Russian urban youth in the age of late Putinism

Dmitry Lebedev

The massive oppositional protests that had broken out in Russia in 2011 and 2012, culminated in violent clashes with the police forces on the sixth of May 2012. The Russian media were filled with a variety of columns and comments exploring an arguably significant role that young creative urbanites played in those oppositional rallies.  The term ‘creative class’, which was used mostly in the academic circles prior to the protests, suddenly became immensely widespread. Although there was indeed a visible presence of urban educated youth in the mass protests, both their role in those protests and the existence of a creative class itself in the contemporary Russian society were frequently doubted.[i]

In this article I investigate how self-identification and the social role of educated young Russians has been transformed during the first half of the current decade and what the corollaries of this transformation are. In these questions, certain limitations of the whole inquiry are made visible. Namely, I will address the predicaments of the urban Russian youth (mostly in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and other big cities like Yekaterinburg), their involvement in various social and cultural projects in the past years (prior and after oppositional rallies). In addition, the current state of affairs affected by the worsening economic situation and the state propaganda of the so called ‘traditional values’ that undermines a number of globally-oriented cultural projects will be discussed. For this article I used several sociological insights from Russian academic circles (with a focus on the work of Elena Trubina, Ilya Kalinin and Anna Zhelnina), a variety of media sources (like the leading cultural magazine ‘Afisha’) and some comments from the people involved in different social and cultural practices (media work, event management, etc.).

A creative boom
The obvious question is how the passages about creative class are exactly connected with social and political issues concerning young Russian urbanites? In recent years, major Russian cities (apart from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg we can mention Yekaterinburg, Perm, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Tomsk, and Novosibirsk) became places of application of various state-backed cultural initiatives that attracted a significant number of young minds from different fields (designers, marketing specialists, humanities graduates, art curators, journalists, etc.).

The most remarkable attempt to re-establish an urban life in a post-Soviet city with collapsing industries was the city of Perm. With one million inhabitants and a poor infrastructure, Perm has become a synonym of a large state-backed cultural project that could allow young professionals to develop and apply their skills in order to transform a decaying urban space into a vivid and lively one. It basically meant an organization of various cultural events (like Belyie nochi, a music and arts festival) and an establishment of seemingly strong cultural institutions (take an example of PERMM museum of contemporary arts). An appeal of this kind of large-scale cultural and social projects like Perm for young people becomes more clear if we think about the current class division among Russian youth.

During the 1990s, like most of the post-socialist countries, Russia was deeply affected by neoliberal market tendencies, which were combined with extensive and unjust privatization of the former Soviet industries. All these processes led to an accumulation of the capital in the hands of a handful of oligarchs, enormous social stratification and limiting of the social security programs that, to some extent, characterized socialist society.

Of course, these could not but impact young Russian people.  As Elena Trubina asserts, ‘the curtailment of upward career mobility and the increasing contingency of employment have proven particularly detrimental for young adults.’[ii] In her research conducted in Yekaterinburg, she points out that young adults consider the ruling class (represented by high-rank bureaucracy and oligarchs) as totally inaccessible and, thus, indifferent to the interests of young urbanites. ‘The “out-there-ness” of class manifests itself here so that it is the ruling class that is viewed as being completely “out there”, being unmoved by, and aloof to, society’s needs.’[iii]

At the same time, Trubina adds, young educated urbanites ‘tend to “swim with the current” and adjust to the prevailing, rather limited societal conditions, rather than openly contest them, for example by becoming involved with political parties or social movements.’ [iv] This mindset resulted in an urge of a relatively large part of the young people to realize their potentials in the (mostly depoliticized) fields where their interests would play an important role. A creative work on the cultural and social projects in the major Russian cities offered to many of them a viable opportunity to do that. However, an odd and harmful combination of the neoliberal economic policies and omnipresent corruption created a row of various obstacles for such activities.

Florida in Russia
These activities (urban improvement or event management) marked an attempt to apply the notorious ideas of American theorist Richard Florida to the specific Russian circumstances.[v] Remarkably, Florida’s concepts of ‘creative class’ and ‘creative economy’ were adopted not only by young professionals but also by city managers (which does not mean that they all have read Florida, of course). Take the case of Perm: An image of a creative and artistic city was produced first and foremost by seemingly ‘progressive’ local administration prone to attract new investments.  But after the replacement of governor Chirkunov, the ‘godfather’ of Perm project, Moscow kulturträger Marat Guelman was basically forced to quit it. Most of the interesting cultural projects curtailed and the ‘creative’ image quickly dissolved. All those young creative minds, who were enthusiastic about transforming Perm into a new cultural hub, were suddenly left without a necessary financial basis.

In another work, Elena Trubina describes an attitude of Tomsk administration that promoted the ‘Tomsk 3.0′ project that included, for instance, the setup of wireless internet in trams.[vi] This idea is not bad at all, but in the cities with a range of the social and economical problems highlighted by extensive corruption and social stratification, such measurements look nothing but ironic. Speaking of the peculiarities of Russian ‘creative boom’, social theorist Ilya Kalinin suggests that

what has emerged in Europe, the USA and Australia from a necessity to mitigate the consequences of deindustrialization and not to change anything radically, in Russia is used as an aggressive strategy employed by financial capital together with administrative elite in order to legitimate their deeds.[vii]

In her account Trubina concludes that in Russia, which economy is dependent on ‘immobile’ natural resources, ‘there is only one city that can successfully attract gifted people (largely due to the fact that oil money is concentrated in it).’ This city is, of course, Moscow.  Taking this into account, it comes as no surprise that a large number of talented young Russians from peripheral regions are prone to take advantage of the opportunities that are on offer in the money-fuelled capital.

Do It Yourself
It is quite logical, then, that it was precisely Moscow that became a major stage for the oppositional rallies of the winter 2011 and 2012. A formal reason for their outburst was a massive fraud during parliamentary elections held on December fourth. After the first unsanctioned march on fifth of December there were several massive demonstrations, each of which attracted around 100.000 people. Sociologist Anna Zhelninashows that, according to the VTsIOM’s survey, ‘at the outset of the protests, young clerical workers, young “creative” workers, and students made up to thirty percent of protesters, but by the end of June 2012 they constituted fifty percent.’[viii]

In her text, she examines the protests in the same fashion as David Harvey investigated the Occupy movement, namely, as a urbanites’ demand of a ‘right to the city’. (It’s noteworthy that ‘This is our city’ was one of the most frequently used chants of the protesters). Understood in this way, the protests manifest a certain political outcome of a variety of practices that were aimed at improving an urban space, but lacked the sufficient results because of a too controlled social and political environment.  Taking into account the top-bottom fashion of regulating different creative urban projects, the disillusion of the young urbanites in the state-backed policies seems like a reasonable consequence. Inability to a necessary extent influence local policy-making ultimately fueled the protest activities, but the violent clashes with the police forces on sixth of may 2012 proved that any truly fruitful dialogue with the authorities is unlikely.

With no other response from the authorities but police brutality and restricting laws (enormously increased fines for organization and even participation in the unsanctioned demonstrations), many of the young urbanites embraced an old-good Do It Yourself paradigm. The so called ‘theory of the small deeds’ was widely introduced into both media and social landscape. ‘Since the protests did not really succeed in changing the political system in Russia, the idea of ‘small deeds’ has become popular among younger participants in the protest rallies: they have turned their energies toward improving life in their own ‘backyards’. With no support from the local authorities, these small deeds were aimed at analyzing and improving city problems (DIY-filling of the infrastructure lacks, dealing with the environmental issues, and various other types of urban activism)  and were conducted by a number of activists whostopped dreaming about an overthrow of Putin’s regime and started working on the living space by the means at their disposal.

As Zhelnina rightly mentions,

an attention to public spaces and relevant urban issues has emerged, however, mostly among young cognitive and creative professionals working in the cultural, educational, and leisure industries. Dominated by architects and designers, thematic discussion clubs and events regularly take place, attracting the wider “creative’ public as well.[ix]

 To this DIY movement also belong activities of the ‘Partizaning’ group with their artistic urban interventions (imitating social advertising in the public spaces, creating new subway maps, etc.) and, for instance, Yekaterinburg-based street artist Tima Radya who incorporated political messages into very original street-art projects. However, this artistic appeal may be considered as a major shortcoming of these activities since their messages seemed to be hardly discerned by a majority of the city populations.

A Zeitgeist of despair
Nevertheless, as Zhelnina states,

however exclusive such projects might be, progress is still evident: educated young professionals aiming to live a cosmopolitan, creative life-style have been claiming their right to the city by changing spaces and reshaping attitudes to urban life. The fact that these changes have focused on their own social milieu is easy to explain: new stakeholders in urban transformation have come into being along with their interpretation of what the city should be like, and they are trying to carve out their own space with the tools at their disposal, such as social and creative capital.[x]

A general cultural shift towards ‘traditional values’ declared by president Putin, geopolitical conflicts and a current economical turbulence have dramatically affected the moods of many young creative urbanites. For a long time, one of the leading Russian publicists Yuri Saprykin was publishing columns called ‘O dukhe vremeni (On the Zeitgeist) in  Afisha magazine, and if we are to characterize this zeitgeist right now, then the word despair will be, probably, the most frequently mentioned. Such a mood is witnessed throughout a variety of fields where young creative minds have been working for the past years: some have lost their sources of income because of the current crisis, some feel a certain irrelevance of all their attempts to improve a life around and, hence, seriously consider immigration.

In his piece for The Calvert Journal Ilya Kalinin claims that culture in the more and more isolated Russian society turned into another ‘natural resource’ akin to oil and gas.

This state of external insulation, magnified by the gravitation towards isolation — typical of a significant proportion of Russia’s elite — is bound to turn culture (considered as tradition, heritage, memory, history) into an even more important strategic resource for the government to exploit. For as long as it remains estranged from global capital markets and technologies, Russia will have to focus on its own resources: oil and gas… and cultural heritage.[xi]

For the majority of educated urban youth, who has embraced a more or less westernized approach to social, cultural and political issues, this shift cannot look anything but disastrous. It is worth noting that this new policy is combined with the economic crisis that has put into a question a number of cultural events dependent on the international communication. Take, for instance, concert business: obliged to pay to international artists in dollars or euros, local promotes due to the decline of ruble’s value have to limit their agenda and focus solely on the artists that will surely attract enough audience. In this case, more experimental music becomes less presented.

What is to be done?
In such suffocating circumstances, any ‘small deed’ may seem to be totally devalued and irrelevant. As Yuri Saprikyn states, implicitly referring to young creative urbanites,

there was an idea of a sort of a global recreation and repair: to create a more human and European environment, at the same time relying on your own skills. That worked to some extent, but further it became obvious that around this refined and repaired micro-world there are a lot of people who do not care about this improvement at all. [xii]

As he further asserts, ‘the theory of the small deeds as an enlightening-consumptive mission came to a dead-end, and behind it there is only an ocean of blood. And a feeling of a commitment for this generation was gone’.[xiii] And, according the recent sociological surveys, a grave oppositional activity is still unlikely.[xiv]

Traditionally, the main question concerning Russian social reality is the following: what is to be done? It appears that in the following circumstances characterized by the conservative and oppressive politics moving toward a further isolation of the country from the global world, there is no particular answer. But it is worth noting that almost no one expected an outburst of protests in the winter of 2011, as well as an emergence of various DIY projects after them. Young educated Russians certainly have a feeling of being disoriented in the new situation, but it cannot last forever. A high level of education and orientation towards a global world are still the features that characterize a significant number of young Russians. But the question what is to be done by them in order to prevent Russian society into succumbing into pure ignorance and barbarism provoked by state propaganda still remains unanswered.

Dmitry Lebedev (1990) is Research Master student in Social and Political Philosophy at Radboud University Nijmegen and freelance writer.


[i] ‘Creative class in Russia: who are those people?’, Colta, (28th August 2012) online available via: http://archives.colta.ru/docs/4829 (consulted on 23rd February 2015).

[ii] E. Trubina, ‘Class differences and social mobility amongst college-educated young people in Russia’, in: Suvi Salmenniemi (ed.), Rethinking class in Russia (Farnham 2012) 203-218.

[iii] Trubina, ‘Class differences and social mobility amongst college-educated young people in Russia’.

[iv] Idem.

[v] R. L. Florida, The rise of the creative class: and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life (New York 2002).

[vi] E. Trubina, ‘A tram full of Wi-Fi: on a reception of the ideas of Richard Florida in Russia’, Neprikosnovenny Zapas, (2013) 6-92, online available via: http://www.nlobooks.ru/node/4232 (consulted on 23rd February 2015).

[vii] I. Kalinin, ‘An industrial horizon of the creative industries’, Neprikosnovenny Zapas (2013) 6-92, online available via: http://www.intelros.ru/readroom/nz/n6-2013/22299-industrialnyy-gorizont-kreativnyh-industriy.html (consulted on 23rd February 2015).

[viii] A. Zhelnina, ‘“Hanging out”, creativity, and the right to the city: urban public space in Russia before and after the protest wave 2011-2012’, Stasis (2014) 1-2, online available via: http://www.stasisjournal.net/all-issues/24-1-2014-revolutions-and-protest-movements/58-hanging-out-creativity-and-the-right-to-the-city-urban-public-space-in-russia-before-and-after-the-protest-wave-of-2011-2012 (consulted on 23rd February 2015).

[ix] Zhelnina, ‘“Hanging out”, creativity, and the right to the city’.

[x] Idem.

[xi] I. Kalinin, ‘Culture matters: why the Kremlin wants to be the keeper of Russia’s cultural heritage’, The Calvert Journal (28th January 2015) online available via: http://calvertjournal.com/comment/show/3608/Culture-matters-Russia-cultural-policy-Ilya-Kalinin  (consulted on 23rd February 2015).

[xii] Y. Saprykin, ‘Yuri Saprykin and Daniil Trabun: on the rise and fall of an era’. By Daniil Trabun, Afisha, (18th December 2014) online available via: http://gorod.afisha.ru/changes/yuriy-saprykin-i-daniil-trabun-o-nachale-i-konce-epohi/ (consulted on 23rd February 2015).

[xiii] Y. Saprykin, ‘Yuri Saprykin and Daniil Trabun: on the rise and fall of an era’.

[xiv] Protest activity, Levada-Center press-release ( 13th January ) online available via: http://www.levada.ru/eng/protest-activity (consulted on 23rd February 2015).

 

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