By Anna Smirnova
WHEN anti-Kremlin activist Alexei Navalny was poisoned last August with a lethal nerve agent and imprisoned, a wave of #FreeNavalny protests erupted throughout Russia.
The Anti Corruption Foundation dubbed an April protest as the “final battle
between good and neutrality” – sparking expectations that for once, the demonstrations may bear considerable change.
But no such abrupt revolt took place.
Since then, thousands of media outlets have been branded “foreign agents”, Navalny continues his three-year sentence behind bars – and Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime is as strong as ever.
This anticlimactic turn of events left many wondering what Russia’s political future
Lisa* and Igor* are students at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs.
Expressing her apprehension towards protests, Lisa told Redaction Report that “arrests, expulsions from college, and getting fired from your job” are often consequences of attending demonstrations.
Though some young people do not consider physical violence as a threat, for many, sacrificing their education is a deal-breaker when considering attending a protest.
“It’s scary. You’re scared that you’ll get kicked out of college. That’s the one thing
that keeps me from completely committing and going to the center [to protest],”
Igor tells Redaction Report.
Despite the tense political atmosphere in the country, many young people see themselves staying in Russia in hopes of contributing to change.
Even so, patriotic sentiment alone is not enough to push young people over the threshold of prioritizing their country’s future over their individual needs.
[READ MORE: For a Biden presidency, warming relations with Putin’s Russia could prove impossible]
Daria*, a law student at Moscow State University, listed the police as one of the
primary reasons for avoiding protests.
“The police force is an uncontrollable machine that’s unpredictable to us, so yes, I am afraid, and I stay far away from them,” she said.
As videos of demonstrators beaten with batons flood social media, the random nature of police brutality means that no protester can truly escape it.
Nevertheless, young people also recognize that the brutality of the police is a
reflection of the government’s brewing fears.
During the Bolotnaya protests in 2011, the government was helpless as protesters outnumbered the police.
“The government pays a lot of money to the police so that they remain loyal to Putin,” Igor explains.
“Once the police sides with the people, the government can easily be
After years of developing the police system, many Russians have
become intimidated by the seemingly unlimited power that the police force holds.
Youth, however, recognizes that the government prioritizes funding the police
force because of its fear of losing control.
[READ MORE: Biden’s Russia strategy must focus on Moscow’s cyber capabilities]
Young people have also long identified the dysfunctional nature of the justice system.
The contradictions between what the government promises in legal documents and reality are not obscured by the gratitude older people often feel for Putin.
“It is impossible to appreciate legislative law in a country in which punishment for
non-compliance with the law can be justified with bribery, and judicial decisions
are made in contradiction to the law and the constitution,” Katia*, a student at the
Moscow Institute of Foreign Affairs, told Redaction Report.
Despite the expectations and hopes people have for young people to restructure
Russia’s future, there is a quivering sense of hopelessness amongst the youth.
The elections are a formality in a system where the people decide nothing, and
democracy is an unfulfilled promise to young people.
Igor added: “They wanted to kill Navalny. They killed Nemtsov. They killed journalists. Obviously, there won’t be any candidates. There’s Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov, but the government also controls them. All of this is a joke.”
Having been under Putin’s rule its entire life, Russia’s youth craves change like no
other generation preceding it.
Protests that followed Navalny’s poisoning dimmed young people’s hope for short-term change. However, looking to the future, many see radical changes in Russia’s political system as a sudden, inevitable, and blood-stained event.
As some look to the government for a sign of instability, many wait for young people to commit to their roles in molding Russia’s future.
*All interviewees names have been changed to protect their anonymity.
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