What is stirring Russia's youth to rally around Alexei Navalny?

Tens of thousands of youths have answered the would-be presidential candidate's call to rally against corruption, often resulting in their mass arrests. Their reasoning shows political sophistication – and not necessarily agreement with Navalny.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
Riot police pushed back a young woman during a demonstration in downtown Moscow in June. After calling for Kremlin-rattling protests, opposition leader Alexei Navalny has shown that he can attract massive anti-government crowds, but it is unclear if this can grow into a genuine political movement.

Mikhail Aralov is part of the biggest political surprise of the year in Russia.

The 22-year-old student chef has been arrested twice in the past few months for taking part in unsanctioned protest rallies called by Russian opposition leader and aspiring presidential contender Alexei Navalny. Not only is Mr. Aralov unrepentant, he says he's ready to hit the streets again and again, until the Kremlin agrees to let Mr. Navalny run against Vladimir Putin in elections that are less than a year away.

Aralov was among tens of thousands, the bulk of them very young men and women, in dozens of Russian cities who answered Navalny's call to protest against official corruption on March 26. Hundreds were arrested, including Aralov. Even more came out on June 12, when Navalny controversially switched Moscow venues from a legally permitted downtown rallying point to the central Tverskaya street, where official celebrations of the Constitution Day holiday were taking place. Almost 1,000 of his youthful followers were arrested amid some of the worst police brutality in many years.

But the surprise is a complex and multi-layered one. Most of this new protest generation were kids when the last wave of opposition rallies – against alleged electoral fraud – rocked Moscow and other large cities 5 years ago. While some say they became politically aware around that time, their introduction to street protest is mostly associated with Navalny, who was just one of many opposition leaders back then, but now seems to be the last one standing.

Though Russian media tends to depict them as blind followers of the charismatic, internet-savvy, Pied Piper-like Navalny, a group of them interviewed recently revealed a startling degree of political sophistication, a diversity of views, and some sharp criticism of Navalny himself.

Aralov is broadly critical of the state of modern Russia. “In our country the population is called ‘the people,’ when in fact we are citizens. ‘The people’ need bread and circuses, but citizens need civil institutions,” he says. “We may not have totalitarianism in Russia, but there is still not democracy. It's a hallmark of a democracy that people who pay taxes should have some control over how the money is spent, but we have none at all....”

“There is no equality before the law. If I ever want to start my own business, and I do, it is going to be incredibly difficult,” Aralov adds. “I know perfectly well that if I violate any laws, I will be punished. It's inevitable. Yet people who are higher than me in the social order seem to get away with all sorts of violations.”

Dmitry Zabelin, who is just heading into university to study public-relations management, shares that sort of view. “I am tired of corruption, the state of human rights, and all the hypocrisy that you see every day. I'm very worried about how Putin is trying to restore the Soviet Union; Russia should be trying to become a Western country and part of the world.”

Fred Weir
(l. to r.) Dmitry Zabelin, Artyom Telunts, and Mikhail Aralov

“The main problem in this country isn't that we have falsified elections. If fair elections were held today, Putin would win,” adds Artyom Telunts, who is just graduating from high school this year. “People vote for Putin not because they like him so much but because they see no alternative. We need to show that there are alternatives, and that every person's opinion matters. We need alternatives to Navalny too, many different voices, but real, independent ones.”

New protesters

It's not a new thing in Russia for well-educated young people, just reaching the stage of awareness, to chafe at the authoritarianism, mass conformism, and stifling conservatism they perceive around them. The great writer Ivan Turgenev described a similar phenomenon in his ground-breaking novel “Fathers and Sons” more than a century and a half ago.

But most of today's young rebels have known only the Putin era, a time of relative prosperity, improving standards of education, freedom to travel, and exploding information technologies. Neither they, nor their putative leader Navalny, bear much resemblance to Soviet-era dissidents or even the 1990s liberals who dominated Russia's opposition landscape as recently as five years ago.

“We have been noticing the rise of youth participation in politics for a few years now,” says Alexandra Arkhipova, an expert with the Russian Academy of National Economy and State Service, which works directly for the presidential administration. “Very many of these new protesters say they are not supporters of Navalny; rather they say Navalny supports them. They can be very different kinds of people, but they have similar goals, mainly about simple democratic values and human rights. They are concerned about their future, which they don't feel is secure in this country. They tend to be well-educated, speak languages, have traveled and can compare.”

She points out that Russian schools have greatly increased the time devoted to the study of the country's constitution and legal system over the past five years.

“They read the constitution and see that many articles in it do not correspond with reality. Many of those young people arrested in recent months had copies of the constitution in their hands,” Ms. Arkhipova says. “This is something that has to be noticed.”

'Exciting and new'

Navalny, himself relatively young at 41, has flirted with liberalism, but also expressed nationalist ideas in his search for an opposition niche over the years. He is best known for his crusade against official corruption, which put him on the map and continues to be his staple political issue. His blog is one of the most widely followed in Russia. His electoral program is a very brief one, decried by critics as “populist,” that calls for an end to censorship, stimulation of small business and legal punishment for corrupt officials.

He has been convicted of embezzlement, which could legally block him from taking part in the elections. But Navalny was allowed to run for Moscow mayor in 2013, when a Kremlin stalwart needed a convincing opponent, and he stunned the establishment by taking almost a third of the votes.

For Aralov, who has joined Navalny's “pre-election” campaign which is focused on compelling the Kremlin to allow him a place on the presidential ballot, Navalny is the agent of change that Russia needs.

“Navalny is exciting and new. He's created an alternative program that can unite left and right against Putin,” says Aralov. “Navalny needs us, young people, to be his battering rams. We don't feel the pressure, because we don't have families, careers, all the concerns that make older people conform. The presidential election is everything now.”

Tactical support

Many liberals worry about Navalny's nationalist past and allegedly authoritarian inclinations, as well as a glaring penchant for provocation – on full display in his June 12 decision to send his youthful supporters to disrupt official celebrations on Moscow's Tverskaya Street. Oleg Kashin, a leading light of the liberal old guard, recently warned that Navalny's dominance of Russia's beleaguered opposition forces threatens to create “another Putin” even if he should somehow emerge victorious.

That's a concern shared by even some of the young people who support him.

“I worry about what is not in Navalny's program,” says Mr. Zabelin. “I don't know what is his position on Crimea, the war in Ukraine, or LGBT rights. His program is too short, and he seems to be hiding his views on some things.”

Nevertheless, Zabelin went to the illicit rally on Tverskaya, even though he thought it was a bad idea.

“I even got banned from Navalny's VKontakte community [Russian version of a Facebook group] for opposing the move,” he says. “Still, I went to the rally to show that I care about all these issues. There is no question that Navalny is a person who can organize something big. I respect that, even if I can't support his program.”

Mr. Telunts defends Navalny's refusal to hold the rally on Sakharov Prospekt, as licensed by authorities, and to unleash his young followers onto Tverskaya – where they were sure to get arrested en masse.

“Many people think it's boring to come to a permitted place and stand around,” he says. “The constitution says we have the right to express ourselves anywhere we want. Navalny made the authorities understand that he's not going to play their game.”

Many voices

Experts caution that these youths are not representative of the majority and, like the protest generation that fizzled out five years ago, they might move on to careers and families, and leave their radicalism behind.

“According to our polls, young people support the authorities even more than the population at large,” says Denis Volkov, a researcher at the Levada Center, Russia's only independent polling agency. “But, at the same time, the ratings of all official institutions are declining. Protest moods are growing in many sectors of the population. Navalny's ability to mobilize young people is remarkable, and that's his strong point. On the other hand, older voters think Navalny is too radical and his rallies are too dangerous. Older people not only don't come to his rallies, they don't support him as a politician. And that's his weak point.”

Telunts says supporting Navalny is a tactical choice, but he believes only fundamental political reform can save Russia in the long run.

“We don't need another strong leader,” he says. “This is a big, diverse country and one person can't speak for 140 million people. We need a strong parliament, one with many voices, many Navalny types, to make democracy secure.”

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