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Meeting Russia’s new generation of teenage activists

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We speak to the country’s young protestors about marching against the Kremlin and how social media has created a revolution in Russia

‘My Russia’ is the Dazed mini-series telling the stories of Russia’s revolutionary youth today. Emboldened by social media, their attitudes towards the state are ever-morphing, their protests growing ever stronger. Here, young Russians tell their stories on Dazed.

A new era of protest has hit Russia, led by a new, younger generation. In March 2017, a wave of anti-corruption protests against the Kremlin took place across Russia, with thousands of teenagers taking to the streets, after Alexei Navalny’s explosive investigative film He Is Not Dimon To You was released, a documentary that discovered enormous hidden real estate and a network of businesses run secretly by the former Russian President and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Navalny is a lawyer and activist who plans to challenge Putin in 2018 – He Is Not Dimon To You was viewed 1.5 million times in a day when he released it on YouTube – it’s now been seen 25 million times.

In June 2017, teen girls were among hundreds arrested as protests broke out in Russia again. Inspired by political information they receive on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, no longer relying on state television, Russian youth is waking up and mobilising. Here, we speak to a new breed of Russian activists on why they’re angry and dissatisfied with their country’s political systems.

NIKITA MARTYNOV, 16, MOSCOW

What made you join the protests in Russia this year?

Nikita Martynov: I have been following the events in my country for a long time. But since turning 16 I guess I had a breakthrough. I knew that at this stage I am solely responsible for my actions and that going to protests and demonstrations would be legal for me.  I felt that I can finally make my own choices and take my own actions.

So you think 16 is a perfect age for a young person to be politically active. Why 16 and not earlier?

Nikita Martynov: It is a perfect age. I think 14 is too early. As I saw in myself and by observing my friends, at 14 your views are very, very flexible. And sometimes in the morning you might have one position on a certain political matter in your country and by the end of the day have an opposite opinion about it. You are influenced by your relatives, family, friends and naturally by the way mass media portrays things. Of course every personality is different. But generally at 16 this process slows down, and I think by 16 or 18 a young person has a more or less clear political framework for their views.

In one of your interviews you also said that the earlier a young person gets involved with politics the better. Why do you think that?

Nikita Martynov: Well it is simple, the earlier a person becomes active the bigger is the chance he or she will advance in politics. I guess it applies to many spheres of our lives. On the other hand, of course, you have examples like Donald Trump, who became President at 70.

“At the moment I have one major demand for the Russian authorities: their full dismissal” – Nikita Martynov

What were your personal demands when you joined the marches? Did you have any?

Nikita Martynov: Well, at the moment I have one major demand for the Russian authorities: their full dismissal. And if you feel as passionate about this as I do, it is your moral responsibility to join all the big protest events. I’m fed up with the government corruption, which, by the way, is one of the highest in the world. I am fed up with the poor economic situation in the country, fuelled by corruption in particular. I see people getting more poor, and those who have the power becoming more and more rich. And finally -- political lawlessness that the Russian authorities have been cultivating towards anyone who thinks differently from them. Any type of nonconformity is not welcomed here, and we know cases when not only peaceful protesters were detained, but also those who simply reposted a post on social media. All of this made me truly hate the current regime and all its representatives.

A popular Russian TV presenter Vladimir Solovyev recently called young people like you at demonstrations “two-percent shits”. I know you responded to him publicly to that.  

Nikita Martynov: Yes, he called us “children of corrupted officials”, while my mom is definitely not an official involved in corruption. My guess would be that maybe he knows that it was not true, but the money paid to him is probably more important to him than his journalistic reputation.

So what does an activist like you read or watch in Russia?

Nikita Martynov: Opposition like me would not watch TV, that’s first. Unless it’s something on YouTube that pops up for time to time. And if it does I have a very clear understanding that news reports presented on some of the main Russian TV channels would simply be lies. So it leaves the internet as the main source of information for us. You need to be very careful: there were numerous cases when speaking up on VKontakte freely and reposting news items led to a person’s detention and imprisonment. As for me, I am generally checking groups like “Lentach”, which collects news and adds memes to them.

ANNA ZAGUMENNAYA, 20, MOSCOW

Why do you protest? Why do you come out to the streets?

Anna Zagumennaya: I come out because I am not happy with the current political situation in Russia. I think it is critical for us to speak up, otherwise nothing will change. Even though Dimon triggered the protests, they were not specifically about Dmitry Medvedev, but corruption in general.

They say the recent protests united a lot of young people, which is different to previous events like that. When you were there, did you notice this change?

Anna Zagumennaya: At the two events this year I saw a lot of young people. I think nearly half were under 25 for sure. I think it has to do with the fact that young people today have access to alternative information through YouTube, independent news sites and so on. Internet allows them to get information.

You mentioned Internet. Russia is a country where majority of people still get their information and news via television, which is 99% state run. What sort of sites, channels and apps do young people use to balance information with the propaganda on TV?

Anna Zagumennaya: It depends. If you look at the recent protests organized by Aleksey Navalny, and the way they disseminate information, you’ll see that they mainly rely on Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. That’s the three main platforms they always use. And if you look at smaller opposition groups like ‘Protesting Moscow’, they also use Facebook, Twitter and Telegram as their channels of communication. These are the main platforms I use, too.

Even though Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, has a much bigger audience than any of them?

Anna Zagumennaya: Facebook, Twitter and Telegram are used more by the Russian intelligentsia. These networks in our country tend to have less entertainment and more political and informative content. Vkontake has lots of memes and noise which sometimes makes it harder to filter credible information.

“Young people today have access to alternative information through YouTube, independent news sites and so on. Internet allows them to get information” – Anna Zagumennaya

How risky is protesting today in Russia? How unsafe do you feel speaking up online and demonstrating in the streets?

Anna Zagumennaya: There is definitely a risk. Everyone who goes into the streets understands that there is a big probability you will end up being detained that day, sometimes for several days. I knew it all very well when I was demonstrating. The only exception was when I joined protests on June 12. Then, I did not carry any posters or banners with me. I was extra careful only because I had to hand in my thesis at university the following day. I simply could not get detained and miss it.

In terms of protesting online, I think young people feel a lot safer. A lot of communication can be done anonymously. I think it is much worse for oppositional leaders such as Navalny, who often acts as an organizer and has a different responsibility.

What’s next for you in your activism?

Anna Zagumennaya: I will continue to follow the political situation in Russia with my full attention, simply because it is my country, a place where I will be raising my future children. We also have the presidential elections coming up next year, so I expect there will be lots more political noise. I am 99% confident Aleksey Navalny will not probably be allowed to participate in the elections, which in return will cause another wave of protests. I am definitely going to be there again.

EDUARD BURMISTROV, 18, MOSCOW

I know you were part of the summer protests this year. Are you involved with politics in any other way?

Eduard Burmistrov: Not really. I don’t volunteer, and I don’t really associate myself fully with Navalny [Russian opposition leader] as a political party and movement either. I think it is important to come and support people during protests, as I believe that one person can bring change. Everyone thinks one person cannot help. But that’s why I come out: to support and to make your voice heard.

That’s interesting. I spoke to other young people and a lot of them are Navalny’s followers. What makes you distant?

Eduard Burmistrov: I think that Aleksey Navalny is a controversial figure. For example, during the very recent municipal elections in Moscow he did not show support for the independent candidates. One repost online, as other opposition leaders said, would have helped the candidates massively. I think it was his intentional position to create an informational blockade during the elections. But it is difficult for me to say whether he as a politician is a real alternative to the current political leadership. I can’t see him as our ‘saviour’, I can’t spend days talking about him and volunteer for him. I would love to see not one but many Navalnys. Of course, I am thankful that we have such a person, who is able to mobilise masses and do something good. He definitely needs our support, and I am happy to do that but without being a fanatic.

If you were to describe the current political situation in Russia to, let’s say, a group of young Brits, how would you do that? What would be important for them to know?

Eduard Burmistrov: I would start off by saying that all of us, young people, actively participate online. We are constantly signing petitions, liking posts, commenting. And in some ways it replaces our political engagement which we otherwise would have had offline. Coming back to Navalny and what he actually has managed to achieve is to prove that online ‘clicktivism’ can bring political improvements in real life. You can see how his videos on YouTube and other actions his followers join online translate to real life changes. He is able to lead masses of people virtually, and then they come out into the the streets.

A correlation between online activism and real life change, while it is definitely there, is hard to prove, isn’t it?

Eduard Burmistrov: Absolutely, especially in Russia where people are largely passive and do not believe any change can really happen. People stopped voting because they are no longer interested and they do not believe the elections are fair. Overall, political activity is very low at the moment.

Is the young generation growing up with a lot more of alternative information, and with more motivation to act?

Eduard Burmistrov: I would agree, yes. In many ways Navalny became a symbol for young people as well: he was able to lead them. And I think a lot of young people who saw his video investigations on YouTube had a strong emotional feeling of injustice. Why would one have lots of money and large villas, while, for example, my mother works three jobs and my dad spends long hours at a factory? That feeling of injustice mobilises many young people today. And of course the age is important: for many teenagers being a protester is simply cool. They feel free and awesome.

“That feeling of injustice mobilises many young people today. And of course the age is important: for many teenagers being a protester is simply cool. They feel free and awesome” – Edward Burmistrov

So are they not scared to protest compared to a few years ago

Eduard Burmistrov: Well, what protests would they have gone to few years back? A Zhirinovksy demonstration [leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in Russia, widely perceived as pro-government party]? Of course not. YouTube specifically has had a massive impact on a political life in Russia. And yet today not so many bloggers speak about politics, unfortunately. Very few public people or celebrities talk politics. For example, when in the US Madonna uses her concert stage to bring up important issues, this has massive influence on her fans. Imagine if in Russia, I don’t know, even Olga Buzova [Russian pop singer, TV personality] spoke up – this would be huge.

Yeah, especially for young people. Why do you think these celebrities do not speak up?

Eduard Burmistrov: I think most of them are afraid. They are scared of sanctions that might be pressed against them, or that they would not be allowed on federal TV channels. And, of course, they do not want to stop earning money.

Let’s talk a bit more about YouTube. Navalny’s videos are definitely very popular, but are there any other vloggers or bloggers that you and other young people follow?

Eduard Burmistrov: I would say maybe only the blogger “Kamikadzedead” is worth checking out.

Tell me about summer camps and youth meetings that Putin attends, when he talks directly to school students and then streams it on TV? Is this a real thing or just for show?

Eduard Burmistrov: All Putin’s ‘direct lines’ are rehearsed shows [live recorded Q&A with Putin on federal TV channels]. Nothing unexpected usually happens. Although during the last one there were lots of controversial questions popping up on the screen live.

As for the summer camps, there are three big ones for students in Russia: Artek, Arlyonok and Okean. Okean is in Vladivostok, and I went there few times. Kids there are some of the most interesting and talented you would ever see. But the camp itself has huge pressure. The entire time you are there, they are trying to turn you into a patriot. It’s understandable, because those camps are full funded by the state. So they broadcast all of the Kremlin’s propaganda to the youth all day long.

What does this look like in practice?

Eduard Burmistrov: Well, they have lots of events talking about our love for the Motherland, how amazing everything is in Russia and so on. You have some cool sports and art workshops, but next to it? Always patriotic lessons.

How would you describe the overall mood among young people in Russia today?

Eduard Burmistrov: I would say young people love protests. They think it’s cool, and they are happy to join. In fact, if Navalny plans another protest march, I am sure lots of young people will join again. Although we need to realize that young people in Moscow are different from young people in the regions. They have different opportunities, and politics does not get mixed among their interests there so easily.

What is your personal hope for the future?

Eduard Burmistrov: I am a very positive person. In my 18 years I travelled a lot around Russia, spoke to people, and I love my country. I want everything to be good. I know it sounds naive, but I believe Russia will have a bright future. I know it’s fragile, but I am sure we will get there.