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How Russian Teenagers Get Engaged in Politics

syg.ma team

When we talk about how teenagers get engaged in Russian politics, we often reproduce a common understanding of adolescence as a period of life that is less meaningful than adulthood. From this perspective, it is not until adulthood that political activity acquires meaning and weight, and therefore only adults can engage in politics in a meaningful way. As a result, political activities in which teenagers participate are disparagingly referred to as “schoolboy protests,” and teens themselves are framed as victims of propaganda. But even if we consider this age as transitional and “preparatory,” the question of teenagers’ role in these “preparations” remains open. Should they learn to assert their civil rights? Can teenagers defend their own political interests? What role does the context of coming of age play in shaping political subjectivity?

Evgenia Griber talked to sociologist Svetlana Erpyleva, researcher at the Laboratory of Public Sociology, research associate at the Center for Independent Sociological Research, and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Helsinki, about exploring political participation and the thinking of Russian teenagers.

This text was published in Russian one year ago. Much has passed since then, so we asked Svetlana to comment on why her research continues to be relevant in today’s situation of military conflict in Ukraine:

“With the start of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, not only has the link between childhood and politics not disappeared from the public discourse, but it has also taken a new turn. Firstly, reports of anti-war acts and actions by children and, of course, the adult reactions to them are now getting a special place in the news agenda. For example, a ten-year-old girl was taken to the [Russian] police because of her blue-and-yellow social media avatar, or an eleven-year-old boy attracted the attention of the [Russian] authorities by asking a soldier not to kill anyone and to return home in his school “letter to the front.” Discussions around such incidents, in fact, often raise fundamental questions: can children have a political position and, if not, who can? What is a “political position” anyway? Are a yellow and blue flag on an avatar and a letter to a soldier asking him not to kill people “political positions” and if not, what are they? Second, the war in Ukraine intensified the state“s attempts to foster a loyal youth: already in the first months of the war, social media and news outlets were filled with evidence of "patriotic” pro-war events in kindergartens and schools, children in military uniform at parades, teenage pro-war concerts and so on. The public discussion around such events often raises the same issues: can children be involved in politics? Are [pro-war activities in Russian schools such as] 'letters to the front’ or 'talks about what’s important, justifying Russia”s “special operation” in Ukraine, or Z-shaped formations “political” events, and if not, then what is “political”? In other words, both anti-war actions by children and pro-war activities by the state targeting children are indicative of “involvement of children in politics” and can be interpreted by society (or parts of it) as something “extraordinary” or “abnormal” while the “extraordinary” and the “abnormal” are known to highlight the nature of what they ‘violate’: in our case, the nature of the political and its limits”.

Illustrations by Liza Parshina. Translated by Max Sher.

This text was prepared and published as a syg.ma special project dedicated to exploring new knowledge about Russia. Our manifesto can be read by clicking on this link. We are open to any proposals for collaboration and joint research: if you want to tell us about your research or work by your friends or colleagues, write us to our editorial email at hi@syg.ma.

Researching Teenager Politics

My main research interest focuses on the political participation and thinking of adolescents, those who are on the fuzzy line between childhood and adulthood, or youth. In the most general terms, I am interested in how age-related political legitimacy works. How and where do we draw the line between political action that is still illegitimate and one that is legitimate in different contexts and situations? In most contemporary political systems, the ability to make full use of one’s reason (a kind of political maturity) is a necessary criterion for the legitimacy of political action. Consequently, only those who can fully use their reason are endowed with full political rights. This ability is acquired primarily with age; therefore, there are a number of age restrictions in politics. The most common of them is about active suffrage—the voting age threshold.

We draw this crucial boundary using the guide of cultural preconceptions, for example, about what is acceptable for children to do and what is political action. Contemporary ideas of childhood and politics imply that children are innocent and pure, while politics is a dirty business, which means childhood and political experience are incompatible. We feel these perspectives are natural, though there are certain historical processes behind them that actually shaped them in the first place. These ideas are different from society to society, even between Russia and Western Europe.

In Western European countries and in the US, it is often high school students who protest against covid restrictions. They formulate all kinds of problems and demands, but most importantly, they fight for their rights on their own

Teenagers, on the one hand, are still children, but on the other, they are already have one foot in the adult world and are expected to act as adults. Even more importantly, we often think of teenagers as young people and by some classifications refer to them as youths. There are many examples of minors getting involved in grassroots politics. One of the most resounding global examples is climate protests, the participants of which position them as a schoolchildren’s movement or kids’ movement. Teenagers protest all over the world against covid restrictions. There have been loud discussions in Russia as of late about the political participation of schoolchildren, both real and invented by state propaganda. I study cases of adolescent political participation and thinking in Russia by comparing them with examples from other countries and putting them into a common context.

In Western European countries and in the US, it is often high school students who protest against covid restrictions. Some don“t want to study online, some, on the contrary, don”t want to go to school because there is a danger of getting infected. They formulate all kinds of problems and demands, but most importantly, they fight for their rights on their own. Because of our political regime, it is difficult for us to draw direct parallels with Russia. There are fewer protests here in general, and there are even fewer on such occasions. But discussions on social media show that it’s parents, not teenagers, who discuss covid restrictions and schooling. They represent their children and defend their interests. A group called Moscow Parents comes to mind. Created a little more than a decade ago, it has been fighting schooling reforms. This example clearly demonstrates how differently we think of what is acceptable and what is not. Who are teenagers: are they those who stand up for their rights on their own or are they kids whose interests are represented by adults?

When an adult becomes involved in politics and goes to rallies, he or she may have problems with loved ones because of differing opinions. But seventeen-year-olds face conflicts of a different kind in this sense. Here it is no longer a matter of different opinions, but that a person begins to take an interest in an area that is not considered “for kids.” Therefore, the reaction of both their peers and adults to this emerging interest is different. It certainly affects the end result, that is, whether or not those who are generally interested in participating take to the streets to protest. And if they do decide to do so, how do they do it?

In one of my earlier studies, I looked at conflicts in public schools caused by dismissals of charismatic principals loved by teachers, parents, and children alike. School groups mobilized in order to keep them in place. I talked to adults, high schoolers, and nineteen- to twenty-somethings who had just recently graduated from high school. I observed how differently they participated in public campaigns to defend their principals and how different the ensuing results were.

Just like young people and adults, teenagers wanted to participate in these campaigns, trying to invent creative ways of collective action that would defend these principals and keep them in place. However, unlike other participants in the conflict, they were quickly confronted with the reaction of the older participants, who said, “Your main job is to study well, stay under the radar, and not to put us on the line.” This led to a different understanding of self and one’s responsibility. Teenagers now believed they should listen to their elders and assume the traditional childhood role of adult helpers. The involvement of alumni, on the other hand, led to a very different outcome, that is, their active participation in campaign planning, even though it started out similarly.

I saw the same thing in the For Fair Elections movement in 2011–2012. At the time, many people, dissatisfied with the fraud in the 2011 Duma elections, took to the streets. At the time, these were the first mass protests in Russia in twenty years. Children took on the traditional role of adult helpers in exactly the same way. They took to the streets, but they did it with trusted adults, with parents, for example, as if to support their stance. It was their way to legitimize their participation in an adult protest.

The 2017 anti-corruption protests were labeled “school kid protests.” Politically active teenagers no longer considered themselves inexperienced “children,” but participated in protests on an equal footing with adults

When I compared teenagers’ participation in the 2011–2012 protests with those of recent years, I found that the political socialization of the second cohort, that is, of those whose adolescence fell within 2014–2020, had changed. It was more affected by political events happening around them. The annexation of Crimea, for example, was an important milestone for the second cohort of teens. Politics began to be discussed everywhere; family members were in conflict with each other, there was constant talk about Ukraine on TV, and mass culture was politicized as well. Memes were created and bloggers emerged who were not activists, but who talked about politics.

Against this backdrop, interest in politics among teenagers—future 2017–2020 protesters—developed gradually, often starting several years before they had to take to the streets. And they felt confident at rallies, as if they were experienced activists, despite their age. The socialization of teenagers who came of age in 2007-2011 and then protested in 2011–2012 was fundamentally different. They did not experience far-reaching political events in their lives. Mass culture was rather apolitical. Their interest in politics thus emerged just months before mass protest. As a result, they felt like inexperienced “kids” in a public space that was new to them and chose the roles of “adult helper” that I mentioned above.

In 2017, there were many media reports regarding teenagers who were protesting for the first time. The 2017 anti-corruption protests were even known as “school kids protests.” Research has shown after a while that this was no longer true: the number of teenagers taking part in rallies hasn’t changed since 2011—it had always been just a small percent of the total number of protesters. It was not numbers, but the quality and forms of participation that have changed. Politically active teenagers no longer considered themselves inexperienced “children,” but participated in protests on equal footing with adults. However, they still faced the need to “justify” their political participation in order to make it legitimate. And they did not consider themselves “adult helpers,” but “early grownups,” that is, only de jure minors, but de facto no different from adults.

Interestingly, the age-related line between what is or not considered politically legitimate has remained unchanged since the first mass protests of 2011–2012. In the perceptions of both adults and teens involved in politics, protests are no place for children. My informants in 2018–2020, politically active teenagers, typically considered their peers, that is, other high school students, to be unreasonable kids. I have a great quote from a seventeen-year-old who said in an interview: “There are just two types of schoolchildren who go to rallies. There are thinking people who are just of school age, roughly speaking, but they can analyze somehow and so on, and they, because of their interests, take to the streets with some definite goals, that is, they are driven by the desire to change something. But there are high school kids who just go out there because it“s fun, it”s cool, and it’s exciting—’why not?’.” This young man considers himself “unusual,” as a “thinking” (despite his age!) schoolboy, an exception among most teenagers who protest just because it’s fashionable. That is, ten years ago teenagers considered themselves “inexperienced kids” at protests and therefore inferior political actors, but now they do not distinguish themselves from adults, because to them they are, as it were, simply “early grownups.” In both cases, according to my minor informants, there is no place for “children” in protest politics.

Is it any different elsewhere? Yes. Take, for example, the anti-climate change protests by Fridays For Future movement, which also exists in Russia. It was started by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, and thanks to her it immediately began to present itself as a movement of schoolchildren and not just that of teenagers. And precisely because they are schoolchildren, they fight for a better future. In a sense, they even present themselves as better political actors than adults, because adults, according to the public speeches by young climate activists, have a shortsighted view—they do not see the problems and do not want to fight them. They used their youth, their childishness, to create a certain image of political agency. But when environmental activists in Russia organize themselves as part of Fridays For Future, becoming part of an international movement, they stop positioning themselves as schoolchildren. Many of them even say that this association with youthfulness hinders the expansion of their movement, because older people could also join climate activism, but they do not because the movement positions itself solely as a youth movement.

Due to recent protests, the youth narrative is beginning to gain popularity, including with opposition groups

Interestingly, in Russia, surveys in recent years have regularly recorded differences in attitudes and opinions between two age groups: the young, those 18-24-year-olds, and the elderly, those 55 and over. The key difference is not between parents and children, but between children and their grandparents. One of the most crucial differences is, of course, the sources of information consumed. One can easily guess exactly which ones: the former have TV, while the latter have the Internet and social media. But there are also significant differences between these groups when it comes to their assessment of key political figures and events. If we look at what happened in 2020—the protests in Khabarovsk and in Belarus, [Putin“s] ‘amendments” to the [Russian] Constitution, the poisoning of [Russian opposition leader Alexey] Navalny and the release of his “Putin”s Palace” film—we can see a difference attitudes everywhere. Again, one can easily guess exactly where these differences are. Young people are more supportive of protest movements, more dissatisfied with “amendments’ to the Constitution, more willing to trust investigations about “Putin’s Palace,” and more open to values that are often called Western (although it would be more correct to call them international); they have sympathy for minorities, feminism, are willing to travel abroad, and so on.

But when teenagers participate in protests, they do so with the same agenda as adults, and, as we have mentioned above, they do not consider themselves to be some exceptional protesters, or in a special age group. As a result, while we see some differences in the views harbored by the young and, roughly, the elderly, they do not translate into divergences in the protest agenda. And in this way, although teenagers in Russia do take to the streets and everyone talks about “schoolboy protests,” we do not see “children” speaking out—we see “little adults” who merge with other adults, the older ones.

I have a hunch that due to the recent protests, the narrative about youth is beginning to gain popularity, including in opposition circles. This was a reaction to state propaganda claiming that schoolchildren are involved in the protests because they are stupid, manipulated, and don’t understand what they want. These are typical attitudes to childhood in our society—children are not fully intelligent, they can be easily manipulated, and so forth, and this sort of rhetoric does convince many. In response, protesters try to invert this propaganda narrative by endowing youth with positive connotations.

Looking through a number of posts and publications on this topic, I saw that supporters of the protests were now writing about “youth” and even about “childishness” as something positive. “Childishness” was endowed with politically useful features, albeit also typical of our notions of childhood, for example: children are more honest than adults, they are intolerant of lies, and since the regime lies shamelessly to us, children simply cannot keep quiet. This is why children protest even when adults don’t (although empirically this is not true: there are far fewer children at the rallies). This narrative is gradually becoming more and more popular in protest circles. A good example is the case against journalists of DOXA, a student publication, who represent youths, cater to them, and who have suffered as a result. I suggest that the rhetoric of romanticizing youth was introduced into the protest discourse by adults and picked up by teenagers. This is fundamentally different from the climate protests in the West, where a similar narrative was introduced by children and then picked up or criticized by adults.

In this way, the youth language, which creates an opposition of children against adults, is a strong moral and ethical device that works very effectively in Russian society. It can help construct an image of an adult enemy impinging upon what is most sacred. It is effective when used by government propaganda because it easily leads one to believe that the opposition is manipulating our children and is therefore an unconditional evil. For example, in recent high-profile cases when children and teenagers were detained for participating in protests, kids were rather portrayed as victims. They did break the law, but the protests were “in fact” orchestrated by a person whose name cannot be mentioned [a reference to chief Kremlin foe Alexey Navalny]. “He is our real archenemy.” This language is just as effective when used by supporters of protests who claim that brave children are forced to take to the streets because they are not willing to tolerate lies. In this form, by contrast, this language works to delegitimize the regime.

Another important point is how we see political participation by children and adolescents in general. It is naive to think that they should be completely shielded from politics by adults, who wait for them to grow up and then suddenly push them into the political space, expecting them to act intelligently, as grown-ups. It is important, for example, even in the family, if parents are interested in something, to not to hide it from the child, but at least to explain what is happening instead of saying, “you are just a kid, you’ll grow up and then you’ll understand.” This understanding may never come or it may come to fruition in a very strange way.

The key question of the project that I am currently working on with my colleague Maxim Alyukov has to do with teenagers’ very logic and ways of political thinking and how it differs from the ways that adults think (and whether or not they differ at all). In fact, we only draw the line between political infancy and adulthood based of the idea that children think differently up to a certain age. That is, it“s not that they don”t have enough knowledge, especially if we“re talking about teenagers—it”s that there’s something that affects their ability to make reasonable decisions. That being said, the very idea that people think rationally when they make political decisions has long been criticized.

These fifteen-, sixteen-, and seventeen-year-olds are people whose cognitive or formal logical abilities are not very different from those of adults. So we are comparing how people with or without political experience think about politics, on the one hand, and how teenagers and adults do so, on the other. One of our assumptions is that politically experienced teenagers will be more like politically experienced adults than politically inexperienced teenagers. That is, experience will play a more important role than age itself.

People must be empowered, able, and willing to collectively influence events around them, not just passively accept or criticize what is imposed on them from above

Childhood is a relatively short period. One may suggest that there is no point in wasting time turning children into anything (including political actors) if they will soon cease to be children anyway. But for democratic political systems, for example, it is very important that people participate not only in elections, but also in local government, for the companies they work for, as well as for their communities, cities, and so on. And for me as a citizen, this idea is also very important. People must be empowered, able, and willing to collectively influence events around them, not just passively accept or criticize what is imposed on them from above.

I want people who are new to our world to be able to practice this type of shared living and have the necessary skills to bring something new and better to the table. Some may believe that we will raise them first and then the right skills will just appear, but that’s not the way it works. You have to teach these lessons from a very early age, to educate young people about society and politics, to give answers to their questions, to encourage them to follow their curiosity. Their curiosity often touches upon a large number of topics, but we are usually selective in what we talk about with children, avoiding questions about sex or politics, for example.

There is a research area in social science called the “new sociology of childhood.” Many researchers working in this area believe that children should not only be a full-fledged object of social science in which they are studied as children, not as future adults, but that they also should be freed from adult oppression, seen as full-fledged social and political subjects, and given full rights. I began my research still unfamiliar with the new sociology of childhood, but my own attitude was similar—that we treat children as subhuman, while in fact they are better than adults in many ways. I assumed that teenagers would turn out to be rebels who had something to say about politics but weren“t being listened to, and if they were “liberated,” we”d see an activated and engaged form of teen politics. And of course, I gradually realized that this was not the case.

When you constantly hear from those around you, “Grow up first, then you’ll understand,” “Grow up and then protest,” it obviously affects your desire and willingness to do something

When nobody expects teenagers to be able to independently advocate for their own rights and formulate problems collectively, they won“t do it. When you constantly hear from those around you, “Grow up first, then you”ll understand,” “Grow up and then protest,” it obviously affects your desire and willingness to do something, especially in a depoliticized situation when people are not very eager to collectively assert their rights in general. It’s not that there is some adolescent political subjectivity that is crushed by adult society. Unfortunately, adult society is structured in such a way that this political subjectivity does not often develop at all, because we simply do not have institutions that would shape independent, autonomous, political subjects out of children and teenagers.

The Method: Qualitative Mechanisms of Politicization

My main method is an in-depth biographical interview. I am interested in the qualitative mechanisms of the phenomena I study. How do people get politicized? How do they get to participate? How do we draw the line between childhood and adulthood, between political immaturity and political maturity? Why is it this way and not otherwise? Compared to quantitative survey methods, an in-depth interview provides a qualitative understanding of these mechanisms. Choosing interviews rather than other qualitative methods is also related to the nature of my inquiry. Sometimes I feel a lack of data collected through ethnographic methods, such as observation, also because I am interested not only in teenagers' ideas about their own practices, but also in these practices themselves. But observation is rarely possible in my field. Sometimes it is hampered by the the closed nature of the organizations that I study. For example, it is quite difficult to attend a get-together of a pro-Kremlin youth organization if you are not a potential participant—a teenager or a student. I often work with cases where there just isn’t a specific group to observe. Rallies are big but there are only a few teens taking part in them. And here observation does not work as a method, because we are not observing the teenage participation phenomenon, but that of political protest, where teenagers play some small role.

I developed a very different method with Maxim Alyukov for a project to research political thinking. We call it “collective cognitive tasks.” We invite participants to collectively discuss and suggest solutions to a number of political and socially relevant problems. We tell them that we expect interesting results and unusual solutions, but what really matters to us is not the result, but the process. We look at how people discuss these solutions among themselves, how they argue and work out some their points of view. We assume that neither interviews nor even focus groups where there is a researcher who intervenes and moderates the conversation, will yield the same results. On the one hand, we want to be able to analyze how they communicate in a setting that is close to a “live” one: we leave the room, leave the research participants alone, and they communicate with each other in a setting that is close to natural. On the other hand, we create an experimentally simulated situation. We don’t go out to watch people talk about politics, because, first of all, it is rarely discussed, and second, in a laboratory setting we can gather people with certain credentials that are important to us and are connected to our hypotheses and then, for example, compare groups of teenagers and adults, the politically experienced and the politically inexperienced. This our quasi-experimental design.

The Trajectory: A Student’s Activist Experience

I have a degree in sociology. After high school I entered the sociology department of Moscow State University. It was a random choice; like many high school students, I didn’t fully understand what I wanted to do in the future. Once I got in, I pretty quickly joined an informal group of students led by a charismatic young sociologist who was able to really get us involved in research. This was in spite of the University, not thanks to it. Soon our small group became part of the ОD Group protest movement that came to exist in the sociology department. Together with other students, we spoke out against the poor quality of education, corruption covered up by the dean, and similar abuses. A year later, several other students and myself were expelled from the University because of our participation in this protest. That was my first real activist experience, which largely shaped my subsequent interest in researching collective action and protest movements.

Inspired by the active politicization of society taking place before our eyes, we began to study mass protests

After I was expelled, I moved to St. Petersburg and continued my studies at the sociology department of the Higher School of Economics. There I took up the study of the Roerich Movement quite by accident and began to write a diploma thesis about it, although the New Religions it was part of were not very close to my heart. I then began to also develop an interest in the study of the experience of children and teenagers.While working on my Roerich Movement project, I attempted to move from a topic that was not very interesting to me to one that I found more engaging. As a result, I devoted my thesis to the Roerich pedagogy in Russian public schools. At the same time, I became involved in political activism with small leftist organizations. After graduating from the Higher School of Economics, I entered the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the European University in St. Petersburg, where I wrote my master’s thesis on alternative or humanistic pedagogies in Russian schools.

And then the 2011 mass protests erupted. We formed a small research team that brought my friends, colleagues, and myself together. Most had an activist background and were interested in social science. Inspired by the active politicization of society taking place before our eyes, we began to study mass protests. We called ourselves the Politicization Research Collective, later becoming the Public Sociology Lab, or PS Lab. This lab is now part of the Center for Independent Sociological Research—we have a website and a Telegram channel.

In the meantime, I’d completed my master“s degree at the European University of St. Petersburg and entered the PhD program at the same institution. However, its license was revoked during our graduation year—for political reasons, of course. So neither my classmates nor I were able to defend our PhD theses. We decided to enroll all together to the University of Helsinki, where we then studied for another several years. I defended my dissertation in 2019. At the same time, after graduating from the PhD program at the European University, three key members of the PS Lab and I moved to Tyumen [in West Siberia] to work at the newly opened, trendy, and attractive faculty of Tyumen University. We moved together mainly to continue our joint work, but it didn”t work out the way we had planned. My PS Lab colleagues and I worked in the School of Advanced Studies at Tyumen University, both teaching and researching. It soon became clear that the reality at the faculty was different from the publicity messaging that had attracted us to Tyumen. The incompetent and authoritarian management policies of the faculty director hindered actual collective work. In a sense, this experience had a negative impact on our lab; when we returned from Tyumen, we had a lot to rebuild.

In 2020, I left the School of Advanced Studies after working there for three years and joined the Center for Independent Sociological Research (CISR) in December. It was an important event for me symbolically. During my years as a student at Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, the CISR staff provided me with all kinds of help, and since 2013 they have supported our Lab. I have now become part of the CISR. I was also part of a postdoc program at the University of Helsinki where I worked on a collective project comparing environmental activism in Russia and Finland. At the end of 2021, I left for a two-year postdoc at the University of Bremen (Humboldt Fellowship). Here I am continuing to study the political participation and thinking of teenagers, on the one hand, and coordinating a large-scale PS Lab qualitative study on Russian perceptions of the war in Ukraine, on the other. In the meantime, I will continue to be a PS Lab and CISR employee for what I hope will be a long time.

***

Svetlana Erpyleva is a sociologist, a researcher with Public Sociology Laboratory, Centre for Independent Social Research (Russia), and a post-doctoral researcher Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen. She received her PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Helsinki. Her research is focused on protest movements and collective action, political involvement, political socialization, youth and children’s political participation in Russia and abroad. Her articles have been published in Journal of Youth Studies, Current Sociology, Qualitative Psychology, the International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, a number of Russian academic journals, and Russian and international media. She is also a co-author of the collective monograph Politics of Apoliticals (2015, in Russian). She took part in PS Lab projects on political mobilizations in Russia and Ukraine and the war in the Donbas region. Currently, she coordinates a large-scale research project on how Russians perceive the current war in Ukraine.

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