In Moscow, there is a great new political party that has gained major prominence this week: the Plant Your Butt on the Couch party.
I know, I know. You want me to write about the surprising mayoral election results, in which opposition leader Alexei Navalny suddenly got at least 27 percent, as opposed to the 15 percent he was “supposed” to get. But I am more interested in taking the long view on trends, and the pathetic voter turnout (about 30 percent) during the election is certainly indicative that, in the long run, one of the biggest challenges facing local leaders – both in the establishment and otherwise – is apathy and defeatism.
On Sunday, as voters went to the polls, election observers in Moscow were fuming on social media about just how few young people were turning up to vote. They were so upset about the old folks turning out in droves that some of them seemed downright cruel.
Socialite Bozhena Rynska, for example, upset some conservative commentators with her predictably blunt “this as-of-yet-not-extinct generation ... is making our generation suffer.” According to Rynska, Russian pensioners are “obedient” and “willing to eat up any old sh--” – and that’s a problem as far as their presence at the polls is concerned. Rynska claimed that she never harbored any antipathy toward old people before, and it was only seeing them at the polls – where most of them seemed eager to vote for pro-Kremlin incumbent Sergei Sobyanin – that suddenly made her detest them with a “terrible inner hatred.”
Considering Rynska’s general disdain of the unglamorous and fashionably challenged, it may be that merely seeing a large group of drab-looking older people offended her aesthetic sensibilities. Yet the behavior of elderly voters also deserves a closer look.
Old people in Moscow are generally not very technologically savvy, so they get their news from mostly state-owned television channels, as opposed to the Internet. They also grew up in a time when mass oppression was widespread and largely went publicly unchallenged. They are also just older – and older people tend to be more conservative as a group.
Hating them is easy, because they can’t really fight back. The elderly also remind the city’s more glamorous social butterflies that their bodies have a shelf life – and perhaps the hatred Rynska felt was really fear. She fears becoming like them – so she hates them. Makes sense to me.
What’s more interesting is the young people who just didn’t care enough to show up at the polls. It’s true that many active and politically savvy Moscow residents simply lack local registration – a bureaucratic requirement that plagues Russians who have moved away from the city of their birth – and thus are unable to vote. It’s true, but it doesn’t quite make up for the age disparity seen at the polls on Sunday.
It can be said that the younger generations are more cynical, having been born or come of age in a more turbulent, less predictable time. It may be true in part – but it doesn’t quite convince me either.
Meanwhile, a fascinating theory I’ve seen pop up around Facebook (where else?) actually blames the Internet for lack of voter turnout, especially among the young. Think about it: Constantly being online has essentially sent the message to an entire generation that they can change the world with a click of a button. See a cause you care about on Facebook? Like and share! See someone smart and admirable hanging out on Twitter? Show your support by retweeting them!
Physically showing up at the polls is a different matter entirely. Not only does it involve more effort, it involves coming into contact with life outside whatever carefully constructed social media bubble one may be floating in.
For many Russians, real life is a little too “real,” after all. It involves contact with officials who are often rude, it involves standing in lines, and it involves a lot of seemingly pointless bureaucracy. Enduring all of that on a warm Sunday afternoon in September, when one could be sitting at the dacha with a 4G modem and shopping online, or whatever else, seems to be a bit too much for some of them – for now, at least.
Hence the stunning success of the Plant Your Butt on the Couch party. May its reign be brief this time around.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.