13 December 2018
In his recently published book Youth in Regime Crisis: Comparative Perspectives from Russia to Weimar Germany (Oxford University Press 2018), Félix Krawatzek investigates the political mobilisation of young people and the symbolic importance of youth at moments of crisis. With its analysis of present-day Russia, the Soviet Union during perestroika, France around 1968, and the Weimar Republic, the book offers a framework for comparison of different political systems, linguistic contexts and time periods.
What was the starting point for your book?
During my travels around Russia at the start of my studies, I witnessed the active engagement of young Russians in political protests. On the one hand, there were young people mobilising for democratic and liberal ideals. On the other, especially in 2005 and 2006, I also saw many young people involved in pro-government organisations that were loyal to the regime. What was striking was the inherent contradiction in this image of youth and how it contrasted with the prevailing view in the extant research, which often portrayed young people as progressive. In Russia, youth is not necessarily progressive.
And another point to mention: although some studies on youth movements existed, there was very little research on the discourse around youth – for example, how young people are used in the political space, and how regimes seek legitimacy by attempting to mobilise youth symbolically. This was particularly evident in Russia after 2005. Attempts were made to use young people as a means to rejuvenate and restore the legitimacy of an ageing and questionable regime by forging a bond between them and the political leadership.
How did you choose your four cases?
I started with the main one, namely Russia. It seemed logical to identify the collapse of the Soviet Union as the first pivotal episode for my comparative study. Of course, it was a different political regime in the 1980s than in the 2000s, but they are not entirely distinct: in both cases, we are dealing with authoritarian regimes. The Soviet Union collapsed, whereas the present regime has managed to bolster itself by connecting with the youth generation. And then I considered it furthermore important to include Western regime crises from the 20th century as well. The democratic Weimar Republic experienced one of the most profound crises of that era, with far-reaching ramifications. And lastly, I looked at France, where again, we start with a democratic regime – one which ultimately survives. So these are my four cases: each a different type of regime, and each with a different outcome after the moment of crisis. In all these cases, the question which arises is this: how does the youth discourse evolve under this particular regime? And how does the regime seek to legitimise itself through youth mobilisation?
You mentioned that the significance of youth changes radically at moments of crisis. Can you explain?
A crisis is a moment of potential social and political transformation, because it widens the political parameters and expands the scope for engagement by political and societal actors. In such moments, youth becomes an incredibly seductive notion, because it can be used symbolically to debate many of the concepts that do not necessarily lend themselves to negotiation based on categories such as democracy or participation. Youth is a flexible term in that it relates both to the past and to the future. This also makes it a particularly effective tool in the hands of political leaders. The link between youth past and youth present could be observed in Russia in 2005 and 2006, when politicians called on contemporary youth to engage just as strongly in defence of Russia as their counterparts did against the fascists in the 1940s. On the other hand, the threatened loss of authority implied by the reference to youth in such moments can cast doubt on a regime’s credibility. That is because youth protest or criticism can have a considerable media impact with potential to call the entire political regime or social structure into question.
You write that youth, as a socio-political category, had no relevance in the pre-modern age. Are youth movements themselves a young phenomenon whose significance has yet to crystallise?
Youth is indeed a relatively young phenomenon. In the pre-industrial age, “youth” was not a concept of any relevance to any of the political movements. Let me give you an example: many of the people who were involved in the French Revolution were in their twenties, yet no one would think to describe it as a youth revolution because youth had not yet emerged as a discrete social category. It is really during the inter-war years that we observe the formation of political groupings which self-consciously define themselves as youth movements. However, youth movements are constantly reinventing themselves, simply because their members are always changing. The composition of youth as a category is constantly in flux, and this is accompanied by a constantly shifting interpretation of what youth political participation actually means. Coming back to the Russian case, many of those who were active in 2005 to 2007 are of course no longer “youths” today, and few of them are politically active. Most of the movements which existed at that time no longer exist today. The challenge facing all youth movements is how to ensure their own continuity.
What does the future hold for young people in Russia – both the oppositional and the pro-Kremlin youth?
Our Western media are taking notice of the very vocal and visible oppositional youth. In terms of numbers, however, this is still a very small percentage of young people in Russia, and to the best of my knowledge, it does not currently have a voice of its own. I myself find it difficult at present to identify any protests that could genuinely be described as a youth movement. There is a relatively large group of young people who tacitly support the current regime and would never run the risk of destabilising their own lives by going out and protesting. But even the active supporters of the regime currently have few effective institutional structures to engage with. Obviously, this situation can change very quickly. The regime is currently under pressure, so it might find utilising young people to boost its own legitimacy an enticing prospect. In that sense, I would not be surprised if in future, we see renewed interest from the government in visibly involving young people and mobilising them as a source of support for the regime.
Félix Krawatzek is a senior researcher at ZOiS. His research project centres on youth as a political agent and a social imaginary.
2018. Youth in Regime Crisis: Comparative Perspectives from Russia to Weimar Germany, Oxford: Oxford University Press.