The name given to Russia’s so-called Putin Generation is a bit ironic. For while the segment of Russia’s population composed of young adults may have grown up knowing only Vladimir Putin as the leader, politics – and the Russian president – are low priorities.
Experts, however, have spent a great deal of time trying to understand the moods, views, and preferences of this enigmatic demographic in search of keys to Russia’s future. Because this new generation has no memory of the Soviet era of their grandparents, nor of the post-Soviet corruption and kleptomania of the 1990s of their parents.
Despite its emphasis on Communist ideology, the Soviet life experienced by their grandparents was tense, marked by enforced conformity and a daily struggle to satisfy basic consumer needs. That gave way to the desperate 1990s and the world that shaped their parents, a time when people struggled to survive, to reinvent themselves after the disintegration of Soviet economic life.
Instead, this generation, at least among those young people that the Monitor interviewed, seems to have a sense of optimism about life and a desire to reach beyond simple material security and do something to improve the world around them. That’s something relatively new in Russia.
“I have much bigger ambitions than them”
Despite his ubiquity in their lives, Mr. Putin is not a symbol or icon to his namesake generation, many experts say, but merely a flashy pop-sociology way to demarcate them without taking into account social class, education, gender, and other critical markers.
“They may have spent their whole lives with Putin as president, but I don’t think this has shaped them into some distinct ‘Putin Generation,’” says Elizaveta Sivak, a sociologist at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “For them the most important thing is to communicate with their peers, follow their individual interests, concentrate on important life choices. Putin is somewhere in the background. There are very few who think expressly about politics, issues of democracy, and so on.”
Yet everyone agrees that they are different from their forebears and differ among themselves. Only 1 in 5 of the nearly 10% of Russians in this age bracket has the slightest interest in politics, few trust any form of authority, and most are absorbed in family and close circles of friends, according to the most exhaustive survey of the demographic.
They universally draw their information from the vast global internet but without any common methodology. Disinterest in religion is growing among them. Half see themselves as “citizens of the world,” and yet almost two-thirds believe that a “strong leader” is the best defender of the common good.
The contrast between their experience and that of their parents is stark – and they are keenly aware of it.
“My parents talk a lot about the ’90s, how there was no food, no money, crime all around, and how much better things are now,” says Alina Poroshina, a political science student from Novosibirsk, in Siberia. She says she’s been lucky to attend a higher educational institute in Moscow, and she appreciates what her parents say.
“But I have much bigger ambitions than them,” she says. “Everyone around me has grown up feeling the insecurity communicated by our parents, the need to get a career, to sacrifice in order to get ahead. I am lucky, because higher education is expensive, and many peoples’ parents can’t afford it.” As a hobby, she takes part in a modern ballet dance group.
Her desire to insert herself into the existing system, not overturn it, seems typical among young people. Despite the widening crackdown on what the Kremlin sees as politically active and foreign-supported nongovernmental groups, the space for nonpolitical civic action remains surprisingly open, at least compared with the Soviet deepfreeze that Russian society is still emerging from.
“In Russia today, civil society is more active than in the past,” says Ms. Sivak. “Things have really changed in this respect. There has been a proliferation of volunteer groups, community organizations, other groups that want to change something specific in the environment around them.”
Much has been made of youth participation in street protests organized by now-jailed anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, and most of the young Russians interviewed for this piece indicated that they were well aware of his fate. Ms. Sivak suggests that youth involvement in Russia’s sporadic street protest movements has been overestimated, and that most young people tend to be wary of all kinds of radicalism.
“There is a lot of discussion about students and street protests, but it turns out that their participation was not so numerous compared to other social groups,” she says. “In general the young people tend to look toward more evolutionary approaches.”
Ms. Poroshina, who clearly knows the political landscape, seems to exemplify that outlook.
“My goal is to become a political consultant,” she says. “First, I want to learn the shady side of it. But then, when I am aware of how it all works, I want to find ways to make it work in peoples’ interests. … The key is to convince people to get involved in what is going on around them. You often hear people saying ‘I’m not political.’ What they don’t realize is that all life is political. Every choice we make causes changes for better or for worse. There are so many ways, all around us, to get involved and make things a bit better.”
“There are lots of jobs”
Timofey Zhukov, who is in his last year of high school, typifies the education-first, career-oriented priorities that his generation seems to have inherited from their parents. He wants to be a computer programmer like his father, and spends most of his spare time at home with his devices.
“I’ve tried different things. I’m just not much interested in music, politics, or religion, like some other people,” he says. “Computer programming is a good way to go in this country. There are lots of jobs, always opening up. You can start making money just working from home on your own computer.”
The highly individual lifestyle Mr. Zhukov describes would be incomprehensible to the collectivized Soviet generation, and even parents sometimes look askance, say experts. But it’s hard to say how any of this impacts Russia’s direction, at least for now.
“The modern generation of youth is more free. They study better. They are oriented toward success,” says Natalya Zarkaya, a researcher with the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent public opinion agency. “The younger people have a higher sense of self-esteem. A lot of subjects have stopped being taboo for them. But all this happens in a narrow social layer, and doesn’t influence what’s happening in society as a whole.”
One reason Mr. Zhukov doesn’t go out much, he says, is because the Moscow suburb where he lives, Perovo, is a poor, dangerous place.
“When I see or hear a police car, I start to think something bad is going on,” he says. “I don’t break the law. But I am scared all the time. The authorities just have too much power.”
“If you want to change things, you need to do it yourself”
The only politically active person in the interviewed group is Daria Averkina, a psychology student in her early 20s. She works part time as an analyst for the New Peoples Party, a newcomer to Russia’s permitted spectrum of opposition parties that actually crossed the 5% barrier in recent elections and won 13 seats in the new State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. Funded by a cosmetics tycoon, the party puts forward a liberal, anti-bureaucratic face that appeals to many like Ms. Averkina.
“Our president isn’t eternal,” she says. “Our generation is growing up. We didn’t live in the Soviet Union, and we feel like things depend on us, not on the state. I don’t like the way things are in this country. I believe that if you want to change things, you need to do it yourself. … Many people think change is impossible. But they just don’t know their rights and possibilities. There is always a place to start.”
Soviet generations tended to marry very young, because that improved their position for jobs, housing, and other perks. Like all of the young people interviewed here, Ms. Averkina says she wants to have a family, but not necessarily soon. Other goals, like education, career, and travel should be satisfied first, she says.
Though she has traveled a lot, Ms. Averkina says she plans to remain in Russia. She’s philosophical about the Kremlin’s current strained relations with the West. “Russia wants to position itself as a leader, because it’s big and powerful. But it finds acceptance difficult,” she says. “It’s really unfortunate that we’re seen by many as an enemy. Ideally, things would be different.”
“The idea that you can do something is growing”
Much will depend on whether this upcoming generation finds any route to power and influence, or is crushed by the current wave of repression against even some permitted political opposition movements.
“The main generational contradiction in Russia is between the young and the elderly,” says Greg Yudin, a sociologist at the Higher School of Economics.
“They no longer have any common language. … The dominant attitude in Russia is to look out for yourself, because there’s nothing you can do to change things around you. But the idea that you can do something is growing,” he says. “Young people are concerned about the environment, the aggressive relations between people, the government’s disrespectful treatment of people, why are we so uncaring about the weak and dispossessed. So there is an urge for civil action, to find ways to make life more friendly and morally acceptable.
“But the elderly tend to be the elite. Putin, for example, doesn’t even use the internet. He belongs to a totally different culture. So how long that older generation plans to remain in power, and to what lengths they will go to hold on to it, is the key question.”
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