BERLIN — The very first question made Vladimir Putin smile. "Do you use social media?" a blond teenager wanted to know. And with a grin, the boy added: "If you want to unwind after a hard day at work, do you scroll through your Instagram feed or do you watch YouTube?" The Russian president had to surrender himself to "tough" questions such as these last month in Sochi when he met with several hundred students — an interaction that was broadcast live on TV.
It isn't a coincidence that Putin is meeting teenagers. Only a small percentage of young people in Russia are politically active. But politicians still can't afford to ignore them; the new generation gets information through the internet and is not easily influenced by tried-and-tested methods of TV propaganda. For the Kremlin, this signals a loss of control.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who plans to run for president in next year's election, has drawn young people to the streets nearly twice for unauthorized protests across the country.
Only a small percentage of young people in Russia are politically active, but politicians still can't afford to ignore them.
Putin has not yet officially announced his candidacy for the 2018 vote. But no one doubts that he will not only run again but that he will also win. And now issues pertaining to young Russians have emerged at the center of the campaign: youth policy, youth employment, the "patriotic education" of the youth — these topics all have political currency in Russia.
In Sochi, Putin's answers to teenagers' questions were revealing: No, he doesn't have time for Instagram. His workday ends so late that he can only think about going to bed. "To be honest, colleagues in my apparatus, my administration, use the internet in all forms. But personally, I practically never use it." A nickname? He says that he doesn't understand why someone needs something like that. But he does tell the gathered crowd that while he was working for the KGB, he was codenamed "Platov."
Dying political dinosaur
At the outset, the Russian president looked like a grandpa around children, or like a "dying political dinosaur" as described by political scientist Tatiana Stanovaja from the independent think tank Center for Political Technologies.
Russia's political elite speaks a different language from young people today. So now, internet stars loyal to the government help bring politicians and students closer. In May, Russian deputies listened to a speech by Sasha Spilberg, a video blogger with a following of 10 million people on social media.
The 19-year-old became famous for videos that are often silly. In one, which accrued more than four million views, she sits in a bathtub filled with potato chips. In another, with nine and a half million views, she tells her viewers what frightens her when she is home alone. In April, an interview with the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinski suddenly appeared among these clips in which he recommended Russian films and internet sites on Russian culture. But this video wasn't as popular with her fans as the one with the chips.
Shortly after that, a "blogger advisory committee" convened in the Russian parliament. Among the participants was Jelisaveta Pieskowa, 19, the daughter of Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov. She had studied in Paris until recently, often posting selfies and pictures from beauty salons to Instagram. She especially likes strapless clothing and high heels. Now she is back in her homeland working for an organization that deals with "the promotion of patriotic education and young entrepreneurs."
No one knows yet how successful this advisory group will be. However, Peskova's Instagram clearly shows her loyalty to the Russian state. In February, she got away with describing the Russian educational system as "hell." Last month, she traveled to the Chechen capital Grozny, posting pictures of herself dancing with its president, Ramzan Kadyrov, and calling him a "friend who always speaks the truth."
Kremlin's first attempt to attract the youth began in 2003 following the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The goal of Vladislav Surkov, who was then responsible for domestic policy at the Kremlin, was to prevent an uprising in Russia like the one that took place on the Maidan in Kiev.
Patriotic youth movements were founded for this reason. Money flowed in from the state coffers. Summer camps were organized. The "Putin Youth" from the Nashi movement burned books by opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and author Vladimir Sorokine in Moscow, and attacked critics of the government.
But when protests broke out in 2011, no one from the Putin Youth took to the streets to tow the Kremlin's line. Instead, most young people became members for pragmatic reasons. Above all, the wanted to forge new relationships and set up their careers.
All patriotic youth educational schemes that are directed from above have the same problem: few teenagers participate voluntarily or sincerely. Because of this, a modern version of the Soviet-era "Young Pioneers" has not emerged from any of the pro-Putin youth organizations. The Kremlin possibly doesn't care. Its efforts are still successful as youngsters leave summer camps doubting the opposition, democracy, and the West.
"In any case, every successful ‘Nashist' is a person who will not head out into the streets to topple Putin in any case whatsoever," the Russian publicist Oleg Kashin argued. "And until recently that was enough for the Kremlin. In principle, they don't need noisy loyalism."
After the annexation of Crimea and in light of the war in eastern Ukraine, the patriotic rhetoric admittedly became louder. In addition to "patriotic education for young entrepreneurs", a militaristic branch has developed. The most recent attempt to set up a patriotic mass organization is a project of the Defense Ministry: the so-called "Youth Army" has existed for a year and claims a membership of some 117,000 young people. Local authorities and schools help to recruit students.
Forum Seliger camp — Photo: Kontinent/ZUMA
The summer camps teach military history, combat training, patriotism and important Russian victories. Teenagers learn to shoot guns and reconstruct historic battles. In May, the Youth Army marched in military regalia and red caps across the Red Square as part of the Victory Day parade, celebrating the Allied victory in Europe in World War II.
As early as the beginning of this century, students, particularly from the countryside who did not have many possibilities for recreation, tended to participate in the youth organizations. But again, only a few joined out of ideological conviction. In other words, not everyone who practiced shooting at the camps was a militarist.
Masha Taub, a columnist for the daily newspaper Kommersant, recently described how the movement seduced her son: In his final year of school, he had began to learn shooting. Then, he wanted to win a sporting competition. That would guarantee him a spot at university to study under the military chair, who educates officers even at public universities.
In fact, for many young men, the reason for following this path through higher education is the same: It paves a way out of the army. As officers, they can complete their compulsory military training in the course of a few weeks. The alternative is one year of military service, which for many young Russians would be a nightmare.
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