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The Youth Are Russia’s Future

In the final episode of Russia In Context, Jeff Hawn sits down with Russian culture expert and author Ian Garner to discuss his new book, “Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia’s Fascist Youth.” Together, they dive into the emergence of Russia’s Young Army, the effects social media has on it, and how this group has begun to shape Russia’s next generation. 

Jeff Hawn:

Hello and welcome to Russia in Context, a new sub-series of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy Contours podcast. This is your host, Jeff Hawn. Three decades ago, the Cold War ended and the red flag was lowered over the Kremlin. The USSR was dead and Russia was reborn, but history did not end as some thought it would.

Over the last three decades, Russia has once again become a persistent challenger to US global leadership. How this is happening and why is what we seek to answer on our new sub-series of the Contours podcast, Russia in Context. Joining me today is Dr. Ian Gartner, who studies Russian culture and propaganda of war.

He’s the author of Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia’s Fascist Youth, Stalingrad Lives: Stories of Combat and Survival. He’s currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Studies and a fellow at the Center for International and Defense Policy at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada. Ian, welcome.

Ian Garner:

Hi, Jeff. Hi, listeners. Thank you for having me.

Jeff Hawn:

So I suppose the place to start off is with your most recent book Z Generation, and this was a relatively recent book. I believe I actually went to the book launch you had here in London, and you wrote this, if I’m not misremembering in reaction to the war. Why don’t you start by telling us how this project came about and what lessons you drew from your research into it?

Ian Garner:

Gosh, that’s a big question and we could spend the whole podcast with me just rambling on in response to this one prompt. Let me tell you about the background for the book. So, I had this idea of bubbling away because we’ve certainly seen over the last decade increasing nationalism and an increasingly ideological turn in Russian politics and in particular cultural politics.

We’ve seen huge changes in youth policy in Russia in the ways that school programs are put together. We’ve seen some pretty brash PR strategies born and new youth groups springing up left, right, and center. So I had it in mind that I would look at this for some time as my project subsequent to my book on Stalingrad.

Then when the war began, I put the rocket burners on and thought this is the right time to write this book. This is the right time to be thinking about not just why we are in the place that we’re in today, but also what the future might hold. And in particular, I was motivated by thinking through some of the claims that were made in the public sphere and in the media about the supposed depoliticization of Russian youth.

The assumption, I think, that’s often been underlying commentary on an analysis of young Russians. And that is the idea that somehow young people are inevitably marching slowly towards a more liberal, a more global outlook on the world in particular thanks to the internet. I think, and we’ll talk through the conclusions at length, I’m sure, and I think that that is a misplaced confidence.

It might be right. I’m skeptical and I think that Russian youth probably moving in the other direction towards nationalism, towards an ideological outlook on the world, and I label them fascist youth. Do I think that every young person in Russia is a raging drum-basing fascist and genocidal maniac? Absolutely not. But that is the direction that they’re being pushed in by cultural politics, by state politics, and by a large amount of what will somewhat lazily term fellow travelers, especially online.

Jeff Hawn:

So that’s very interesting, because with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, there seemed to be this assumption that Russian politics was indeed moving away from any kind of deep ideological bent. And you had people like the liberal Democrats who are neither liberal nor democratic, but the quasi-fascist Russian chauvinistic party under their now deceased leader Zhirinovsky, who essentially were seen as kind of like the last vestiges of this Russian proto-imperialism.

Many people said that Putin and United Russia were a pragmatic kind of post-ideological party, but then that started to change in the mid-2000s. I think I see your point on that, and do you think that this was a process that was already well underway among the youth before the war escalated? Or did the war help to magnify these things that were already underway?

Ian Garner:

I would say that the war seems to have been less a catalyst, less a starting point and more an accelerant. It’s allowed the government in particular, and it’s allowed those fellow travellers, the sympathizers, far-right internet personalities, far-right influencers online to throw fuel on the fire of something that’s been bubbling up.

And really for me, the turning point, and this is probably unsurprising, was around 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency. Domestic factors were influencing that, mass protests going on. This was the era of course in Navalny’s height of popularity, height of his fame and success at least domestically speaking. There were foreign factors as well, thinking about the global economy, the collapse of the resource industry, thinking about the Arab Spring, of course, and all of these things, the color revolutions that had happened around the post-Soviet space in the years preceding that, all of these things made Putin quite paranoid I think, and there was good evidence from that.

There was a Oscar Johnson or Johnson, or I apologize to him because I’m not sure whether it’s hard J or a soft J, but he has an excellent book on the mindset within the Kremlin and proves I think quite eloquently that the paranoia really being dominant at that point. But I actually think we can track a real fast change in youth policy in the state to that moment.

And Putin lays it on the line. I described this in the book, and I described some of the people who were involved with policy at that point who were in school at that point. Putin puts it all out in public at the Valdai Club in particular in, I believe it’s 2013, fall 2013, he makes a speech where he basically says, “We need to reinvent what it means to be a young Russian.”

If in the 2000s it was possible to ignore violence, although violence was always going on, state-sponsored violence, state-sponsored violent youth groups always existed in the 2000s. But if you were a young person in Moscow, you could choose to ignore that. You could choose to live a life where that just wasn’t a part of your reality, wasn’t a part of your identity.

After 2012, Putin made it clear at that Valdai speech that that is not going to be the case anymore. We need a new spiritually Russian identity. We need an identity based around the greatness of Russian culture, an identity that explicitly rejects, and in that speech, I don’t have the quote here, but he lists Satanism, pedophilia, Westernism, all this sort of the cavalcade of evils that have become very familiar to us in particular over the last couple of years as being things that we want to avoid.

It is at that point that Russian youth identity, at least in its state-conceived conception, becomes very clearly you are either with us, you buy into this identity, you become this identity, you reshape yourself around this identity, you speak the language of Putinism, or you are against us. And thus, everybody is faced with a clear choice in a way that they could ignore having to make choices beforehand.

Jeff Hawn:

And this is interesting in that the way you’re describing it, it’s essentially creating a civic overarching identity for what it means to be Russian. This is something I’ve spoken with other guests and among my colleagues. I mean, obviously, you can probably describe it better than I can, but in the Russian language, there’s actually two words for Russian. Someone who’s a Russian citizen, a citizen of the country, and someone who’s ethnically Russian.

How does this new Kremlin narrative address that question? Does it create a more inclusive, you can be Tatar, but you’re also one of us, or you can be Bashkiri, but you’re also one of us, or you can be Ukrainian, but you’re also one of us? Or is it exclusive, where you must be Russian, because obviously you and I both know from Russian history that there were attempts to create this kind of inclusive identity, especially after the revolution, but that rapidly fell back into kind of Russian chauvinism.

I think even Stalin himself was a big, who was Georgian, so of course that made perfect sense, was a big fan of the strength… He referred to Russians as the older brother of the family of nations.

Ian Garner:

You’ve already in the question stumbled upon the deep contradiction inherent to all of this. And that is the fact that Russia continues to boast of itself as being a multi-ethnic state. And after that Valdai speech, some young authors working under the leadership of Sergey Karaganov, who’s a well-known historian, Kremlin advisor, and has become increasingly, let’s say, eccentric over the last few years in his support for the regime and his support for military activities.

They went off and produced a report about the future of Russian youth. One of the lines that stood out for me most in that report was the description of ethnic Russians as being like a main dish and ethnic minorities in Russia being like the spices that go with that dish. They’re there, but Russians are most definitely first amongst equals, and you cannot imagine the country without Russian-ness at part of it.

So what we see is on the surface, young Russians are encouraged to dress in national ethnic minority dresses on key holidays. They’re encouraged to sing ethnic minority songs in a limited fashion, but it is very much a limited performance. So let me give you an example of how things really work in practice.

The Youth Army, the paramilitary youth group that the state has been pushing for the last few years, and is growing massively, fairly recently, put out a series of recruiting videos on VK, Instagram and TikTok. So these things are pretty short, 30 seconds, a minute long each. And they interviewed, I don’t know, half a dozen, something like that, young people who joined the youth army and they sang as praises and talked about how wonderful it was, the journey of self-discovery, mini-bildungsroman, each one.

And one of the videos was about a young girl who’d come from, I believe, Uzbekistan. And in the video she says she’s, I believe, 17. She says, “Well, I came to Moscow when I was 10 and I didn’t speak Russian and the other children bullied me. I felt very excluded.” Now in the West, you can imagine if you were making an advert for multiculturalism, you wouldn’t stop by saying, “Central culture was racist,” which pretty much this video begins with. If you did, you would then talk about the bullies, learning about the values of multiculturalism and changing their behavior.

No, in this video the girl explains that, “And then I joined the Youth Army, I learned Russian, I made friends, now I fit in.” And of course, now she’s speaking in perfectly unaccented Russian, all the while she’s standing there in the Youth Army uniform. So she has become one with this sort of ethnic mass of Russian-ness. She has transformed herself rather than Russians changing their beliefs and their identities to accept her and that tells you a lot about the expectations.

These run throughout the educational program, throughout the social media programs that the government is running and sponsoring. The expectation is that children will transform themselves. The government frequently frames this as a battle to reject Western elements, to reject non-Russian elements and so on and so forth. So daily life identity becomes martial, becomes militarized.

Jeff Hawn:

That’s very interesting, and then, so there’s many people in the West, many of our colleagues who’ve been watching Russia for decades would say that much of Putin’s rhetoric around this uniqueness of Russia that, as you said has been going on since 2013, is a shallow ploy to cater to potential, I wouldn’t say supporters, but people in the West who would look sympathetically upon his policies and let him get away with what he wants to do rather than being restrained by international treaties and rules.

But what you’re describing is a much more comprehensive and a much deeper effort to essentially create a generational transformation. And the only other example I can think of is the Komsomol, which for those of you who don’t know, was the communist party youth organization under Communist rule. My understanding is Komsomol was a fairly cynical organization in that everyone did it, but nobody really believed in it.

But you seem to be indicating that this is something that people on the surface at least seem to be very much buying into because it’s much less of a political statement and it’s more of a whole identity transformation, a civilizational discourse.

Ian Garner:

The way that I look at this book is by looking at social media accounts in particular, and the argument I made is to go back to the work of people like Johann Helbeck on subjectivity in the Soviet 1930s, and Helbeck was looking at diaries. My argument is that, well, nobody writes a diary nowadays, or very few teenagers are writing diaries.

What are they doing? They’re documenting their lives on social media, they’re uploading TikTok videos, Instagram videos about their innermost thoughts and feelings. And of course, there is a slight complication that an Instagram account or a TikTok account has this dual public-private function in a way that a diary doesn’t. So there’s an aspect of performance.

But what I found is that in particular, if you look at, for example, Youth Army members on TikTok, not only do they sometimes participate in official campaigns and follow official accounts, they begin to speak the language of the Youth Army. A language that is not just verbal, i.e. using slogans, sloganeering, but is also visual. It’s an aesthetic language.

So for example, you might come across a TikTok video where these are real examples, these are not hypothetical examples. A 14-year-old who has 30-something thousand followers on TikTok who is living in the Russian provinces most of the time is just posting about day-to-day life, girls he likes, homework he has to do, but often he’s wearing a Youth Army t-shirt or a Youth Army beret while he’s doing this.

You might find videos of teenage girls staging a fashion show in which they show off the latest youth army uniform, sort of fetishizing, almost, the uniform as an object of desire, something to strive towards, something to become. And that for me is really, really interesting because it is in the performance that young people become this desired-for identity. It is not in what they really do or don’t believe behind closed doors.

Increasingly, to go back to this public-private divide, I’m sorry, I apologize. I’m going to try to explain this without getting too cultural studies theoretical about it. In this public-private divide, we find a real complication of that idea, that traditionally people have believed something in public but done something different behind closed doors.

Because I argue that there is no behind closed doors for young Russians anymore, because most of the action is not happening in schools. It is not happening at the formal Youth Army or similar events Monday night, 5 to 6, go to parade practice, whatever it is, the action is happening on smartphones. And smartphones are in students’ pockets 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It is very hard for any young person, even those that consciously try to do so to separate what is real, what is fake, what is government-influenced, what is produced by somebody who’s a fellow traveler. And thus, we find ourselves trapped in this mire, and ultimately skipping several steps of my argument, when you ask why a young person in Russia in Ukraine might pull a trigger and fire a bullet at a Ukrainian, does it matter whether they really believe in the ideology or not? It doesn’t matter for the victim and it doesn’t matter for the Russian state.

Jeff Hawn:

That’s very interesting. So I guess my follow-up question to that would be how prevalent do you see this dynamic of the Youth Army? Because this is a government organization, how prevalent is it among young people in Russia?

You brought up rural Russia, which as you and I both know, is often severely economically underdeveloped. You really sometimes look at people who are from Moscow or St. Petersburg and people who are from more rural cities like Irkutsk or Vladivostok, and they’re almost from completely different societies or countries.

I live in London and we get many of the new Russians, as they’re so-called here who are the same age as the subjects in your study, who I don’t think any of them will ever put on any kind of uniform, because they’re specifically here because their family has the resources to send them out of the country. So how prevalent is this among the youth? Is it widespread or is it just in a small demographic?

Ian Garner:

So in terms of the Youth Army, it was founded in 2016 and their recruitment has been quite stunning over the last three or four years. They’ve gone from having half a million members in about 2019 to a million members at the start of the war to 1.6 million members as the latest estimate I’ve seen. And just informally when I’ve spoken to folks involved in the Youth Army in official positions, they tell me they basically can’t keep up with demand.

They don’t have the space, they don’t have the uniforms. Classic Russian problem, the left hand is not talking to the right, they’re not working together. But 1.6 million members doesn’t sound like a lot, and in essence, in some senses it’s not. What it is a lot more than previous attempts at youth groups. For example, the very famous Nashi, whose membership was very informal, nebulous and peaked around a 100,000 members.

So Nashi was tiny in comparison. But what is significant is the fact that since so much of the action happens online through, for example, gamified social media campaigns through the Yunarmiya, the Young Soldier app that you can download for your smartphone through VK groups, through TikTok campaigns, we actually find there is a geographical flattening.

One of the problems the regime faced or might have faced 23 years ago when Putin came to power if they’d have wanted to do something similar was, well, how do you get kids who are often in far-flung rural locations involved and feeling like they’re enjoying the glamour of the fascist rally essentially? How do you get them to feel like they’re participating?

The answer is very, very hard because they feel distant from icons, from what now we would term influences. They can’t turn up at a rally with 10,000 other people, but thanks to social media, but you can participate in the rally at any time you choose and from wherever you choose.

So what we find is that, and one of the more interesting conversations I had as part of research for the book, I talked to a young, probably now in university, although she wasn’t quite at the time, student who was living not far from Arkhangelsk, a tiny village. She was involved in this movement called the Victory Volunteers, and that’s aimed a little bit more at student-age Russians, so not quite Youth Army where kids as young as six can start.

She was talking about how excited she’d been to participate in Victory Volunteers online campaigns. She planned to go to university in Moscow and join a real in-person group as a result. And she felt like she would have some friends by doing so. We see this lure of belonging, the lure of feeling like you’re popular, feeling like you have a solid communal base.

That’s a very attractive thing for young people. It doesn’t need me to tell you. Think of the 13, 14-year-olds in your life, or remember when you were 13, 14, what did you want more than anything? You just want it to belong, to feel like you have friends, to feel like you are running with some other kids.

Jeff Hawn:

And I think in Russia this particularly open for that constructed idea where a group like Young Army can essentially build out a very flexible, but as we’ve covered inclusive, Russian domineering ideology very easily, because of just what a vacuum there was and what does it mean to be Russian after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure to address a lot of those questions.

I mean the iconography I’ve seen in your work and others goes back to the Whites and the Tsarists. I mean there’s nothing new here. It’s all recycled. But then here’s the question. So obviously Young Army, one of the things that it’s trying to do is prepare people for military service because Russia has universal conscription. And a big point of contention, especially in recent months, has been the extremely high casualties in Ukraine.

The Russian military estimated to have suffered somewhere between 250,000 to 300,000 casualties since the escalation of the war. Is there any benefit to being a member of Young Army? Are you excused from conscription? I remember this was almost a decade ago, but I remember when I lived in Russia seeing a trailer for, it wasn’t Young Army, it was a different group that was active at the time, talking about how it’s important to join these youth groups. So you avoid the horrible hazing that happens when you’re doing your conscription service.

So what are the tangible benefits? And also have you ever followed through on any members who have gone into conscription who’ve met the realities of the brutal and often incompetent Russian military and how has that affected their view on things?

Ian Garner:

I think from the state’s perspective, the program has not necessarily designed to create the perfect fighting force. There’s not much indication that the Army is really producing anything constructive or to work particularly closely with the Youth Army to make the relentless physical training and firearms training they’re doing particularly high quality. Not surprising if you know much about Russian military training procedures.

Instead, the idea is to soften up the population for the idea of joining the army. From the young people’s perspective, well, if you join the Youth Army, you can get additional, for example, benefits that will help you get a better university place and then maybe join the military. So I don’t think there is much good joined up thinking about how to get kids out of the Youth Army and into the regular forces.

Instead, the hope is more that they will sign up as kontraktniki, as contract soldiers, volunteer to go to the front rather than being forced to go to the front or potentially fleeing the country if they have the money or means to do so. So, this is a failing on the state’s part. In part, that’s true because this is a relatively new organization and it is a relatively new phenomenon that they actually have a significant number of people coming through the ranks.

And yes, they are absolutely visited by military recruiters and incentivized that way as part of regular weekly or monthly activities or whatever it is that they’re doing. And one of the more unusual things I saw is I saw some videos from summer camp, classic Russian-style summer camp, send the Youth Army kids off to residential camp, they do training, they sing songs, blah, blah, blah.

They were visited by some veterans from the front and they were genuinely treating these people like superstars. They were so excited to get to meet them. They treated them like celebrities, and it was just such a bizarre phenomenon. I wish I’d had more time in the book to delve into that particular exchange or that particular phenomenon to see if it’d been replicated in more circumstances.

Because I think also often on in Western media, all we see are the pictures and the viral videos of Russian kids looking bored when they see the latest textbooks that are blandly written and nakedly propagandistic. We don’t see much from this digital reality that the state is trying to create and influencer vibes, we’ll call them.

However, I have looked at a couple of folks who’ve actually followed through and gone to the front, and they don’t seem to regret their decision. What we have seen is a couple of people who have died at the front, having been in the Youth Army and have been effectively beatified, treated as saints in their local schools and their local Youth Army detachment, getting huge amounts of positive local media coverage, really treated as military martyrs.

They’re the very best kinds of young Russians, not because they transformed their identity and join the right youth groups, but because they died to save Russia, save the world, and save Ukraine from the spectral threat of the Nazi West and all this junk you get in the propaganda.

Jeff Hawn:

It’s sometimes difficult for us in the West to comprehend just how different the thinking is, but people are fed, I hesitate even to call it propaganda because what it is it’s a narrative. It’s created a parallel reality that they exist in. And this idea of greater Russian-ness is so vague and amorphous and has been around for such a long, long time.

I mean, my own research focuses on the 1990s, and it’s so interesting after almost 75 years of this being suppressed, as soon as the Communist Party has gone, it just explodes like a volcano and nobody really quite knows what to do with it. But what you’re saying is, it’s not like this is a systematic program on the government’s part. What it is is part of this broader effort to try to create a alternative narrative to the Western one of liberal democracy and inclusion.

They bring in a lot of just very, I suppose we’d term them reactionary ideas, the threat of homosexuality, in their view, the threat of othernesses, or like you said, Putin even referenced Satanism. So do you see that this kind of thinking, if not the group itself, but if this kind of thinking has a shelf life that goes beyond the current conflict and even the current regime?

Ian Garner:

What is interesting to me about the thinking and more broadly the role of Putin in the ideology that it’s taught is that Putin doesn’t figure very highly. For example, if you look in new school textbooks, if you look in youth army, programmatic materials, yes, Putin is there, and yes, Putin is celebrated, but he’s not treated as a demigod in the way that Stalin or for example, Hitler were.

What is hailed is the idea of Putin as an exceptional expression of the Russian everyman, an exceptional expression of the Russian identity that we’ve been talking about, somebody to aspire towards that somebody that it is possible to become. And therefore, Putin isn’t essential to this philosophy, if you can call it. Putin could die and could be replaced by somebody else who is also seen as a straight talking expression of Russian ethnicity, somebody who is an orthodox Christian, somebody who will treat war with the West as a serious possibility.

That means that our emphasis on Putin in the West is somewhat shortsighted, because Putin could die tomorrow. He could die in 10 years time, somebody else could step into his shoes and the adherence of this form of nationalism would not simply go away.

Jeff Hawn:

And is there any way to push back against this? Because like you said, it seems that much of the focus or much of the thinking around the young people in Russia is, “Oh, we just have to wait for all these guys who grew up in the Soviet period to die off, and then they’ll finally see the light and become these liberal Democrats or something,” a close approximation to it.

But it’s very interesting in that, I don’t know if you agree or not, but I don’t think this kind of movement is contained just specifically to Russia. In many ways, I don’t think this is original thinking on their part. They’re just mimicking things that have gone on previously and are going on in other parts of the world. What are your thoughts on that?

Ian Garner:

For me, the important aspect of this is coming to terms with the fact that social media has completely changed the way that identity can be formed and group identity can be formed, or the Russian state has really understood in the last three or four years, in particular with the Youth Army, is the fact that this public-private divide has completely altered reality. And you talked a few minutes ago about the idea of creating an alternative reality, but it’s not creating an alternative reality.

What the state does so well is creating the impression that young Russians have the choice, and it’s almost consumerist in the way they approach it. And it does mimic Western expressions of consumerism that young Russians have the choice of an almost infinite number of ways to be Russian. And yet all of those ways lead back into being the same kind of Russian. This is sort of form of post-post-modernity. We’re not talking about infinite fragmentation, we’re talking about infinite ways to put themselves back together.

So young Russians can find communities and communities spring up and die very quickly, and identities can be shaped and reshaped. But in that at least there is also some hope, because if identities can be reshaped in the way that the Russian state anticipates, it also means they could be reshaped away from the way that it is.

Jeff Hawn:

That’s very interesting. But it’s not something where just greater engagement with social media, the part of the government, would counter these narratives. And it’s very interesting to me just how broad, but at the same time how disorganized this thinking is. So your final thoughts, do you think that things like Young Army and this kind of thinking will have a very tangible impact on the next generation of Russian leadership? Or can we hope that maybe people will look back on this as a cautionary tale?

Ian Garner:

It depends on who comes into power next, and of course how long the current regime exists. But let’s say the current regime continues to exist and continues to pursue this program more or less successfully along the trajectory that’s been followed so far for another five to 10 years. You’re going to be looking at a generation of young Russians having grown up who have very little experience of different perspectives on the world, who are being pushed into algorithmic corners unawares, who are not used to seeking out information from abroad.

That is going to leave us in a very, very difficult place, because not only will they lack the means of expressing different forms of identity and different forms of thinking about the world, they’re going to lack the media literacy to understand how to go about even beginning to actually acquire those means. That I think is where we can step in from abroad and start doing some groundwork now in equipping young Russians with those skills. We can use social media to do it, because Russian social media, the Russian internet is still not closed off from the West, really at all.

Jeff Hawn:

And that’s interesting. What medium of social media do they primarily use? I mean, is it like Twitter now called X, or is it Telegram? What is it?

Ian Garner:

It is all about TikTok. TikTok is where young Russians are going. It is the growth platform in Russia. It is incredibly popular, it’s addictive. All of the aesthetic forms, all of the viral videos are very familiar to you if you’ve seen TikTok in the West. And the beauty of TikTok is the algorithmic corners that it puts you into.

Once you are sucked into that little work of Youth Army, of patriotism, of whatever it is, it is very hard to see beyond the walls of that world. And for a state Russia that is trying to restrict access to outside information without making it too obvious that they’re doing so, that is the greatest propaganda tool that has ever been invented.

Jeff Hawn:

That’s so interesting because we think of propaganda as the censorship of unwanted information, but you no longer have to hide information. You just have to drive people towards the information you want them to see and they do it themselves.

Well, that has been very fascinating. Thank you, Ian Gardner. And once again, his book is called Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia’s Fascist Youth, available wherever books are Sold. Thank you very much.

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