May 27, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 278

Russian Youth: Hopes Flying Too High

May 27, 2021 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 278

In recent months, the Russian government actively debated what is called "the youth policy" – a complex of measures aimed at transforming young Russians, if not into loyal supporters of Putin's regime, into a group that at least does not dissent from its basic principles. This "youth policy" has been a problematic spot for years, since the ruling elite fears popular culture, Western-style behavior, social media's influence, etc. It does not understand the new generations and believes they are very different from those Russians it has grown accustomed to governing. Liberal experts continuously speak about "changing values," "new attitudes and lifestyles," "protest culture," etc., thus increasing the Kremlin's suspicions. So, on May 17, 2021, the Russian prime minister's office announced the change in Rosmolod'yozh ("the Federal Agency For Youth Affairs"), firing its chairman, the 41-year-old Alexander Bugayev, and substituting him with the 30-year-old Ksenia Razuvayeva.[1]


Ksenia Razuvayeva, The New Head Of Russia's Federal Agency For Youth Affairs

I would argue that the importance of the entire issue is significantly overestimated. Back in 2010, I was asked by The American Interest to write an article on Russia's "generational change." It was widely believed at that time that the young Russians who had started to enroll at Harvard and Cambridge for their university degrees and rushed for their MBAs to American or European business schools, would transform the country. My text highlighted quite the opposite trend: The Russians who were happy enough to get educated in the West or used to live there would either return to the country and serve the local bureaucracy, thus strengthening the regime as they become more career-oriented, or leave it permanently, once again benefiting the existing system through easing pressure on it.[2] Almost 12 years later, one may see that nothing bad happened to the order that was considered changing or unstable in the last years of President Dmitry Medvedev's rule. The Russian youth proved it can survive and adapt to the existing realities.

The life of Ksenia Razuvayeva illustrates this perfectly. There is surprisingly little known about her, but the crucial changes in her career started as she, at that time a dancer, met Pavel Zenkovich, at that time deputy minister of education[3] and a married gentleman with three kids. Almost immediately thereafter she began studying at the Moscow-based Academy for Public Service and soon was appointed to a position of director of Rospatriotcenter ("Russian Patriotic Center"), later being elevated to a ranking official in the presidential administration.[4] Since 2018, she has been listed on Zenkovich's tax returns as his wife[5] and when he became a vice-president of Prosvescheniye publishing house, the state-wide monopoly providing all the school textbooks in Russia once owned and still controlled by Arkady Rotenberg,[6] Putin's close friend, Ksenia was "cleared" for a top governmental position. This is how the "career elevators" work for Russian youngsters, and many, as we may see, enjoy such a practice, making full use of it.

Ksenia Razuvayeva (Source:

If we return from Ksenia's stellar rise to the Russian youth's problems, we will see that its values differ from those of the elder generation, but not too significantly and not always for the better. Both groups share the feeling that a stable family and kids are at the core of people's values and that a good salary is essential for everyone, but young people care much less about social mores and about what other people think of them. They are also more tolerant to what the elder people see as dangerous deviations[7] (like homosexual relations, for example) and they enjoy intellectual freedom and personal autonomy. However, all the differences between them and the broader part of the society are not dramatic,[8] and, I would focus on this, grow quite slowly, not endangering the existing social "consensus." Moreover, the relative readiness to protest is combined with a much greater "flexibility" as it comes to the ways and means of reaching your goals as money and career look like sufficient grounds for crossing moral borders.

The Growing Attention Given To The Russian Youth Comes From The Kremlin's Strategy Of Confronting The Protest Movement

The funny part is that the growing attention given to the Russian youth, its politicization and its involvement in protest activity comes, not so much from its own actions but rather from the Kremlin's fears and its strategy for confronting the protest movement. A lot of talk about the "thousands" of youngsters, and even schoolchildren that presumably were engaged in protest actions originates from official propaganda trying to depict the opposition leaders as those who seek to involve underage Russians in politics, which was recently prohibited by law.[9] Many accusations of this kind were made public this January as rallies swept the country. But the fact is that the share of young protesters never exceeded 25 percent of the total[10] and was significantly lower than, for example, in France or other European countries during the events of 1968. It was, however, visibly higher than the share of 18-to-24-year-olds who became involved in the recent Gilets Jaunes ("Yellow Vests") protests in France in 2018-2019, where participation was actually limited to a mere 6.2 percent.[11]

What is much more important, in my mind, are the values of the Russian youth. Many polls have been conducted in recent years, and almost all suggest that young people are more open-minded, they believe that economic inequality is acceptable, that economic and political competition benefits society, that men and women deserve equal rights and career opportunities, that divorce and abortion are normal practices, etc. That's all correct – but very few analysts add to all this that the difference between 15-to-24-year-olds and people in their 30s and 40s on all of these issues look marginal.[12] The 45-to-54-year-olds are the champions in praising economic inequality as the engine of growth, while the 34-to-45-year-olds express more support for competition than the youngsters. Divorces are most accepted by the 25-to-44-year-olds and abortion by 45-to-54-year-olds. Margarita Zavadskaya, a research fellow at the Department of Political Science at the European University in St. Petersburg, con­cludes in her recent provocative article: "The 15-to-24-year-old group is only remarkable in its skepticism toward government in the economy and its stronger emphasis on self-expression while in some aspects of gender, the youth is actually even more conservative than older groups – so it cannot be said that young people have become a lot more liberal across the board and demonstrate more 'progressive' views; nor do we see signs of a 'conservative' wave."[13]

I would agree with such an argument. All the studies concerning the age distribution of those participating in the recent Moscow rallies caused by Alexey Navalny's detention in January[14] suggest that the share of students and schoolchildren actually decreased compared to the 2017 protests. The most active group were 25-to-35-year-olds, contributing around 37 percent of the total, and the 30-to-49-year-old made up more than a half of all the protesters.[15] The share of those under 18 actually decreased to around four percent from eight percent in 2019 and five percent in 2011.[16] I would say that it is highly likely that the peak mobilization of the younger generations of Russians might be over. I would propose two possible reasons for this.

The Older Generations Are Better Prepared To Deal With The Russian Reality

On the one hand, the 35-to-49-year-olds these days appear to me to be the most critically oriented group because these people experienced more liberal times when they were younger, when their opportunities seemed broader, and when they established themselves as either businessmen or professionals. They see quite clearly that the country is moving backward, they possess some experience of foreign travel and can compare Russian perspectives to European ones, and they, as was mentioned earlier, are as "liberal" as their younger cohorts. Moreover, they are ageing, and therefore they have no reason to be optimistic in looking at what is going on as they lose hope of outliving Putin's regime and witnessing a "return to normalcy" represented by a more liberal country. High school and university students, on the other hand, do not care as much about the current situation as they may hope it changes in any case as they approach their 30s, which definitely makes sense, I would say. This childish optimism makes the youngsters at the same more and less radicalized as they may mobilize quite soon and unexpectedly, but the next moment the protest may fade.

On the other hand, the Russian youth are seduced by new technological opportunities such as the Internet, social media, and messaging applications. What I should mention here is the growing dependency of this age group on Internet activities (such as VKontakte, Facebook, TikTok, or Clubhouse) – and the substitution of "real" action with such activity. Those in their 30s and 40s realize quite well how huge the difference between words and deeds is – so they understand that the web may be instrumental in organizing protest campaigns but certainly cannot be considered the embodiment of protest. Contrary to that, the younger people tend to dig in to the Internet, believing that writing posts and collecting likes is the essence of protest and such bold escapades against the power elite might undermine its authority. So, I would say that what is important is not only the social mores, the values, and the acceptance of protest's goals, but also the ways and means of the protest activities – and here the older generations are better prepared to deal with the Russian reality that more and more resembles the old Soviet one rather some technetronic society of the future.

Young People Might Become Very Instrumental In Promoting Reformist Activity, But They Will Not Ignite It

I would once again repeat that there is no doubt that the changes in Russians' attitudes are greatly caused by generational shifts.[17] At the same time, one should consider the personal experiences of those engaged in protests. As my good friend Anastasia Mironova,[18] one of the most promising new Russian novelists and, I would say, philosophers,[19] said quite recently, the Russian youth resembles newborn kittens whose owner decides to drown them – so they often remain voiceless as the pressure on society mounts while the more mature people who have experienced what kind of life people might live can resist more fiercely and more reasonably, similar to the larger kittens scratching and biting as someone takes their lives. Anyway, the generational change comes too slow to be considered the main factor of Russia's upcoming transformation.

Young people might become very instrumental in promoting reformist activity, but they will not ignite it. Here I would remind the reader once again of the Perestroika years, during which the largest part of those demanding change were people in their 40s and 50s, who had survived the zastoy years in the 1970s and early 1980s, and expressed their sympathy for a more open and forward-looking society of the 1960s. Something like that will happen in Russia as well because no one actually possesses any grand design for the future. Everybody wants to return to some point in the past, and all the difference comes from where this point is found: Putin supporters search for it in Soviet times, while the liberals search for it in the late 1980s or in the 1990s. In this kind of search the Russian youth looks like an outsider with not much to say. In the coming decade, it will not appear as the main forces behind Russia's transformation regardless of whether it will take the country forward or backwards.

*Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor


[1], May 17, 2021.

[2] Inozemtsev, Vladisav. "Neo-Feudalism Explained" in: The American In-terest, 2011, Spring (March – April), Vol. VI, No. 4, pp. 73–80. (German edition: Inosemzew, Wladislaw. "Alle Macht dem Mittelmaß" в: Internationale Politik, 2011, № 2 (März-April), SS. 101–111; French edition: Inozemtsev, Vladislav. "La dictature des médiocres" в: Books, №27, No¬vembre 2011, pp. 30–36)

[3], May 18, 2021.

[4], May 17, 2021.

[5], May 17, 2021.

[6], October 21, 2019.

[7], June 18, 2018.


[9], January 25, 2021.

[10], January 30, 2021.

[11], December 14, 2018.

[12], 2017-2020.

[13], April 12, 2021.

[14] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1563, Alexey Navalny: Future President Or Prisoner For Life?, by Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, March 11, 2021.

[15], January 30, 2021.

[16], January 30, 2021.

[17], March 18, 2021.



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