There are no official statistics about the actual numbers or demographic makeup of those who joined the June 12 anti-corruption protests around Russia, but the anecdotal evidence of a burgeoning youth movement is strong. High school students who had been rounded up by police sent out pictures of themselves and their friends smiling broadly in paddy wagons. Tweets from reporters dotted around the country noted how many teenagers seemed to have brought their parents to the events, not the other way around.
This stands in rather stark contrast to the protest wave that stirred Russia in 2011 and 2012. It was largely, though not wholly, confined to the two major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the participants were from the so-called “creative class” of educated Russians who had benefited economically from the Putin years but now wanted more participation in their own government.
But little is known about Generation Putin, the young people who showed up at yesterday’s demonstration. Students who are today 15 or 16 years old and on the cusp of adulthood have only ever known the rule and leadership of Vladimir Putin, who first became president in 1999. They were born after the chaos of the Yeltsin era, and their only connection to Soviet times is through their parents or grandparents. For them, Putin’s politics—and the massive corruption that comes along with it—are increasingly seen as a threat to their future.
They have been spurred into action by the intrepid opposition politician and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. When his Fund for the Fight Against Corruption released a 50-minute long YouTube video in March that detailed the stolen riches of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the video went viral, spurring the youth to the street for the first time. Using memes and sarcasm, these young people demanded an investigation into the crime and corruption that is stealing their futures.
Yesterday’s protests—held in at least 120 cities around the country—had the same tone. In Novosibirsk, seventeen-year-old Alexander Klevtsov told NPR’s Lucian Kim that “I myself wanted to leave for Europe because I thought there wasn’t a bright future in Russia. But Navalny has given us hope. I want to study in my country if I can be sure there will be a bright future. That’s why I showed up.”
But is the participation of these youngsters’ in these protests just a flash of teenage rebellion that will disappear as these students grow into a jaded adulthood, or is there something larger at play? The psyche and leanings of this emerging generation have been very little studied, but the Kremlin’s choice to crack down at some rallies carries the risk of them being radicalized and mobilized. On Twitter, FT’s Max Seddon reported that of the 658 people detained by the police at the St. Petersburg march, 137 of them were under the age of 18. The evocative pictures of tiny teenage girls being carried off by groups of men in riot gear certainly do not help the Kremlin’s image.
Although these pictures will never appear on state-run television, they will be spread from teenager to teenager through the various social media apps and platforms that were so successful in disseminating Mr. Navalny’s film. In a short period, Generation Putin has shown itself to be savvy with modern technology and seem far more connected to the world than their elders. Mr. Putin and his Kremlin may be soon surprised by a very modern kind of trouble.