The first of September is a day of celebrations in Russia. It’s traditionally the first day of the new school year. Children come to school in their very best clothes, carrying bouquets of flowers for their teachers. The younger girls tie white ribbons in their intricately braided hair. The day is officially known as the day of knowledge, and pupils often have general lessons on values – like the importance of world peace – rather than subject-specific classes.
This year, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself will be giving such a lesson, the newspaper Kommersant has reported, citing sources in the government administration. Putin will most likely be at a school in the city of Yaroslavl, but his “open lesson” will reportedly be shown in other schools in cities across the country, as well as on social media, the local St. Petersburg online site Fontanka reports. The broadcast will also include talks from various Russian heads of business. According to Fontanka, a half an hour in the schedule is mysteriously marked as the “main lecture” – presumably Putin’s big moment. Kommersant reports that Putin may talk about the future of Russia.
“Historical significance of President Putin”
Putin has visited a school every year on September 1. But this visit comes just ahead of regional elections in September as well as the official launch of the presidential election campaign. The election itself is slated for March 2018. “Of course this is part of his campaign, there is no doubt about that,” Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Institute in Moscow says.
Baunov points out that Putin’s tactic at public meetings and his annual call-in show has changed over his years in power. He used to use them to ” show his effectiveness, the fact that he understands people’s problems and can solve them effectively.” Though the details of what Putin will be talking about at his lesson are unclear, Baunov sees this event as part of a new trend. Putin has begun to use public meetings to allow the “people to understand the president himself – his historical significance, his [moral] rectitude, his views of the world.” Usually it is personalities like cosmonauts, war veterans or well-known actors who teach lessons like the one Putin seems to be planning at the beginning of the year, the analyst adds.
A push for Russia’s young generation
Still, it seems Putin is particularly keen on connecting with Russia’s younger generation ahead of upcoming elections. It’s not the first time he has made a special effort to address young people recently. In July, Putin visited Sirius, a school for gifted children in Sochi, for a question and answer session. The meeting was broadcast live on state television. The questions were largely apolitical, touching on topics like Putin’s private life and hobbies, his childhood memories. Putin mused that his “working days usually end so late, that I don’t have time for Instagram” and told listeners that his three main values are “life itself” as well as “love and freedom.”
Opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations let thousands to protest this year
That question and answer session garnered particular attention because it took place just a month after thousands of people took to the streets across Russia to protest corruption on March 26, 2017. Many of those demonstrating were young, and many had heeded the call of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who had accused Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of mass corruption in a viral YouTube video. Navalny is also planning on running for president in 2018, though it remains unclear whether he will be allowed – due to a criminal case against him. There was no direct mention of Navalny’s corruption accusations in Putin’s meeting with pupils at Sirius, though the president was asked about his assessment of “certain opposition personalities” at one point.
Still, Putin’s visit to the school in Sochi “looked a bit like an answer to the youth protest in Moscow and the provinces,” says Carnegie’s Alexander Baunov. But he explains the meeting in July also made Putin look a bit out of touch. “He wanted to present himself as a mature, adult mentor, but it simply seemed that he wasn’t talking to them about what they wanted to hear.”
Social media users were keen to compare how many views Putin’s conversation with students in Sochi got on the state television channel NTV’s YouTube channel with the views one of Alexei Navalny’s videos on his own YouTube channel got.
A lesson, not a dialogue
Carnegie’s Baunov thinks that perhaps getting through to young people isn’t Putin’s only goal. After all, this meeting is billed as a lesson, rather than a dialogue – even if the president will reportedly also take questions.
Hundreds were of protesters, including young people, were arrested during anti-corruption protests
Instead, perhaps the government is trying to change the young generation’s image. “The wish to hold an open lesson can be seen as a response to the discussion about whether the Kremlin has lost control of young people,” Baunov says. “Putin is showing that there is also another type of young people – upstanding young people, creative young people. People who don’t find their fulfillment in protest.”
And recent polling ahead of the upcoming elections confirms that a majority of young people are not as anti-Kremlin as they might have seemed in Navalny’s anti-corruption protests. In a survey published on August 29, the government pollster FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) found that 65 percent of people surveyed have a largely positive attitude towards the president – including 58 percent of those between 18 and 31.