Vladimir Putin Is Trying to Get Down With the Cool Kids

After years of wooing the middle-aged and elderly, the Kremlin is attempting to court young voters. And it's extremely awkward.


Last month, Russia’s Parliament convened for a special session to discuss a pressing matter: how to save the country’s wayward youth.

One politician, Sergei Mironov, head of the Just Russia Party, spoke with particular concern about the power of the internet and social media. “It is typical for today’s youth to completely follow the recommendations on the internet.… There, on social networks, is the demon who teaches them not to love their motherland,” Mironov said — but that wasn’t all. “Whole strata of subculture are out of our view,” he said, and went on to cite examples: “What you call artrit, for one: when they make graffiti.”

The remark quickly went viral on the very social media networks Mironov was lamenting, among the very audience he sought to save — but for very much the wrong reasons. The 64-year-old politician had mixed up the expression for “street art” — stritart — with the Russian word for arthritis.

Russian politics has a youth problem.

For years, the country’s politicians have, for the most part, ignored the country’s young people. The Kremlin, for instance, along with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, has focused on maintaining their appeal among a core constituency of middle-aged members of the working class and the elderly, whom they’ve viewed as more likely to show up at the polls. Much of the state’s rhetoric appeals to past military glories and traditional Orthodox values, and contrasts the Putin era with the crime-ridden, economically dire 1990s. Much of its propagandizing takes place on television, the preferred source of news and entertainment for those over 40. The pro-Kremlin youth movements that commanded resources and influence a decade ago have since retreated into obscurity.

In Parliament, the main parties are represented by aging political fixtures like Mironov, who is the youngest minority party leader (the other two are in their 70s). Putin himself is a long way from the days when he was viewed as the fresh, energetic face who replaced Boris Yeltsin in 2000. By the next year’s presidential election, in which he is widely expected to run, Putin will have reached Russia’s retirement age of 65.

But over the past few months, the government has suddenly woken up to the fact that a new cohort of YouTube-ing, Snapchatting, and Instagramming Russians who have no memories of the 1990s, and who barely watch television will become first-time voters in 2018: 7 million of them, to be exact. They’re voters for whom an anti-corruption message resonates; they want to know why they don’t seem to have a chance at getting ahead in Russia unless they already have wealthy parents. They’re also less inclined to support the Kremlin’s isolationist, anti-Western rhetoric. According to a recent survey, 70 percent want to study abroad (26 percent would prefer never to come back), and 42 percent said they believe Russia and the West can be friends

That Putin might have an issue with them became clear this spring, when thousands of young people flooded the streets for the anti-corruption protests called by Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. While the jury is still out on how many of the rallies’ participants were teenagers, the visible youthfulness of the two protests — one on March 26 and another on June 12 — came as a surprise to both the government and the opposition. Some 136 minors under 18 were detained at the Moscow rally on June 12, according to Moscow police, out of a total of 866.

And so, faced only with the prospect of a new politically active generation of youthful digital content connoisseurs, the Kremlin has embarked on some belated efforts to get down with the kids.

Within a week of the March protests, Russia’s biggest government-affiliated pollsters were busy probing what Russia’s youth are thinking, where they get their information, and how they feel about the elections. The Kremlin is hiring a “social networking” advisor to liaise with Russia’s regional authorities and preparing to revamp its youth policy, according to reports. Putin himself recently issued a rare endorsement for internet technologies and social media. “We must create modern, high-quality internet resources with interactive capabilities … to orientate ourselves first and foremost on youth, promoting information with social networks,” he suggested at a meeting in April while talking about patriotic education.

There have also been some clumsy first attempts at outreach. Popular bloggers were invited this month to take part in the “council of bloggers,” an initiative by the Russian Parliament to open up a communication channel with those who influence young minds. The event was greeted with skepticism in the blogging community, however. “They want our audience,” said 23-year-old video blogger Nikolai Sobolev, whose channel has over 3 million subscribers, in a YouTube clip, pondering whether or not to take the invitation seriously. In the end, most top bloggers ignored the council, which took place last week. The most prominent figure in attendance, as a result, was Liza Peskova, the daughter of Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who lives in France and whose pouty-faced Instagram account has a measly 47,000 followers.

Another effort to reach out to young people — this time, not to suss out their views, but to lecture — also backfired after singer Alisa Vox, formerly of the hit band Leningrad, posted a new music video in which she chastises a schoolboy for protesting. “You want change, boy, start with yourself,” sang Vox, calling the protesting pupil a “puppet” while posing as a sexy schoolteacher. Though the clip was viewed over 2 million times, it gained far more dislikes than likes. It didn’t help when two days after it was posted, Russia’s independent Dozhd channel reported that the song and video had been arranged by a former Kremlin employee.

“How do you brainwash schoolchildren? Why, with half-naked tits, butts, and set to music!” mocked popular YouTube vlogger Kamikadzedead (real name Dmitry Ivanov), who makes daily videos on current events and is openly critical of the Russian government.

The Kremlin “needs a message for youth, but that doesn’t mean that message is easy to formulate,” said political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov, who heads the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation. “The growth of protest attitudes in youth was a surprise for the authorities.”

It may have been a surprise for the opposition as well. Though the authorities accuse Navalny of targeting young people, it’s not clear whether he had anticipated that his message would resonate so thoroughly with Russian youth. But there have been signs lately that he is deliberately trying to build on this new momentum with younger Russians. After his video alleging that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has amassed enormous wealth went viral, he launched his Navalny Live YouTube channel in mid-March. Later he addressed the issue of young people directly before the June rally. “I’m not on TV. All I have is this YouTube channel and I’m proud that young people watch my channel, including schoolchildren and students,” he said in a clip.

There have been attempts to emulate Navalny’s success. Following the release of the Medvedev diatribe, Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov took to the website to respond to the suggestion that he had bribed the prime minister in a video of his own. Filmed sitting behind a desk with a glass of water and a notepad, Usmanov’s production values were no match for Navalny’s glitzy product, and his rejoinders were met with mockery, not just from Navalny but also from the apolitical vloggers popular with young Russians. “He uses a cheap camera, doesn’t edit his video with funny face zooms. … It would be cool if he added some music and dressed a bit more fashionably,” said Danila Poperechny, a standup comic who keeps a hit YouTube channel, before issuing his verdict: “Dislike.”

The Kremlin’s recent overtures to young people are reminiscent of meetings held by Medvedev in 2010-2011, during the years when he was president. Medvedev, a self-proclaimed supporter of technological innovation, brought in bloggers and internet lobbyists to advise him. But nothing ever came of those meetings. Instead, the desire to open up Russia’s economy and appeal to young people clashed with the need for control, and the latter prevailed. In the years since, the Kremlin — with Parliament’s eager approval — has moved to criminalize the sharing of some social media content, initiated a register of blacklisted websites, and pressured global internet companies to move users’ personal data to Russia, where it can be more easily accessed by the security services.

So far, this still-nascent effort appears to be headed in the same direction. Many of the popular vloggers were horrified when a Russian court in May convicted one of their own, Ruslan Sokolovsky, of insulting religious believers in his YouTube videos, which included hunting Pokemons in a church and saying God does not exist, sentencing him to a (suspended) 3.5-year stint in prison.

Anastasiya Leonovich, 18, is one of the newly eligible voters who was detained at the protest this month. Next year, Putin is not getting her vote, she told me. “He is not interested in moving the country forward at all. He is not interested in investing into new cutting-edge fields, in developing the economy,” she said. “We’re just sitting on this oil pump so that he and his friends can get rich, and that’s the reason he’s still in power.”

Photo credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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