Q&A: A Historian Immersed Himself in Russia's 'Fascist' Online Groups. Here's What He Found.
Dr. Ian Garner spoke to dozens of young Russians, many of whom have become hardcore nationalists since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Dr. Ian Garner is a historian and analyst of Russian culture and war propaganda based in Kingston, Ontario. He is the author of the new book, Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia’s Fascist Youth. (Russian authorities use the letter "Z" as a military symbol for the invasion of Ukraine.) For the book, he immersed himself on social media sites where young Russians spend their time and managed to talk with many of them about their hyperbolic support for the War in Ukraine. He warns that whoever controls the Kremlin or however the war turns out, these nationalist impulses will remain part of the country's politics for decades to come. Garner is also the author of Stalingrad Lives: Stories of Combat and Survival. He studied at the Universities of Bristol and Toronto and at the St Petersburg State Conservatory. We spoke last week over Zoom. Our conversation follows, condensed and slightly edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: Describe the Z Generation. Who are they?
Ian Garner: The Z Generation is a younger generation of Russians. It starts around the younger members of our Generation Z. People today who are 21-22 years old and younger, and the only memory they have is of living under Putin. They're a generation that has come of age since this patriotic shift in 2012 towards a much more hardline ideological policy, and at the same time, a crackdown on dissent. This is a generation that's only really experienced a world in which the hope of a Europeanized, more liberal Russia never existed. They've always grown up under the watchwords of war, the idea of a threatening West surrounding Russia, and always ready to go on the attack. The government has been deliberately promoting [this idea]; increasing numbers of children buy into it.
LJ: Do you have any idea of how numerous the Z Generation is among young Russians?
IG: I don't think we have an extreme nationalist majority, even amongst children. We do have substantial amounts. It's impossible to say, as opinion polling on Russia is always difficult. You would think that young Russians would look at the war and reject it, deciding they don't want to have anything to do with it. That's generally the narrative we're hearing in the Western media.
However, the many youth groups that the government has founded over the last five or 10 years are growing in membership very rapidly. The Youth Army, which is probably the most prominent and best funded from the government's perspective, has grown from a million to 1.3 million members in less than a year in 2022. It's continued growing since then. When I spoke to Youth Army officers, they told me that they couldn't keep up with demand. They didn't have the resources to actually kick people out and organize the kinds of events that they were meant to be organizing because they had too many people joining. What I found in the book is that there were a number of reasons for joining. Sometimes parental pressure, sometimes social pressure, sometimes pressure from teachers or schools, but there were a great many kids joining because they wanted to belong to something, they wanted to belong to a group where they felt that they could find some sense of self-realization. In that sense, the motivation isn't really very different from what you might see coming from any Western teenager who's looking for the same kind of opportunities for themselves.
“What is fascist about the regime today is it teaches young people that war is peace. In order to achieve peace, you constantly have to engage in a state of warfare such that war almost becomes its own logic.”
LJ: One reason why somebody might join an anti-war organization as a young person is to get a sense of belonging, but it seems here that people are going in the other direction.
IG: As the state created this myriad of youth groups, if you are a teenager and want to be involved in a community with other young people, you have to go through the state channels.
The government has been cutting down on opportunities to do other things. When I spoke to young Russians who were more interested in finding places to oppose the war or simply not participate in state projects, they told me about these internal psychological battles they were waging with themselves: the fear of being watched, of being found out, of the idea that somehow they were struggling to remake themselves and fit in with the state's narratives, but felt they couldn't. Often because they were a person of color, and therefore, not an ethnic white Russian, or they were queer, and therefore can never live up to the state's ideal of so-called traditional family values. These people struggle to find other people to bond with, as the government stamps down on the opposition, before they even get a chance to go out and find alternate cultures and subcultures.
LJ: How did you reach the members of the Z Generation? Who did you end up speaking to?
IG: I spoke to somewhere between 50 and 60 people for the book. I took an ethnographic approach by immersing myself in the online groups that young people would join in. Wherever they sit on the war, young Russians, just like young people in the West, are living entirely online lives using TikTok, VKontakte [a Russian equivalent to Facebook], YouTube, which is still freely accessible. This is how they construct their identity. This is how they communicate with their peers. This is how they make friends and interact with society. I hung out in these groups, and I reached out to many hundreds of people. It was much harder to get the anti-war Russians to talk than the pro-war Russians. In a sense, that's not surprising. The anti-war Russians are afraid of being fined, jailed, or being pilloried in public.
But the sheer enthusiasm of the pro-war crowd tells us something about the society: those loud voices are going to drown out the opposing voices in the years to come. They are going to skew the public political discourse towards the position that is more extreme. If young people who oppose the war can't find other people to speak with, can't find the language to speak, or are so afraid that they fall silent and they won't speak to anyone even anonymously using all the security protocols which I promised, then how are they going to mount an opposition? How are they going to even discuss the idea of an opposition in the next five or 10 years?
LJ: You describe a young woman named Alina. Can you describe how you came into contact with her and what her worldview is?
IG: I discovered Alina on one of the more extreme nationalist groups. They all have "Z" in their names. In these places, people post all sorts of hyperbolic memes that are often racist towards Ukrainians: depicting them as pigs, or as stupid as vermin. There was a lot of anti-black racism in these groups, tied into the image of America, and anti-LGBTQ propaganda -- all of these are synonymous enemies for people in these groups.
I discovered Alina working through the members of the group. She is 20, so she is still very young. We got talking; she was okay with speaking so long as I kept her anonymous. Alina's worldview encapsulates the Putinist project of late. Everything she posts has veered rapidly in the last year, from being apathetic -- just posting pictures of vacations, makeup, fashion, ordinary teenage pursuits -- and now her entire life has been consumed by this online community that she has joined. All she writes about online now is this hyper-nationalist vision of what it means to be Russian, that Russia really is on the brink of destruction and may have to engage in this apocalyptic war to save itself. When I spoke to her, it was quite surprising how rapidly the change had happened. What I found as I unpacked similar stories is that typically, people had a sort of an awakening; a moment where things clicked for them and they turned from a path of openness to a path of being closed.
LJ: Are any of the people who you spoke with putting their money where their mouth is and fighting in this war? Russia is mobilizing huge numbers of men to go to the front.
IG: There are two cases I can talk about. First, I spoke to a guy in his late 20s, who had a liberal background in Moscow, and got a degree late in life in media production. As soon as he could, he volunteered to go off to Ukraine to work for the state media. We've seen this raft of military bloggers become popular, and this guy Vlad pictures himself as somebody who could become that sort of figure. He talks about himself as an information warrior. Historically speaking, going back to the 19th century, Russia perceives its media operatives on the front lines as being equivalent to soldiers. They get the status of veterans; they are talked about as participants and not just witnesses of the war. That was certainly true of World War II, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and again today.
The other case that I can tell you about is a young boy called Nikita who lives out in the provinces not too far from the border of Ukraine, and he joined the Youth Army a few years ago. He saw his friends joining up and thought he could do that, too, just a way to join your local youth club. He left the Youth Army a year ago. And he's now 18-19. And he still hasn't signed the contract. But he's talking about becoming a contract soldier and going to the front, making good money.
In tandem with the ideological and military preparation that children are getting in schools, there is the lure of a good salary, especially for boys like Nikita from the provinces. Even though they've heard the rumors that maybe those salaries aren't paid on time, better maybe get a big salary tomorrow than stick around home and get a bad salary. That's the motivation for boys like Nikita, but he still hasn't actually signed the paper.
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LJ: You use the word fascism to describe the Z Generation. Why?
IG: Lots of people will have a knee-jerk reaction to my use of the term fascism, and I absolutely accept it. I think we scholars might at some point come up with a better term than fascism to describe what's happening in Russia today. I am more than open to rethinking my use of the term over time. Some have proposed the term "Rashism." I'm deeply uncomfortable with that, because I think it signals that there is something about Russians that is genetically predisposed to violence, war, and hatred. I absolutely don't buy that line of thinking. For me, violence is constructed by people in Russia. That is and has been a co-creation of both the state and the Russian people. But that can be changed.
In my eyes, what is fascist about the regime today is it teaches young people that war is peace. I borrow that from the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco. In order to achieve peace, you constantly have to engage in a state of warfare such that war almost becomes its own logic. The war can never end.
Who do we wage war against in a fascist regime? Typically, people were told that their people have been infected with some disease. This is the language that is used today to describe Ukraine and Ukrainians. Putin and his propagandists have been using it. By cutting off the tumor by destroying it, somehow the body politic can be restored to full health. That's what Russians are told: if we just destroy these Ukrainians, who are somehow infected with the disease of Westernism, Nazism, Jewishness, or "transgenderism," that Russia will become whole and free. When it does so, Russia will be able to live in a utopian state that existed in the past. But as it's always under fascism, [this is] a mythical past that never really existed. And in today's Russia that means alluding to a past combining elements of the Soviet and czarist era, as well as imagined medieval folklore. These things have never really existed in the way that they're presented today. They certainly have never existed together; Tsarism and Bolshevism are inherently incompatible.
LJ: Is the enthusiasm for the war still there, even though it's turning into a stalemate? Russia didn't capture Kyiv in three days; it's not the it's not the sugar high that Putin wanted.
IG: The rally around the flag effect has died down. You will see that in just about every war that's been waged in human history; the research is pretty conclusive. Everybody's become a bit more muted.
I continue to perceive a heightened sense of emotion; this feeling that something important is happening. Even as enthusiasm for the War in Ukraine as it is being conducted today dwindles, enthusiasm for a war, a big war, a war that sets Russia against the West against its historical enemies -- of which the Ukraine conflict is seen to be just one small part by this nationalist crowd -- that enthusiasm is not dwindling, if anything keeps growing.
If you believe the propaganda, the frustrations associated with the War in Ukraine are that the West is engaging in some sort of underhanded warfare in Ukraine, funding biolabs, sending weapons, and now attacking the Kremlin with drones. Therefore, this [war] has been wrapped into this much bigger sense of something historic happening in the world. That sort of energy is still present in the nationalist groups, whereas I think it is all but completely dead in the opposition groups, even as enthusiasm across the nation seems to be dwindling for the war. We haven't seen enthusiasm for opposition groups grow in any sort of inverse correlative effect.
LJ: There's a lot of discussion over how much longer Putin will last because he has pro-war critics like Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin. How loyal is the Z Generation to Putin, versus Russia more broadly.
IG: I don't know what's going to happen next. Nobody really knows. We're all back to the Soviet era games of Kremlinology of trying to imagine what's behind a drawn curtain and the curtain stays firmly shut.
Putin isn't essential to the creation and perpetuation of the system in the beliefs that I've talked about. Putin is not a demigod as Stalin or Hitler were. When Putin goes, these beliefs that children are being pumped full of today will in some way remain, perhaps not in the fullness that the government is pumping them out right now. But I suspect that the mindset of today's children tomorrow will be that Russia is being cheated; Russia is surrounded by enemies; Russia is filled with traitors.
I do deeply worry that in five years, 10 years, 20 years, we will see a revolutionary movement who will [look to] blame the failures of Russia -- economic hardship, demographic collapse, and international humiliation due to Ukraine -- on the outside. That means once again, looking to blame ethnic minorities, queer people, transgender people, Ukrainians, Balts, Kazakhs, who knows? According to this logic, the answer wouldn't be to blame Russians themselves.
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