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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Students Strike for Fear of Being Left Behind




The images of students in Yekaterinburg being beaten by the police, which were shown on all television stations in April, shocked the public. These were not miners, or Chechens, or "red" pensioners, but students -- children from "decent" families in whom the reformers placed their hopes. Beating them was simply not done. The country grew more indignant, which was reflected in the leading newspapers and television commentaries. But about a week after the clashes with the students, tempers were calmed, the police and city authorities apologized and the student movement was all but forgotten. Yet even at the height of the clashes, hardly anyone tried to seriously analyze either the student demands or the reasons for the demonstrations.


This was not the first or even the biggest wave of student protest in Russia. Something similar occurred in Moscow in April 1994 and April 1995. Both events began with officially sanctioned gatherings organized by student unions. Their main concerns were unpaid stipends and the crisis in higher education. The rather boring union representatives quickly lost control over the crowd, and spontaneous demonstrations began, followed by skirmishes with the police. Activists from the radical-left Student Defense and the new Komsomol organizations turned out to be at the forefront. Students tried to make their way to the Kremlin, broke the windows of expensive boutiques and threw New Russians into fountains. In April 1995, the head of the Komsomol, Igor Malyarov, was even arrested during the demonstrations (as it later turned out, illegally).


After these two unsuccessful experiences, the leadership of student unions refrained from taking new actions. But complete inactivity was also impossible. During 1996 and 1997, the Student Defense movement had practically fallen apart. Still, recalling their unpleasant encounters in the capital over the past years, the leaders decided to carry out a series of demonstrations in the provinces. The result turned out to be even worse than before. No radicals were needed to provoke the students into radical activities. The Moscow events of April 1994 and 1995 were repeated down to the last detail on April 14 in Yekaterinburg. But unlike the previous demonstrations, the media chose not to ignore the protests this year. Previously, the television showed that only the little-educated "lumpen" proletariat and pensioners supported the opposition and leftist parties. Crowds of young protesters did not fit in with this picture. The situation was different this year. Several television stations clearly used the student protests as a means of undermining the authority of Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel before the upcoming elections.


The authorities had long convinced themselves that young people were on their side. They were considered a dynamic and educated part of society "capable of adapting to new market relations." The young truly turned out to adapt more easily to the new times. But this does not directly reflect their political sympathies. Students are clearly not with the Communists, however it does not follow from this that they support the current authorities.


The presidential campaign of 1996 showed how wrong the authorities were to consider the young as a reserve of support for President Boris Yeltsin's regime. Much money was spent on expensive shows with pop stars under banners saying, "Vote or lose." Yeltsin personally danced on stage with the stars, yet this had less than modest results. He of course was more popular among the young than Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, but not more than among other segments of the population.


It seems that there was no reason for alarm, given that most young people have stayed entirely apolitical. Right before the events in Yekaterinburg, the daily Noviye Izvestia reported that the number of young people who hold socialist convictions is four times higher than the number of young supporters of free enterprise. But the fact is that polls show each side to be equal -- at 5 percent each.


The Soviet system of higher education was directed toward meeting the needs of a developed industrialized society. In present-day Russia, with its increasingly primitive economy and decreased industrial production, a large number of intelligentsia have become redundant. There is no money in the budget for education. "To live according to one's means" for the government means to sharply reduce the number of people who receive an education and at the same time the quality of that education. Government officials have promised to save budget money at the expense of reductions in teachers and doctors. For millions of young people, this means that opportunities for succeeding in life have been closed to them.


According to Malyarov, "In 1991, most young people were not with us. They were bored under the Soviet authorities. They wanted change. The market and private enterprise truly opened new opportunities for them." The young now complain that all the "good" jobs for university graduates have been taken. Young professionals have few prospects for making a career. The best positions are already occupied by young people who advanced during the last years of Soviet power. At the beginning of the '90s, the average age of managers and professionals decreased sharply. These business leaders will remain in their positions for some time to come, given that they are still young. At the same time, the economy is not growing, and new job openings are not appearing. Upward mobility is decreasing, and emerging from the lower classes is becoming more difficult. Of course, people do not get an education so that they can later trade in contraband textiles in a stall.


Social psychologists have noticed a schism between young people between the age of 15 and 25 and those between 25 and 30. The young who are trying sincerely to succeed in the new conditions have found out that their knowledge and desires are not needed. This is especially the case in the provinces today.


In such a situation, the education reforms could not but set off the conflict between the authorities and the students. The students understand how much the transition to paid education will cost.


It is no surprise then that the young "middle class" (or those who dream of becoming part of it) took the plans for educational reform as a direct call to action. In the West and the Third World, free and general education has been the slogan of all leftist student movements in the postwar period. The policies of the current authorities guarantee that the mood of the students will only grow more radical.


Of course, Russia is very far from the events of May 1968 in Paris, which shook the foundations of Western society 30 years ago. In any case, Russia has always found its own way. But it should not be forgotten that its society has been harnessed in for a long time. The question is how and in which direction it will go.


Boris Kagarlitsky is a researcher at the Academy of Sciences Institute for Comparative Politics. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.