Why are conservatives so afraid of Russia?


Anna Schwenck

To person

Anna Schwenck is a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Her dissertation in sociology examines the complexity of conformism among young adults in Russia today using the example of participants in government-funded youth education forums in the Krasnoyarsk region and the Sakha Republic. Her article "Russian Politics of Radicalization and Surveillance" will appear shortly. in the anthology "Governing Youth Politics in the Age of Surveillance" edited by Maria Grasso and Judith Bessant (London: Routledge 2018).

According to Anna Schwenck, the state youth policy of the Russian government has been subject to constant changes in recent years. However, each reorientation was linked to a specific political goal.

Members of the youth organization "Nashi" in Moscow in 2007. For a time, the organization was an important part of the Kremlin's youth policy. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)


State youth policy in Russia not only has the function of directly securing political rule - through protest actions in support of the government. It also serves to spread conservative thought patterns. With the help of activating techniques of "self-entrepreneurship" a sphere of moral-conservative and entrepreneurial engagement is to be created. The future of youth policy will lie in expanding this sphere rather than trying to revive groups of women activists loyal to the government.


This year's anti-corruption protests in Russia call the meaning and purpose of the previous state youth policy into question. The government's active youth policy emerged during the 2007/2008 election cycle primarily as a means of maintaining power: the creation and funding of youth organizations such as "Naschi" (German: "Ours") was intended to prevent a Russian version of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The anti-government protests of the winter of 2011/2012 had already been interpreted by many observers as a "failure" of the government's youth policy strategy, since government-funded youth organizations were only able to mobilize a few protesters loyal to the government. However, youth policy had aimed at a morally conservative renewal of the country since the early 2000s - as a countermovement to the social liberalization of the 1990s.

The following overview of youth policy developments since Vladimir Putin's inauguration in 2000 is intended to illustrate the interplay between two logics, namely government-loyal mobilization against external and internal enemies on the one hand and conservative renewal for a - in the government's understanding - strong Russia on the other. This development can be divided into four phases. A latent phase in which youth policy concepts were primarily intended to reverse the development of the 1990s that were perceived as social disintegration, but were hardly actually implemented, was followed from 2005 by a phase of mobilizing youth organizations loyal to the government such as "Naschi". These youth organizations were supposed to defend the "sovereignty of the Russian Federation" allegedly threatened by international civil society support. In concrete terms, this meant securing the government's position of power in the 2007/2008 election cycle. After this was successful, the youth organizations loyal to the government were demobilized. A phase of youth policy institutionalization now set in, during which youth policy programs were gradually made accessible to all young adults and the focus was shifted to the promotion of entrepreneurship. To this day, youth policy tries to activate young adults in the interests of the government with self-entrepreneurship techniques. On the one hand, the "talented youth" should be motivated to create marketable innovations in order to advance the modernization of the national economy. On the other hand, these techniques enable young adults to actively participate in the development of a moral-conservative social commitment.

The phase of youth policy institutionalization ended at the latest with the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. While the protection of the "sovereignty of Russia" from internal and external threats has increasingly determined the content of youth policy since then, there have been no notable attempts to be loyal to the government To revive youth organizations like "Naschi".

Youth policy as a reaction to a perceived "neglect of youth"

Just a few months after Putin, in his function as Prime Minister, constitutionally took over the business of government from the outgoing Boris Yeltsin in January 2000, the government made the first attempts to create youth organizations loyal to the Kremlin. These organizations should support the new political course outside the political institutions. The youth organization of "Going Together" (Russian: "Iduschtschije Wmeste") came into being - probably with the active support of the deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladislav Surkow. The later "Nashi" icon Vasily Jakemenko became head of the youth organization. The "Going Together" caused a sensation with media-effective campaigns, such as the sinking of books with "morally reprehensible content" in a giant paper mache toilet in 2002 (works by Karl Marx, Viktor Pelewin and Wladimir Sorokin were affected, among others) . Such political spectacles were often rejected by the population. The small-format volunteer campaigns of the organization "Youth Unity" (Russian: "Molodjoschnoje Jedinstwo"), founded in the same year, met the conservative zeitgeist of large sections of the population far better. As the youth organization of the party that supported Putin's presidency in parliament, the members relied on conventional forms of social engagement. Regional groups of the organization visited orphanages, got involved in "no to drugs" campaigns or in 2002 dispatched volunteer labor brigades to flood-affected regions. Such a commitment represented a positive counter-program to the "neglect of youth", which was the subject of socio-political debates. In addition to the withdrawal of the state, social apathy, the spread of drug use and liberal sex education were discussed as reasons for the perceived neglect. The small-scale engagement of the members of the "Youth Unity" responded to the rampant worries about the youth in a morally conservative way.

These concerns were also reflected in the youth policy program of 2001, which - in addition to the decline in the physical and mental health of the young generation - lamented the increase in crime, drug trafficking and drug addiction, but also the "softening of moral and spiritual values" and orientations. The fact that the catalog of values ​​on which the program referred largely corresponded to the Soviet moral canon is clear from the first program for patriotic education (also from 2001): In the 1990s, indifference, egoism, individualism, cynicism and a disrespectful attitude towards the state increased, while a "traditional Russian [related to the state; d. ed.] patriotic consciousness" has been lost. Accordingly, the authors insisted on promoting positive identifications with Russia and loyalty to the fatherland. However, these concepts were rarely implemented in youth policy programs.

It was not until the Orange Revolution in Ukraine that "youth" became a key political category for the Russian government, as the majority of the orange-clad protesters on the Kiev Maidan were young adults. A change of government achieved through demonstrations, such as that which took place in Ukraine in 2005, was feared by the Russian government and framed as an "orange threat". In addition to the events in Ukraine, the riots in the Parisian suburbs of the same year demonstrated the potential of youth to cope with. The "state youth policy" was mainly in the wake of these events, which not only concern around the youth but also fear in front evoked it, developed into an independent political field of federal and regional government. The primary goal of state youth policy was to guide and channel youthful vigor and involvement in "socially useful" initiatives and youth organizations whose goals are in harmony with the interests of the government.

Government loyal to protest to avert an "orange threat" to Russia

In response to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, a period of politicization and mobilization of young adults began in 2005. In Moscow and St. Petersburg in particular, government-initiated and "civilizational-nationalist" youth organizations (which regard Russia as an independent, incomparable civilization, for example the "Eurasian Youth Union") protested against the "orange threat" to Russia - with financial support from the government budget. The specific aim was to symbolize the support for the party of power "United Russia" and the president among young Russians and to marginalize protests critical of the government through the numerical superiority of pro-government activists (the majority of whom were extremely loosely organized). This goal became urgent against the background of an assertion that was spread at the time mainly by folkish and civilizational-nationalist authors: The Orange Revolution was a plot by the radical Ukrainian right (which does indeed represent classically racist positions, but only a small minority of the protesters), an allegedly anti-Russian "orange coalition" and western foundations. In the name of promoting civil society, the latter had led young people in Ukraine to protest with so-called soft control methods.

The best known of the "anti-orange" youth organizations in Russia that emerged at that time is certainly "Naschi", in whose "branding" Vladislav Surkov played a leading role. Of the "Going Together" founded in 2000, "Naschi" not only took over their boss Vasily Jakemenko, but also their weakness for controversial actions, which, however, also aroused rejection from many citizens. What was new, however, was the strongly anti-fascist paintwork that was given to the organization. The nickname "Democratic Anti-Fascist Youth Movement" refers to the ideological proximity of "Naschi" to civilizational-nationalist associations and their thesis of a concerted neo-fascist coup in Ukraine. The designation "Naschi" opened a friend-foe scheme that was reminiscent of the "Great Patriotic War" (1941–45): The soldiers of the Red Army were informally called "naschi". The organization "Youth Unity" was also re-profiled in 2005, referring to the Soviet fight against fascism. Its renaming to "Young Guards of United Russia" ("Molodaja Gwardija Jedinoj Rossii") is reminiscent of a Komsomol underground organization that resisted German occupation in what is now the Luhansk region during World War II. Most of its members were executed by the Nazis. The story of this "Young Guard" became a classic Soviet book for young people, the film version of which from 1948 reached more than 40 million viewers in the following years. The "Young Guard of United Russia" and "Nashi" tried to tie in with this heroization of the struggle against fascism. They took action primarily against those, especially young Russians, who feared Putin's re-election - for various ideological reasons.

Institutionalization of youth policy: promoting "self-entrepreneurship" and morally conservative renewal

After the "orange threat" to Russia was averted, government-financed groups such as Nashi were demobilized again from 2008; on the other hand, youth policy programs have gradually been made available to all young adults. In this phase, youth policy promoted entrepreneurship with the immediate aim of encouraging as many young adults as possible to start a business. Above all, further training in project management and the dissemination of self-entrepreneurial thinking should turn young adults into active co-creators of a new sphere of morally conservative engagement. The concept of self-entrepreneurship means to see yourself as an entrepreneur of your own life, to use your skills and capital - in the sense of an I-AG - as profitably as possible.

While Naschi was not officially dissolved until spring 2013, the creeping decline of the organization began after the 2007 parliamentary elections with the promotion of leading activists to the government apparatus. Above all, the newly established Rosmolodjosch youth authority - Vasily Jakemenko was appointed its head - became a gathering place for Nashi activists. The opening of youth policy programs, conceived by former Naschi members in the first few years, above all the Naschi summer camp on Lake Seliger, have since been dominated by economic modernization. Since 2009 in particular, the participants in the Seliger summer camp have appeared less and less as Naschi activists. Instead, the promotion of all talented adults, their self-management, entrepreneurship and their leadership skills ("liderstwo") was emphasized. This change of image was also expressed in the new name of the summer camp - "All-Russian Youth Education Forum". "Forum" refers to the World Economic Forum and the summit meetings of the fastest growing industrial nations. For the government's goal to become part of a club of a few leading industrial nations, the creative input of many young adults was required - not just that of a small avant-garde waving flags and loyal to the Kremlin.

As early as 2007, during Putin's presidency, the Ministry of Economic Affairs drafted the first long-term plan for the socio-economic development of the Russian Federation, better known as "Strategy 2020". In accordance with the recommendations for growth economies formulated by the World Bank, this strategy envisaged an innovation-led development of the economy, with investments in human capital instead of in the extraction of raw materials. Especially in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, the basic idea of ​​the "Strategy 2020" (which has meanwhile been revised by academic experts but not fundamentally changed) acquired far-reaching significance: No other G20 economy had recorded a greater decline in GDP or a higher rate of inflation. The decoupling of Russian economic output from raw material exports and the development of alternative economic sectors became central concerns of the government, especially during Medvedev's presidency. Since the new media saw opportunities to market Russian innovations internationally, especially in the field of new media, young adults became a key group in modernization policy. From 2008/2009, youth policy structures were institutionalized in order to convey a sense of ability and a feeling of self-efficacy to broad sections of the young population. At the regional level too, government-financed youth education forums emerged during this time, the training of which is intended to impart skills in project and self-management to talented young adults (today over 30 of them exist in various federation subjects). Methods from neuro-linguistic programming are used in these trainings as well as games to strengthen self-esteem.

The strong reference to the anti-fascist struggle "Russia" in Soviet times faded almost completely behind the new youth policy message: "Invent yourself (and your job), realize your potential." This shift in content was also reflected in the name of the projects funded by the Rosmolodjosch Youth Authority from 2009, which were intended to address and activate young adults directly: "You are an entrepreneur - start your company!", "Sworykin project - invent and sell! " (Vladimir Sworykin was a physicist and inventor), "Technologies of Good - Be Human!" or "Come on, run with me - Healthy Lifestyle".

The introduction of activating self-entrepreneurship techniques into youth policy, however, in no way meant turning away from the morally conservative government discourse. Self-realization and entrepreneurial independence were promoted less than values ​​in themselves. Rather, entrepreneurial activity and economic success were framed as a contribution to the national common good, as an expression of "practical patriotism". As a high-ranking employee of the youth authority Rosmolodjosch put it in an interview with the author:

"There's this notion of the 'progressor', the one who develops an area that moves society forward. It always seemed to me that an entrepreneurial mindset is ideal for practical patriotism. It's one thing in the stadium Waving one flag for home, but another, doing something productive and making money with it. "

With similar techniques of activating government and gentle control, as used by Western donors to promote civil society development, attempts have been made (and still are) to stimulate engagement in the interests of the government. For example, individual applicants can receive youth policy funding for their specific project idea - at regional and federal level. In the spirit of "managed pluralism", applicants can choose whether they want to implement a project idea in the areas of healthy lifestyle, social issues, design, patriotism, neighborhood or business. Funding is only given to those projects that strive for a change that does not run counter to the government ideology, i.e. that largely ignores the relationships of power (rights of co-determination, racism, gender relations).

In this phase of institutionalization, youth policy also promoted the establishment of voluntary work, especially at the regional level. Regional youth authorities now primarily promoted the small-scale, voluntary commitment that was favored by the "youth unity" at the beginning of the 2000s and was based on Soviet models. Such volunteer initiatives (some of which were founded by regional youth authorities, some of which already existed and have now received increased funding) are committed to supporting war veterans, visiting orphanages, carrying out clean-up campaigns in the neighborhood or promoting a healthy lifestyle. So-called student brigades support the construction and implementation of major projects such as the Olympic Games in Sochi. Volunteer initiatives for young adults are promoted and organized primarily at universities and municipal institutions. This interlinking of youth policy programs and student life at universities has also been promoted at the federal level since 2012: the Ministry of Education annually awards funding for the development of student initiatives. The universities receive financial incentives to activate students, i.e. to introduce them to social engagement and to promote their (self-) entrepreneurship.

In the same phase, however, small volunteer patrols (for example from "StopCham" - "StoppRowdies", "Lew Protiw" - "The lion is against", or from "Mestnyje" - "the local"), the Soviet Komsomol, were set up -Patrols similar to take action against parking offenders, smokers or migrant workers branded as "illegal". Unlike voluntary work, however, these patrols are not directly funded by youth policy programs at regional level. Most of these groups receive budget funds through informal networks of former Nashi activists. Even if the repertoire of action of these patrols is completely different from that of the volunteers (and sometimes displeases the rulers - "StopCham" has since been withdrawn from registration as a non-commercial organization due to "gross violations of the law"), their vision of a "proper society" is that of the Not dissimilar to volunteers. Because the "good deeds" of the volunteer organizations are also aimed at a morally conservative and not an emancipatory or liberal-democratic renewal of society.

After averting the "orange threat" to Russia, youth policy became primarily a support instrument for (self-) entrepreneurial action. On the one hand, youth policy should drive the modernization of the national economy very directly, but on the other hand it should also enable young adults to actively participate in the development of a sphere of moral-conservative social engagement.

War in Eastern Ukraine: Youth Political Structures as Communication Channels

With the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, a phase of renewed youth policy mobilization began in 2014. Project management and the promotion of self-entrepreneurship remained the central pillar of youth policy, but the institutionalized youth policy structures were now used as communication channels to spread the claim of a neo-fascist coup in Ukraine. In contrast to the Orange Revolution, members of the government now also publicly supported this claim. Since then, especially on the government-financed youth forums, a state-folk Russian mission for a multipolar world order and the right to a traditional way of life has been emphasized in general speeches. In 2014, for example, Conchita Wurst's victory in the "Eurovision Song Contest" was cited on various regional youth forums as evidence of the decline of Europe. In seminars on historical falsification, attempts were made to show that the unipolar world order after 1989 led to more wars than the bipolar one of the Cold War, or that the Russian Federation needed a vertical power solely because of its size. While from 2014 mobilization against supposed internal and external threats will again determine the content of youth policy, there have been no notable attempts to create a new avant-garde loyal to the Kremlin.

Even the most recent protests do not seem to have changed that. Instead of reviving government-financed youth organizations such as "Naschi", the interlinking of youth policy programs with public educational institutions, semi-public institutions such as chambers of society and trade union-like professional associations is being expanded. For example, volunteer work, previously mainly coordinated by the Rosmolodjosch youth authority, is to be organized across departments in the future. It is planned to pass a controversial law on volunteering that has been discussed since 2013 this year. Similar to NGO legislation, it provides for the establishment of a state system of volunteer engagement and the registration of all volunteers.


The future development of youth policy seems to be less aimed at directly preventing protests critical of the government - NGO and demonstration legislation as well as anti-extremism laws are now the main instruments. Youth policy is more likely to attempt the participatory integration of large sections of the population into a morally conservative sphere of social commitment and entrepreneurial activity.

Reading tips

  • Hemment, Julie: Youth Politics in Putin’s Russia: Producing Patriots and Entrepreneurs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2015.
  • Bikbov, Aleksandr: Official Traditionalism and Protest Alternatives in Russia, in: Religion and Society in East and West, 43.2015, No. 4–5, pp. 20–22.
  • Bröckling, Ulrich: The entrepreneurial self: sociology of a form of subjectivation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2007.

The Russia analyzes are prepared by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the Center for Eastern European and International Studies and the German Society for Eastern European Studies. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.