Russian youth in XXI century

Elena Omelchenko,
Director of Centre for Youth Studies,
Professor at Department of Sociology,
Programme Academic Supervisor “Modern Social Analysis”,
St.Petersburg School of Social Sciences and Area Studies, HRU “Higher School of Economics – St. Petersburg”,

From the end of the last century and till recently many studies demonstrated the decline in political participation of young people in Europe (including Russia). The young people demonstrated a high level of distrust to politicians and alienation from institutionalized traditional politics. It provoked the public and academic discussion about the apathy of modern youth. However, recent events around the globe (different types of collective actions that young people performs in everyday life – cultural, civic, environmental and political) questions this vision of young people as individualistic consumers not thinking about the common good.

During the last five years, we, with my colleagues from the Centre for Youth Studies (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia) participated in a large research project[1]. It was focused on the studying of youth cultural scenes in six Russian cities: St. Petersburg, Kazan, Makhachkala, Ulyanovsk, Ulan-Ude, and Elista. We consider a youth scene as a common platform for the production, upholding and demonstration of the authentic and shared meanings of group communication, fixed in a particular urban place (space).  The aim was to understand the values, biographical trajectories, everyday communications, and ways of cultural and civic participation of young people in the life of contemporary Russian society.

We noticed significant changes in subcultural profiles of Russian cities at the beginning of the second decade of this century. “Pure”, “classical” subcultures do not disappear completely, but dissolve in more comprehensive youth environments, leaving bright traces of style and value trails. At the same time, the core values ​​of “classical” subcultures (substances) receive a “new life” within the framework of constantly changing and multiplying post-subcultural youth communities.  A social bridge is being formed, that becomes a venue that assembles buffer youth cultural groups.

Russian youth despite significant differences (class, educational, ethnic, religious) can share some common values and preferences: healthy lifestyle, sports, volunteering, fanaticism, computer and board games. It is important that the values ​​of ‘civic responsibility’ and ‘altruism’ are shared by a significant part of young people in all cities where the survey was conducted, regardless of their group identities and cultural choices. We did not study specifically political activism but were concentrated on value orientations and involvement in various urban/lifestyle practices. We discovered that people who are now between 18 and 28 years old demonstrates a new type of civic involvement and participation in diverse formats: from different cultural activities to volunteering. At the same time, the so-called ‘traditional values’ ​​and ‘patriotic mood’ have also a noticeable influence on the shared group identities, which indicates the significant role of Russian political discourses in reformatting the space of youth activism and youth cultural scenes.

However, it is very important for young people to participate in grassroots civic initiatives, which are not necessarily directly related to politics. This may include environmental projects, animal welfare, volunteering in hospitals, fundraising for various charitable projects, participation in search teams looking for remains of soldiers from WWII, assistance to victims of violence, and much more. This is a vibrant palette of civic inclusion, which develops ultimately independently of state programs and projects aimed at youth. It is crucial for young people that these initiatives are in no way formalized and independent from the state.

Concepts and values ​​that are meaningful for today’s youth are acceptance, understanding, inclusion, ownership and belonging. Official politics cannot provide this, because Russian young people, as many young people around the globe, cannot fully participate in political processes, make decisions and influence the outcome. Therefore, they strive to form their agenda and their environment. The everyday activism of ‘small deeds’ become their choice. Furthermore, the cultural scene becomes the space for it.

Thus, youth cultural scenes are an essential part of everyday life, transitions, self-expression, value formation, friendly and social networks. These are platforms for negotiating differences – there is a particular context, language, values ​​and solidarity. We saw it in our research. We observed a variety of young people’s lives and activities. The concept of youth cultural scenes seems to us to be a promising theoretical and methodological tool that helps to understand youth diversity and get the meanings that young people put into their companionship. This picture brings optimism and helps to overcome prejudices regarding the passivity and disinterest of Russian youth in the future development of their cities and country.

[1] The Project ‘Fields of positive interethnic interactions and youth cultural scenes in the Russian cities’ (funded by the Russian Science Foundation; project No.: 15-18-00078).


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