Seeds of Discontent in a Restless Russia

 /  Nov. 24, 2019, 8:44 p.m.


On October 15, police in five Russian cities stormed into newsrooms and the apartments of journalists. They seized equipment and detained journalists in their raids on business centers, bloggers’ apartments, and offices. These raids mainly targeted media outlets who had covered the recent political protests in Moscow and across Russia, led by Russia’s youth, who are dissatisfied with the government and political corruption. While the protests have not yet moved the Kremlin on any major issues, they demonstrate that the Russian population is yearning for a more open and fair government. 

Major protests, including one in July that resulted in the arrests of over 1,300 protestors, have wreaked havoc on Moscow. The Russian government responded by detaining protestors and conducting raids on prominent dissenters. However, the government’s recent actions against the media have been more severe than in the past. A Russian journalist reported on a seventeen-year-old’s use of a suicide bomb in a branch of Russia’s secret police. The journalist, Svetlana Prokopyeva, had reported on the radicalization of Russian youth as a result of repression by security forces. She was arrested for the claim, and protests followed. 

Besides extreme censorship, a variety of other events have sparked protests in Russia. In Moscow, the government barred opposition candidates running for Moscow City Council, prompting over 3,500 people to take to the streets. Many of those arrested subsequently were young people, including Aleksei Nalvany, the leader of many of these protests. 

Beneath these uprisings lie a few key anxieties. Major economic inequality within Russia, the rise of Nalvany, and the end of President Vladimir Putin’s presidency have all driven the country’s youth to protest.

Economic and Political Anxieties

A major source of discontent among Russia’s young people is that they are at an economic disadvantage. Russia’s average real income, or total income adjusted for inflation, has fallen, and taxes have increased. Russia’s youth unemployment is at 14.79 percent, slightly above the global youth unemployment rate of 13 percent and far above the Russian unemployment rate of 4.74 percent. Russia was recently named one of the world’s most unequal economies in Credit Suisse’s Annual Wealth Report. Social mobility is a lofty goal for most in an economy that has held stagnant for years. In a Gallup poll, 44 percent of Russians between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine years old wanted to leave the country. 

A second source is Nalvany, the critic of the Kremlin and target of many crackdowns this past summer. Nalvany has been stirring up dissent since 2008. His methods, including using blogging and social media to spread his anti-Kremlin and anti-state corruption message, are designed to attract young Russians. Nalvany held his first organized protest in 2011, and he was a runner-up in Moscow’s 2013 mayoral elections. However, his true rise to prominence came when the Russian government blocked his 2018 presidential bid due to an embezzlement charge, which he maintains is false. He then called for an election boycott and protests, which occurred in over one hundred Russian cities and led to his detainment in Moscow. This summer, he led the biggest protests yet, including one attended by over sixty thousand people. 

Finally, the fact that Putin is now in his final term as president of Russia, as the Russian Constitution says no president can serve more than two consecutive terms, has exacerbated the unrest. Currently, there is no obvious successor. However, the Kremlin has attempted to control who next comes to power by cracking down on pro-opposition protests. An opposition leader competing for the presidency is the last thing the Kremlin wants. Young Russians have not been allowed to choose their leaders in a fair and free manner, including at the lowest levels of city government. As a result of the crackdowns, protests in support of free and fair elections since the beginning of Putin’s term have grown. 

Importantly, however, for many young people, Putin is the only leader they have ever known, having been president since 1999 (except for the years of 2008-2012). Given that Putin is all they have known, many young people actually approve of his presidency. A February 2019 study of Russians under twenty-five showed that 65 percent supported Putin. This demonstrates that the leadership is not the issue for all young protestors––it is much more systemic. Without economic mobility or a chance to change things at the ballot box, young Russians feel disenchanted. 

The Government’s Response

The Russian crackdown has taken many forms, mostly against young people. In late 2018, the Russian government passed a law that any unauthorized protest involving minors can lead to the arrest of the organizer. The music industry has also suffered; concerts have been cancelled and young performers censored. Social media, the main artery of communication for many supporters of the opposition, has also come under the control of the Russian government, who has banned certain websites and messaging services, including the messaging app Telegram, which is frequently used by social activists to communicate. 

Despite the growing number of arrests and raids, the protests continue, and grow steadily in size. Russian authorities opened a criminal case against protestors for rioting during demonstrations over the Moscow City Council organizations, but many of those charges were dropped amidst public backlash. Protestors have some power, and the international media helps to shed some light upon their cause through their coverage of dissenters’ arrests, which fuels further activism. As a result, it has been easier for the Russian government to carry out small-scale repression, like the recent raids on individual journalists. They have also arrested the organizers of youth social groups who meet to discuss political and social issues in Russia through social media channels.

What The Future Holds

Though many young Russians still support him for president, Putin’s approval ratings are at a record low. This tension only increases the potential for crackdowns by the government––dissatisfaction breeds instability, and the Russian government seeks to avoid instability at all costs. Activists have managed to move the government on certain issues, as seen with the release of certain protestors. Russia’s political system, however, still gives most people very little say––opposition leaders like Nalvany are regularly removed from the ballot on what are likely spurious charges. 

There is also a chance that Putin could decline to name a successor and simply run again. Although Putin promises to abide by the two term limit, he could still return to power in a different role. In 2008, Putin stepped down after two consecutive terms and served as prime minister, then returned as president in 2012. Putin could easily––and legally––do this again. With Russian youth still largely supportive of Putin, and his twenty-plus years at the helm of Russian government, there would likely be a reaction on the streets. In 2012, some of the biggest anti-Kremlin protests in history occurred when Putin returned. Since interference at the ballot box and manipulation of term limits is still common, young people in Russia do not have many ways to express their dissent besides protest. Putin’s return to power would likely exacerbate this public discontent. 

The possibility for more openness in Russian society is in sight, but the window is small. For the moment, crackdowns on all walks of life are still common, and the Russian security forces are at the behest of Putin and his government. However, protestors have extracted some mild concessions from the government, and over time, the lasting effects of the protests could breed more opposition representation in elections. As young people begin to make up more of Russian society, the call for a free, fair, and representative government is likely to grow stronger. Russian youth are still finding ways to counteract Russian interference in society, from music referencing the opposition to discussion boards on messaging pages. Don’t count the youth out yet.  

The image featured with this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License. The original image was taken by Evgeny Feldman and can be found here. No changes were made to the original image.

Julianna Rossi

Julianna Rossi is a third year Political Science major and Human Rights minor. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she spends her time on campus as the Chair of UChiVotes and as a communications intern for the IOP. Besides that, she loves cooking and baking, reading the news, and exploring Chicago.


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