In the context of European Union programmes, youth participation in democratic society is seen from two perspectives: how to influence decision-making processes, and how civic engagement/youth activism takes place. This understanding largely overlaps with the definition of youth participation as outlined in the Revised European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life. While making links with the reality of the pandemic, we can say with certainty that we have witnessed both civic activity and youth activism. But to what extent has the first aspect, namely the impact on decision-making processes, been realised?
Young people’s activism during the pandemic was both collective and individual, but the traditional media space in Russia (TV, radio, newspapers, either printed or online) mostly recorded collective actions supported by the state and often initiated from above, while horizontal and less pathos-like cases of help and support, small local examples of youth participation, remained less noticed and lacked greater recognition.
Most of the examples of youth activism that I reviewed were in the form of volunteering. This area of youth work and youth policy has a special status in the state youth policy of the Russian Federation, and attention has been intensively paid to it within the last 10-12 years. The strong impulse for this move was given by the biggest world sport events held in Russia. During the pandemic it was logical to use the already accumulated potential, expertise and resources. Moreover, support to volunteers was included in the pack of amendments to the Russian Constitution, the most important document of the country, which was approved on 1 July 2020 by a contested popular vote. A couple of days before the vote (26 June), the president of the country Vladimir Putin had a televised live meeting with the participants of the campaign #МыВместе (We are together). During the conversation the most politically neutral dimensions of volunteering were mentioned such as: local support to those in need, including the elderly, involvement in fire-fighting, redistribution of relief supplies, “shopping cart for the poorest people” etc. It is clear that volunteering in Russia not only has social, but also political dimensions.
Volunteer centres of the dominant ruling Russian political party “United Russia” were created in each region of the Russian Federation, and the volunteer programmes “Medical Volunteers”, “Volunteer Psychologists”, “Victory Volunteers”, “Russian Student Units”, #StudentReady and others were strengthened or launched from scratch with state support.
“Medical Volunteers” provided assistance within the framework of their future specialisation in hospitals, and assisted in the reshaping of hospitals to treat coronavirus patients. Volunteer psychologists worked on public support hotlines.
A relatively new occurrence is the rapid development of digital volunteerism. For example, at MIREA – Russian Technological University, more than 50 students became digital volunteers, assisting lecturers in organising the distance learning process, and answering the University’s hotline.
The space and support for youth participation was provided by state institutions, large non-governmental organisations, political parties, and associated structures, as well as individuals, local small initiative groups, NGOs, and businesses related to youth or children.
A major Russian action #МыВместе (We are together) was launched with the support of the Ministry of Health. Headquarters of #МыВместе (We are together) were opened in all 85 regions of Russia. First of all, the project created a space where it was possible to place a request for assistance, as well as offer it. Information services were provided, mainly on the free opportunities of culture, education, health and entertainment during the period of self-isolation. On 24/09/2020, the official web-page of the campaign reported on 111985 volunteers being involved and 3 450 646 people who received assistance.
Electronic resources were launched, for example, in Moscow the portal “I am indoors”, which informed people about charity and volunteer initiatives from the state, NGOs and business, as well as the Moscow project “We will act further” – a map of mutual assistance. Thanks to the map, volunteers were able to help people who found themselves in a difficult life situation.
Many community-based organisations, NGOs and movements have also strengthened their volunteer activities and moved some programmes online, making them available to a wider audience.
Higher education institutions have become more active. First they offered assistance to their employees over 65, but the support was not only limited to them: the Higher School of Economics (Moscow), Polytechnic (St Petersburg), Yaroslavl State University (Yaroslavl), S.A. Esenin Ryazan State University, Russian Technological University MIREA, and others.
The first target group for which action was taken was doctors, nurses and other medical actors. A non-profit, spontaneous group of 3D-print enthusiasts “Makers vs. COVID-19” produced and handed over personal protective equipment to doctors free of charge. Fundraising, collecting of personal protective equipment for hospitals, carpool volunteering, preparation of lunches and delivering them to hospitals for medical staff – these and other actions took place in almost all regions of the country.
Recognition of medical workers’ work was also carried out through creative formats. For example, in early May in the centre of Moscow, young activists drew and painted several pictures of physicians in the image of heroes, guardian angels and characters of ancient myths. Several waves of flash mobs #Geroes, #Thank you-Volunteers, #Thank you-Physicians took place through social networks.
The second major social group to become the beneficiary of youth activism was the elderly people, being the most vulnerable to the virus, and others who were in quarantine or severe self-isolation.
Volunteers delivered food, medicine and basic necessities, walked pets (for example, the movement “Walk the dog”), and provided household assistance. Online volunteers provided emotional assistance to lonely elderly people, communicating with them over the internet and on the phone. For the elderly, some conducted distance learning, and legal consultancy. In Tatarstan, the students of Symphony Orchestra of Kazan Music College held several concerts under the windows of veterans, and also played for the elderly in closed institutions across the country as part of the project “Grandma. Online”.
Unusual beneficiaries during this period were pets from shelters. Public organisations working in this field organised fundraising to purchase food, helped residents in isolation to adopt a pet from those who had previously lived in shelters, and collected food for animal shelters (for example, the project #grechkashering to help animals in shelters of Moscow and the Moscow region).
The experience of volunteering to help schoolchildren in distance learning and their parents is interesting. Thus, students of Ryazan State University, named after S.A. Esenin, helped schoolchildren who were experiencing difficulties in distance learning. The youth of St Petersburg initiated a collection of gadgets for poor families so that children could study online.
The list of cases can be continued. In general, the experience of volunteering during the pandemic is unique and requires deep reflection and analysis. It was a rapid, almost urgent humanitarian response of modern society to a difficult situation, which filled the gaps of the existing social care system.
Neither all volunteering, nor assistance and support to a neighbour, can be attributed to the practices of solidarity. The report “4thought for solidarity” says that volunteering is one of the most important solidarity practices. At the same time, it can be questioned all volunteering is driven by solidarity, or if it creates solidarity as an effect.
The correlation between volunteerism and youth participation also requires reflection. Is volunteering always an example of youth participation? Under what conditions does it become such?
It is thought that in some cases, consciously or unconsciously, volunteering is presented as youth participation; sometimes reasonably, sometimes not. This is because volunteerism, especially in the social, sport or cultural spheres, is the “safest” format of youth participation for the state, which is also the easiest to supervise/control. Moreover, volunteering creates undisputed and unquestionable role models; let us call them – modern “hero-altruists” like Robin Hood, in whose interest it is to help those in need. This may explain the deep interest of state policy in supporting volunteerism, besides, of course, the positive intentions that it has. But volunteering is not the only form of youth participation. It would be unfair to limit and narrow this understanding.
Within the framework of volunteering, young people may have more or less strong decision-making capabilities, but strategic management in the above examples is often left to the stakeholder – the state or the leadership staff of an NGO; while “real” youth participation implies a redistribution of power and changes in traditional control and management schemes. In this regard, the answer to the question of whether volunteering during the pandemic was a vivid example of youth participation, is unlikely to be straightforward.
Still, I would like to write about one initiative that looks very different from the numerous cases of volunteering described above, and might be presented as an example of strong youth participation.
The project “Campus on Quarantine” was initiated by several student and human rights NGOs. It is dedicated to the protection of housing rights of students living in Moscow dormitories and experiencing difficulties due to various quarantine restrictions.
Human rights organisations (International Human Rights Group “Agora”, Moscow Helsinki Group, Human Rights Postcard), student trade unions and initiative groups (trade union “WE ARE Moscow Youth”, trade union “YOUNG”, initiative group of MSTU named after N.E. Bauman), youth media, student media of the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow State University and a number of other universities came together through a hotline and responded to violations of students’ and human rights.
The project revealed large-scale problems related to access to university dorms. It was found that students face restrictions of their rights with minimal opportunities for their protection: educational institutions establish additional restrictions on access to dormitories for students who live there. These range from the imposition of curfews, mandatory 14-day self-isolation outside the dormitory, to an explicit ban on returning to the dormitory for an indefinite period of time, and a full lockdown ban on leaving and entering the campus, without any local act.
A report on rights violations was made at the meeting of the Youth Public Expert Council under the Commissioner for Human Rights in Moscow. At the meeting the commissioner noted that the topics were important and gave public assurance that her staff would carefully examine all documents and promptly send the necessary requests. Usually, at a subsequent meeting, the commissioner reports on work done on the subject of the previous meeting. Taking into account the summer holiday period, the process is on hold for the moment.
In my opinion, the project is an indisputable example of youth participation, which has a horizontal management structure, which is initiated by young people, dedicated to the actual problem of the legal protection of youth.
The project offered interested students to:
Both in society and in the professional community there is currently not much critical reflection on the experience of volunteerism or/and youth participation in general during the Coronavirus. Some attempts to map this experience were made however; for example, through the Round table.
The lack of professional reflection can partly be explained due to the urgency of the measures taken. But if such a discussion and analysis does not take place now, there is a risk that the experience obtained will not turn into lessons learnt.
Measures taken by the state, NGO sector, business, to the stakeholders during the Coronavirus period, were most often not directly aimed at supporting youth participation. Moreover, if prior to the pandemic, stakeholders in the region were not worried about youth participation and did not dedicate any conscious actions and strategies to strengthen it, then in the midst of the pandemic this did not happen either. It does not mean that youth participation was not there, it means that the stakeholders did not target it as a goal. Nevertheless, some grassroots unstructured initiatives of youth participation not only appeared, but were also successfully replicated in other places. The “Campus on Quarantine” project is vivid evidence of how youth participation can manifest itself in response to an urgent need within a short period of time, and within the framework of a critical situation.
The experience also revealed a number of problem areas in the youth participation environment. For example, the state only provided support and created conditions for a certain type of youth participation: volunteering, and priority was given to unquestionable topics and groups (the elderly, doctors, children, animals), while a number of other less favourable forms of youth participation (for example, related to legal protection during the pandemic or “risk groups”) did not receive either informational, financial or methodological support. Another problem is the dominance of a “positive agenda” (sometimes artificial) regarding youth participation. Other questions also arise as to the preconditions for youth participation, role of the state etc.
What conclusions and suggestions can we draw to further shape the ideas and concept of youth participation?
First, to propose that key stakeholders hold a discussion/reflection on the intersection between volunteering and youth participation at the conceptual level. It should question whether any kind of volunteering is youth participation, and which requirements are obligatory to follow in order to transform volunteering into youth participation practice.
Secondly, to rethink and redefine the role, place and form of youth participation in democratic life in crisis situations such as the pandemic. What does it become: emergency aid to close the gaps left by the state, a free labour force, an instrument for political or propaganda purposes, charity, humanitarian missions or something else? How can the values and ideas of youth participation be protected in situations where basic human rights are at risk, and fear and panic dominate?
Third, the positive practices of youth participation that emerged during this period require both recognition, critical reflection and replication. Therefore space should be provided for this.