If history is any indication, a gerontocracy can kill a political system. The Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc states suffered from it. It currently plagues China. And the recent protests in Iran certainly point to some kind of generational conflict is coming to a boil. The failure to ensure the mobility of young people into a government’s power structures only brews disillusionment, frustration, and anger among the next generation.
Soviet Russia understood this well, that is until the bureaucracy ousted Khrushchev and entrenched itself to the point the system went into suspension. Before the 1960s, Soviet Russia was an archetype of social mobility. Youth–through institutions like the Komsomol–were the “helper” and “reserve” of the Party. Part of Stalin’s “New Soviet Person” was not just about promoting peasants and workers into positions of power. Youth also greatly benefited by Stalin’s efforts to rip Russia out of its historical backwardness. And if industrialization didn’t shoot a young person to new career heights, then terror cleared the decks of “old Bolsheviks.” One recipient of this was Khrushchev himself. As one of the Stalin’s “new men,” the wobbly, gregarious Nikita went from a lowly miner to running the whole shebang. It is no wonder that his biographer William Taubman called his rise “meteoric.”
Dmitri Medvedev also seems to understand the importance of youth social mobility, if his recent courting of young people into Russian politics serves as any indication. Last week, the age for holding public office was reduced to 18 years old. “I propose to establish, in all regions of the Russian Federation, a single age for election to representative bodies of municipal government and municipal entities,” Dmitri Medvedev said in his opening remarks to the State Council on Youth Affairs. “I think that any citizen who has reached the age of 18 should have the right to be elected in his/her municipal organ”. As Nezavisimaya gazeta put it, Medvedev has decided “to create an additional electoral group for future presidential elections.” And a significant electoral group they are. Young people between 14-30 make up roughly 27 percent of the Russian population. To make them even more important, they are currently in a volatile situation. The often touted “Putin Generation” has been hit hardest by unemployment. The unemployment rate for young people under 25 is 27 percent. And if anyone has seen the mockumentary Russia 88, you will know that it is unemployment that can fuel a youth’s turn toward fascism. Youth, then, are the perfect resource to tap, and the President hopes to give them the sense that their bright future resides in their new patron: himself.
Medvedev’s move comes only a few weeks after the yearly youth summer camp at Seliger. Usually reserved for Nashi, this year’s camp was opened to an assortment of approved youth groups and organizations involved in anything from politics to art. Seliger under the Committee of Youth Affairs had less of a militant flavor than the past ones under Nashi. Nashi still loomed large aesthetically, but the tone was one the whole different. As Russia Profile‘s Roland Oliphant explained,
Traditional elements from previous camps did, indeed, remain. There were red-and-white Nashi flags and clothes, visits from government ministers and a live video link with President Dmitry Medvedev. Campers were woken at eight o’clock every morning by the Russian national anthem blasted from speakers mounted in the trees. Many of the delegates were from Nashi, or were former members. Robert Schlegel, a former Nashi leader and now the youngest deputy in the State Duma (for United Russia), hosted the video link with Medvedev.
But there was no paramilitary training to combat colored revolutions, nor any “love oasis” in which couples could get to work raising the birthrate. And despite the conflation of love of nation with love of Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (whose portraits were displayed side-by-side at strategic points around the camp) the rhetoric was more patriotic than partisan, with great emphasis placed on national unity and “tolerance,” which was one of the camp’s many buzz words.
With a $2.2 million budget, Seliger signifies the move to court young people into politics, harness their creative spirit, and bring them together under one banner for the future. Principle among the many camp events was a stress on education and experience. One such example was the “living art” project Future Ville. According to Oliphant:
Participants labored from dawn till dusk every day to erect a model city. The buildings – factories, a grocery store, even a registry office – were built of wood by various teams. But they also printed money (with which they had to pay for building materials), built a bureaucracy, agreed laws and held elections. Opposition newspapers appeared accusing the “mayor” of failing to fight inflation, corruption and authoritarianism. Rival candidates posted fliers pleading for votes at tomorrow afternoon’s election.
With the Russian government taking a much more active role in youth, what then will become of groups like Nashi? If Medvedev seriously pushes his youth agenda, I can foresee Nashi becoming more attractive for politically career minded youth. Plus, Nashi still holds a special place in facilitating upwardly mobile young people into Russian politics. After all, the Youth Affairs Committee is run by Vasili Yakemenko, the founder and first secretary of Nashi. The infamous Robert Schlegel serves as a shining example for young people as a former Nashist who is now the youngest Duma member.
Medvedev also seems to be looking at Nashi (or unaligned youth who still represent the national spirit) to fill government positions. According to the Moscow Times, he might tap Olympic gold medal winning gymnast Svetlana Khorkina and Nashi activist Marina Zademidkova to serve in the government, possible as governors. But Nashi isn’t the only source. Medevev has already appointed Andrei Turchak, 33, to head Pskov province and former oppositionist Nikita Belykh, 34, to run Kirov. Moreover, all of the President’s “Golden 100” are entirely under the age of 50, with none having any experience in Russia’s security organs.
This is the “Year of Youth,” and it seems Medvedev is using the occasion to create his own base of support, a future young cohort of civiliki. The only questions is whether Russia’s youth will answer Dima’s call.