Being young and liberal in today’s Russia is no easy feat. With a government bent on curbing freedoms and an economy in decline, options for the country’s democratically-oriented youths are limited. Yet while many young Russians are fleeing a nation that has left them with little hope, some are determined to stay and fight.
On March 26, 2017, thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities to protest corruption in what turned out to be the country’s largest rallies in recent years. One thing that stood out was how young many of the protesters were. Some had just started college, some were still in school. Born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this new generation of political activists is devoted to liberal values and committed to rescuing Russia’s democracy. They get their news online, they refuse to swallow the propaganda fed to them by state-controlled media and they resent President Vladimir V. Putin’s authoritarian regime.
The ruling elite was swift to suppress the demonstrations. The authorities in Moscow said they detained around 500 people, though other reports had the number closer to 1,000. Many of the arrested protesters were under 18. According to Human Rights Watch, the police harassed and intimidated several children who took part. In the end, Russia’s politically engaged youths got their first taste of the repressive tactics the government regularly uses to silence dissent.
In recent years, the growth of political engagement among Russia’s youth fueled hopes that Mr. Putin’s monopoly on power could be challenged. The rise to prominence of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who in December 2016 announced that he intended to run for president, partly drove this new outlook. His campaign team created a countrywide network of offices, staffed with coordinators in their early 20s.
It was Mr. Navalny who called for people to take to the streets in March 2017, after releasing a report that examined the questionable sources of Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev’s vast wealth. By denouncing corruption and social injustices, Mr. Navalny was able to mobilize the population, particularly the young.
Still, this political awakening has turned young activists into a target for the authorities. Since the unrest in 2017, they have been persecuted, detained and threatened with expulsion from school.
Russia’s presidential election in the spring of this year solidified Mr. Putin’s hold on power, and the intimidation has continued. Mr. Navalny was barred from running for office and was later jailed for attending an unsanctioned protest in Moscow. Egor Chernuk, Mr. Navalny’s 20-year-old campaign organizer in Kaliningrad, left Russia after the authorities initiated criminal proceedings against him for evading the military draft, a case that he insists is politically motivated. Petr Istomin, from Mr. Navalny’s Stavropol office, was expelled from the North-Caucasus Federal University after a judge fined him for taking part in a peaceful protest in October 2017.
Of course, young political activists are not the only Russians who are leaving the country. The number of people emigrating from Russia to places beyond the territories of the former Soviet Union rose in 2016 to 56,730, up from just 14,206 in 2011, according to Russia’s state statistics service.
We know how disastrous a so-called brain drain can be. Development is heavily based on human capital, and a skilled and highly educated work force is the foundation of a competitive nation. This is especially important in a country like Russia, which faces significant economic stagnation and inflation.
In addition, as liberal-minded Russians leave the country, more radical views are taking hold among the population that stays — and this subtle shift could have catastrophic consequences.
Neo-Nazis, Bolsheviks, Cossacks, monarchists and Russian Orthodox groups, despite their diverse ideological orientations, all seem to share a repulsion for democratic values, a frustration with the current order and a desire to restore Russia’s imperial past and glory. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin has repeatedly flirted with this same imperialistic rhetoric in order to stoke nationalistic fervor. If anger and discontentment grow, however, such groups’ unpredictability and belligerent posturing could make them harder for the Kremlin to control.
Hidden in their rhetoric is the potential for violence and chaos. We saw hints of this back in 2006, when mobs of young men ravaged the town of Kondopoga in clashes fueled by ethnic animosity toward immigrants from the Caucasus, and four years later, when the killing of a Spartak Moscow soccer fan led to violent anti-immigrant protests in the city.
Human rights, democracy, the government’s grip on power — everything is in danger if extremist views take root. As the Kremlin concentrates its energies on targeting Russia’s peaceful young protesters and dimming their spark, perhaps it should remember that.