In a poll conducted by Russia’s independent Levada Center and Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, only 19% of Russian respondents aged between 14 and 29 expressed an interest in politics. On the other hand, approximately 53% of eligible American youth voters participated in the 2020 election, and in a Tufts University poll, over 83% believe that young people have the political power to change the country. The disparity is clear: Russian youth are far more disengaged from the political process than their American counterparts, by heavy margins. While American youth perceive politics as an integral aspect of society—as a way to effect change in the world, to fix the problems plaguing the country—Russian youth tend to be much more apathetic about politics. Why is that? Why are Russian youth so apathetic about the political process? Although there are many historically rooted cultural factors that discourage political participation in Russian youth, the most influential obstacles lie in government resistance to youth civic participation and Russia’s fundamental political system: one where elections are relatively non-competitive and the government nonvolatile.
Russian Political System
When interviewed about the results of the Levada Center’s poll, Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate for the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, said that “Politics are boring and de facto nonexistent [for young people]” and that “it’s interesting to engage in politics when there’s competition between real actors. That’s why young people have no incentive to get involved in politics.” Kolesnikov is certainly right about the lack of competition in Russia’s political landscape: with Vladimir Putin and his party United Russia wielding the reigns of power in Russia for the last three decades, there has been very limited competition, both on the national and regional levels: United Russia’s candidate won on average 71% in the last four elections, and United Russia holds 336 out of 450 seats in the Duma. The American political scene presents a different story: with political control of the White House and Congress swinging back and forth between Republicans and Democrats ever since the country’s founding, America has traditionally had competitive elections with thin margins deciding elections. In the United States, where many youths can get involved in politics through elections—volunteering for campaigns, canvassing for candidates, debating policy, engaging in activism—in Russia, youth simply cannot do the same, as elections are overwhelmingly one-sided. With a lack of competition in Russia, comes a natural lack of youth engagement in politics.
Coupled with the discrepancy in political competition between Russia and America, America’s partisan political system promotes debate and discussion over the policymaking process. Political changes in Russia tend to be slower and more linear, while America’s two-party system is more volatile, where elected officials try to achieve as much of their goals as possible before potentially losing their seat to the opposing party. America’s competitive policy-making process naturally spawns debates surrounding partisan issues, such as guns, abortion, and immigration, topics that could be debated and be advocated for or against, something that American youth can easily delve into. However, in Russia, while there are certainly debates on the direction Russian policy should move in, they are less polarized than American political issues. When one party, United Russia, has such an overwhelming control on both the regional and federal level, they have the power to set the agenda and leave limited room for political diversity. As such, Russian youth cannot tether themselves to a political issue in the same way American youth can, and thus, are less interested in politics.
Russian Government Regulation
Furthermore, Russian authorities have targeted youth involvement in politics, including a ban on minors attending protests, an increase in funding for military and patriotic education, and a plan to monitor youth online behavior. This flurry of regulation came months after thousands of young activists took part in a wave of anti-government protests in Moscow in the summer of 2019 after a refusal to register independent candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections. Vladimir Putin ordered then PM Dmitry Medvedev to “ensure regular research of young Russian internet users’ consumer preferences and behavioral traits,” according to a set of acts the president signed in April of 2020, in a move that seeks to raise awareness on how the internet influences the opinions of young people. Therefore, whenever Russian youth do participate in the political process (such as organizing and attending protests), they are met with harsh opposition from the Russian government, directly criminalizing their political engagement.
However, government regulation has not stopped some from continuing to join protests. Just this January 2021, thousands of youth across the country participated in protests demanding the release of jailed political opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Analysts are attributing the widespread youth participation to the rise in popularity of social media platforms as a means of galvanizing the movement; according to the Associated Press, the protests “came amid media reports of calls for demonstrations—and videos of school students replacing portraits of President Vladimir Putin in their classrooms with that of Navalny—going viral among teenagers on social network TikTok.” Yet since the protests, the Russian government has continued its crackdown on youth involvement in demonstrations, announcing that it will fine social media platforms that have content promoting the protests.
With a political system that discourages competition and a government that directly resists youth participation in protests, Russian youth simply do not have the means nor the motivations to engage in politics to the same degree American youth do. Yet perhaps, with the ever-growing popularity of social media and more intercultural exchanges between Russian youth and youth of the world, we might see more youth interest in politics and a heightened fervor to change the world for the better.