have to keep protesting,” he added. “If we don’t, this government will keep stealing and stealing from us until there is nothing left to steal.”

Fearless Youth

The sudden burst of Navalny-led rallies in the spring of 2017, following the release of the Medvedev documentary, attracted attention because of how many teenagers participated. But many of the activists of Generation P took to the streets for the first time a year later—in the summer of 2018, after the Russian government passed unpopular pension reforms that raised the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 60 for women. In a country where life expectancy is 68 years for men and 78 for women, and the average monthly pension is just $220, raising the retirement age struck a raw nerve, especially as Putin had promised in 2005 never to do so.

By mid-summer 2018, Putin’s approval ratings in polls had dropped to 49 percent, as the protests stretched to all corners of the country, spurred by not just the pension reforms, but also stagnating wages and endemic corruption. Since then, demonstrators have continued to protest everything from a proposed land-swap deal between two republics in the North Caucasus, to a Kremlin plan to ship Moscow’s trash to other parts of the country and construct a new landfill in the far northern region of Arkhangelsk. According to a recently published study by the Center for Social and Labor Rights, a Moscow-based NGO, only two of Russia’s 86 regions did not see street protests between April and June of this year.

In early October, Olga Misik, 17, told me that she first participated in a rally against the pension reforms in September 2018. She has since joined an activist group called Bessrochka—or “Without End”—which believes that the only way to effect change in Russia is through constant, daily protest. “Our members have very different political opinions,” one member told the Associated Press recently. “We are different people with a common problem: We want Vladimir Putin to resign and we want new faces in government.”

In early June, when Moscow police arrested a prominent investigative journalist, Ivan Golunov, on fabricated drug charges—after planting drugs on him, apparently at the behest of a businessman that Golunov was investigating—Misik and Bessrochka took it as a call to action. After a groundswell of public outrage and daily protests outside of Moscow’s police headquarters, the Kremlin stepped in, and a Moscow court dropped the charges. Misik says she attended every demonstration.

The Moscow city council protests began just weeks later. By the time they reached their peak in early August, Misik had become an internationally recognizable figure as the teenager who brought a copy of the Russian Constitution to the rallies. Photographs of her sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of riot police, reading them the passage that guarantees peaceful protest in Russia, were published widely in media outlets around the world. Although Misik’s performative protest was always nonviolent, she was arrested five times over the summer, though four of the cases were ultimately dropped, according to her lawyer.

Only two of Russia’s 86 regions did not see street protests between April and June of this year.

“This generation is much more stubbornly fearless,” said Zorkaya, the sociologist. She noted that the economic boom of the 2000s, as well as the connection with the rest of world through the internet, have given this generation a sense of freedom that previous generations didn’t have. “They haven’t really been acquainted with real repression,” she added, referring to conditions in the former Soviet Union, “and so they don’t have this ingrained Soviet fear. In some sense they are more ready to go to jail to protect their rights.”

That was clear during the final hearing of Misik’s last open case on Oct. 1. Against the warnings of both her mother and a human rights activist, Arkady Galker, who had taken an interest in her case, Misik wore handcuffs into the court room “to symbolize that anyone could be put away at any moment,” as she put it. Galker, who heads a local branch of International Memorial, a network of human rights organizations, told me he has been trying to convince Misik to express her opposition to Putin’s administration more carefully.

“She’s still very young, so she often forgets how dangerous her actions can be,” he said. “The work she does is really important, and of course part of her strength is in her youth and fearlessness. But I am trying to help her learn that she nonetheless needs to be more careful.”

Olga Misik holds the Constitution of Russia next to law enforcement officers
during a rally in Moscow, Russia (Photo by Eugene Odinokov for Sputnik via AP Images).

Misik was ultimately fined $153 for attending an unauthorized rally. But Galker said she was lucky not to get charged with the crime of “repeated” participation in such gatherings. During the crackdown on the Moscow city council protests, for instance, another activist, Konstantin Kotov, received a four-year prison sentence on Sept. 5 for that very charge.

“To be sure, those of us who remember Bolotnaya have been conditioned to believe the idea that we can’t change anything,” Galker said. “The youth don’t know about this at all—they believe in their strength.”

Learned apathy has long defined Russian society, according to Alexandra Arkhipova, a sociologist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow. “The situation with human rights has traditionally been very poor in Russia,” she told me. “So everyone has long understood that regular people need not have an opinion on political matters, that politics are the realm of the elites.” Although Generation P is not immune to this trend, Arkhipova said she has noticed a tangible change since Golunov, the investigative journalist, was arrested in June: a growing awareness among the people she interviews that anyone in Russia can end up behind bars for political reasons, but also that civil society does have the power to make a difference. “The situation is changing in front of our eyes,” she said.

That viewpoint certainly applies to Misik. After attending the hearing where she was fined, she immediately went to join a picket outside Moscow’s presidential administration building to protest the sentences handed out after the summer protests. “I look at everything happening,” she told me from the picket line, “and I don’t have a choice.”

In early September, Misik traveled to Copenhagen to attend a pro-democracy event for young activists. During the two-day trip, Danish lawmakers invited her to Parliament to talk about Moscow’s recent demonstrations. She told me that they also offered her political asylum, but that she turned it down. “I want to live in the country that is my home and change it for the better however I am able,” she said. “I think it will take years before Russia is able to change, but I am ready to wait and do my part.”

When I asked her whether she would also be ready to spend years behind bars as part of that process, Misik replied without hesitation: “Absolutely.”

Fighting the Apathy

Activists like Misik have benefited from the use of digital tools in organizing protests and other demonstrations. Misik’s group Bessrochka, for instance, uses the encrypted messaging app Telegram to organize its activities and communicate with new members. Tyurin, the Sobol volunteer, also used Telegram to raise some $31,200 to help pay for the legal defense of a classmate who had been arrested during the summer crackdown. The classmate, one of the four defendants currently under house arrest, is facing charges of using the internet to call for “extremism,” which could put him in prison for up to five years.

Their internet savvy is also what made these young activists so visible, according to Arkhipova. Based on her polling, the number of young Russians at street protests since 2011 has actually been fairly stable, with about a third of all participants younger than 25 years old. Yet the activists of Generation P, who are also digital natives, have been able to attract more attention to their causes by nimbly spreading their message online. This is one of the motivations behind the government’s efforts to tightly control the flow of digital information through a strict new “sovereign internet” law that would route web traffic through state-controlled firewalls and could even shut Russia off from the World Wide Web. The law’s measures include limits on anonymous proxy browsers and stepped-up efforts to ban apps like Telegram, which Moscow has been trying to block since April 2018.

While youth activists have become more organized through the internet, they have done little to build a political strategy beyond protesting.

Still, while youth activists have become more organized through the internet, they have done little to build a political strategy beyond protesting, Maria Lipman, a Russian political analyst, told me.

“Their ability to organize quickly and effectively has improved greatly since Bolotnaya,” she said. “But it’s all still very reactive to the actions of the authorities. People go to protests for several months, they let off steam, and then what? They haven’t really developed a program of political demands.”

On Oct. 14, with the Moscow protests already fading to memory, the authorities capitalized on the fading public outcry, charging another four young people with causing mass unrest over their involvement in the demonstrations.

Constantly having to react to fresh waves of government action can take a toll. Tyurin, who has asthma, spent a week in a temporary detention center in September after protesting on his classmate’s behalf. At times, he said, he questions whether he can keep up his resolve and energy.

“Sometimes I get paralyzed with fear and burned out emotionally,” he said. “But then I tell myself: If I become apathetic like most of our society, everything will only get much worse.”

Evan Gershkovich is a reporter for The Moscow Times. He has also written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy and Politico Europe, among other publications.

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