Climate change debates have not taken root in Russia. Yet, while speaking at an energy forum in Moscow, Vladimir Putin chose to comment on Greta Thunberg, the prominent 16-year-old Swedish eco-activist. Adopting his usual sarcastically condescending persona, Putin expressed regret that the ‘kind’ and ‘very sincere’ girl was being used by adults for their own political interests in such a ‘cruel, emotional way’.
These remarks may appear to have been intended to dismiss Thunberg’s environmental concerns. However, among the Russian public, concern about climate change is not widespread.
Fridays for Future, the movement started by Thunberg, received little uptake in Russia, inspiring less than 100 people to take to the streets in September. This does not compare to the 50,000 or more people who came out to protest unfair elections and police brutality in Moscow in August. Indeed, Thunberg herself is largely perceived negatively among the Russian public.
Thus, there was no need for Putin to warn his domestic audience about Thunberg’s ‘mistaken’ cause. In fact, Putin’s key message was not to aimed at the young activist or even the climate change debate. Although presented as spontaneous, his words revealed a carefully-constructed narrative. It was expressed in general terms.
‘Adults must do everything not to bring teenagers and children into extreme situations,’ Putin urged, ‘when somebody uses children and teenagers in their own interests, it only deserves to be condemned.’ In fact, these statements were targeted at delegitimizing any sort of political engagement from young people.
Those familiar with Kremlin propaganda would have recognized this narrative from the statements that have been made about Alexey Navalny’s supporters over the recent years, who have been portrayed as ‘naïve’ and ‘manipulated’. According to the state, young people should be apolitical, and hence any involvement they have in politics must come as a result of manipulation by ‘ill-intended’ adults.
The same attitude is exploited to impose restrictions on individual freedoms, as is the case with the infamous gay propaganda law, which disguises discrimination in the language of protecting children. Portraying the youth as innately dependent legitimizes paternalistic interventions from the state, defining the norms of conduct.
This narrative is part of a wider strategy employed by the Russian government to promote political apathy among the country’s youth. There have been efforts to discourage young people from participating in political protests, such as warnings of expulsion at schools and universities and threats of fines and prosecution against parents whose children attend demonstrations.
A vivid illustration of these efforts is the recent conviction of Yegor Zhukov, a 21-year-old student from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics who discussed regime change on his blog. Instead of the four years in prison for extremism that the prosecutor asked for, he was sentenced to three years of probation, with a prohibition against him posting online as a condition. His sentencing sends a message, to Zhukov and to all young people interested in politics – he is free to go perhaps, but not free to speak out.
It is not all ‘stick’ in the government’s approach to young people. There is also some ‘carrot’. The Kremlin has been paying close attention to the youth ever since the protests of 2011–12, which demonstrated conclusively that growing up under Putin has not prevented young people from imagining alternatives to his regime. Since then, Putin has made a habit of regular meetings with young people, and a number of initiatives have been rolled out to select and reward ‘top performers’.
Through presidential grants, such as the Sirius educational programme in Sochi, the government selects and trains high-achieving students in STEM subjects. This is done under the umbrella of promoting technological innovation.
Thus, there exist clear boundaries over where creative thinking is allowed: it is encouraged in technical sciences, but not in social sciences or humanities. To the ‘right’ type of talented children participating in government programmes, the ‘wrong’ image of Zhukov stands as a stark contrast.
For the majority of young people, Russia’s education system does not support the development of independent, critical thinking. In 2016, Putin personally endorsed an initiative to create a single official history textbook that excludes ‘internal contradictions and double interpretations’. This demonstrates the desire of the regime to promote convergent thinking among the wider population.
This strategy towards Russia’s youth reflects the fears of Putin’s regime, which sees young people as having disruptive potential. There have been false dawns for Russia’s liberal opposition before (most recently in 2012) and, while the summer’s protests were significant, it remains unclear whether the new generation really are more progressive than those who went before.
Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with the status quo is apparent among Russia’s youth. They do not see Russia offering them good opportunities. Over 50% of those aged 18–24 reported that they want to emigrate, in a recent survey by Levada Center. Whether this discontent provides the impetus for political change in Russia may depend on the success of the Kremlin’s efforts to depoliticize Russia’s youth.
Nikolai Petrov, Senior Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House and Ekaterina Aleynikova, Independent Analyst.