No Illusions: The Voices of Russia’s Future Leaders, by Ellen Mickiewicz. Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 264, £20.49; ISBN: 9780199977833. Language: English.
The spring and summer of 2017 saw a new wave of protests in Russia. Compared to the 2012 discontent, these protests had a broader set of claims and a greater reach, with over 100 cities joining Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Observers have also noted the visible and vocal presence of younger Russians, including students and school pupils. Although they were not a majority, these youths appeared on front-pages and in interviews, becoming the face of the dissent. Should we be surprised? Do we know what the young Russians are doing and saying in the space between social networks and city streets?
Ellen Mickiewicz’s book, No Illusions: The Voices of Russia’s Future Leaders, takes a deep dive into the minds of Russia’s youth. Though written before the latest swell of dissent, it presents a rich tapestry of the choices, interests and politics of young Russian men and women. Based on focus groups with 108 students from Russia’s ‘three most elite universities’, the book tells the stories of a youth that is urban, educated and pervasively connected. This sampling choice is a limitation as it leaves some of the less cosmopolitan young citizens out of the picture. Nonetheless, this selective analysis reveals valuable detail about the lives and aspirations of young Russians.
Mickiewicz also considers the diverse information diet that differentiates ‘future leaders’ from their modern counterparts. Though the internet is not the main focus of the book, it is a pervasive theme: there are discussions of networked life in almost every chapter, and Chapter 4 is devoted to ‘life on the Russian internet’ in its entirety. In this chapter, Mickiewicz argues that internet use is a key factor that sets the youth in Russia apart from the current generation of powerful elites. However, she never quite zeroes in on the particular affordances of the web that make this difference possible. Focus group participants are online constantly: they consume information from multiple sources and praise the internet as both, a space where they have more control over their identities (p. 44), and a platform where they can engage in debates and discussions (p. 106). At the same time, young Russians are grappling with issues of trust, intimacy and self-presentation online, where their personas ‘splinter’ as they move between contexts and spheres of influence (p. 221). And yet, the book never arrives at a succinct expression of how embedded the digital networked connections are into young Russians’ everyday lives, and how enmeshed the online and offline really are.
Throughout, Mickiewicz repeatedly refers to the internet as ‘somewhere else’, as a space separate from the ‘real world’ and therefore, free from the pressures and constraints of material realities in modern Russia. She talks about the ‘gulf between offline and online stakes’ for her student respondents (p. 109) and claims they have ‘shifted to living online’ (p. 221), as if the hierarchies of power in Russia do not transcend the digital/material divide. In fact, we see Russia increasingly turning to networked authoritarianism– a regime where pervasive surveillance, censorship and a climate of manipulation and fear permeate the lives of citizens both offline and online. Today, one is as likely to face criminal charges for street protesting as for reposting a cartoon on VK (VKontakte). The contexts that were previously separate are becoming fluid and adaptable rather than splintered, as young people learn to live in spaces and societies that aren’t just offline or online, but increasingly both.
The book’s attempts to frame the internet in Russia as distinct from reality, an idealized place where the minds of young elites can be nurtured and stretched is, perhaps, an expression of hope for some kind of safe space where future leaders can emerge. Instead, Runet today mirrors all the political and social complexities Russia represents, as digital media and internet infrastructure are very much a part of the power vertical. The online lives of young Russians are deeply embedded in the offline, creating a fascinating canvas upon which political change and resistance are inscribed in new ways. Russia’s youth is more tech-savvy and more connected, but it also has ‘no illusions’ about those in power and is aware of the risks of living connected lives in a restrictive regime, so it certainly has the best chance of achieving change, however slow that change might be.