Russia’s problem, says a common meme, is the survival of Soviet modes of thought among the ‘Sovoks’ and ‘vatniki’ who make up the mass of the population, especially those born in the Soviet Union. Given time, a new generation will grow up with a different mentality – more liberal, more Western, more democratic. At that point, Russia will finally complete its transition into a truly European society.
With this in mind, pundits have leapt upon the observation that last Sunday’s protests in Russia contained a large number of young people. ‘Putin’s romance with the nation is coming to an end’, wrote Yevgenia Albats in the Washington Post, adding that:
For the first time, a generation that was born after the fall of the Soviet Union – a generation that has no personal experience of totalitarian rule – came out to demonstrate. This generation doesn’t watch the Russian propaganda channels that tell of the great Putin and the horrible West. Its members live on social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Vkontakte and YouTube. … What we are seeing now is that young people born after the end of the Soviet Union have reached an age when they want to influence politics in the country. … we suddenly have cause for hope. On March 26, the future of Russia showed itself on the streets of cities across the nation.
‘Young Russians are fed up’, said CNN, quoting a young geologist arrested in the Moscow protests, who said that Russian youth ‘want to be in the future, they want to live in a different country’. Similarly Reuters remarked that, ‘Protests across Russia on Sunday marked the coming of age of a new adversary for the Kremlin: a generation of young people driven not by the need for stability that preoccupies their parents but by a yearning for change.’ ‘The country’s youth is slipping through the state’s fingers’, said Open Democracy. And so on, and so forth.
And yet, just very recently the punditocracy was of the belief that Russia’s youth was the bedrock of the government’s support. Reporting on Sunday’s demonstrations, Julia Ioffe noted that ‘a huge number of those who came out Sunday were very, very young’, and concluded that ‘something had clearly changed’. But just a year ago, the same Julia Ioffe wrote an article for National Geographic entitled ‘Why Many Young Russians See a Hero in Vladimir Putin. ‘More than any other generation, they are proud of their country and its stature in the world,’ she wrote. And likewise, the Washington Post which this Tuesday published Albats’ piece declaring that ‘a new generation is finding its voice’, had previously run an article focusing on young Russians’ support for Vladimir Putin, and describing the Russian president as ‘a role model for young people grasping for a leader’.
So which is it? Are young Russians turning against the state, or do they idolize Vladimir Putin and ‘more than any other generation are proud of their country’? Will a new generation liberalize Russia, or not? To answer that, we need to move beyond anecdotal stories and look at the hard data of sociological surveys. These are quite revealing.
For instance, sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya surveyed young Russians in 26 cities. She concluded that ‘there is widespread cynicism among Russia’s young people’, but ‘despite their alienation, most young Russians are not clamoring for democratic change.’ She found also that:
- About 25 percent of those polled consider themselves “liberals” or “democrats,” but relatively few people understand what those terms mean. Many respondents would like to see a nationalist, monarchist or anarchist party.
- The younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is to believe that Russia is a great power.
- Putin remains the most popular politician among younger Russians. …
- Russia’s young people are more inclined to support “the complete destruction of the system”—even by revolution—than gradual change. But many consider revolution difficult to achieve.
- Young people put little stock in the opposition or anti-Kremlin leaders such as Alexei Navalny.
Kryshtanovskaya concludes that ‘there is potential support among young people for a wide range of outcomes, not just a Russia that is pro-Western and democratic.’
Interestingly, other surveys suggest that young Russians are more optimistic about their country than older people. One poll, for instance, concludes that, ‘those ages 18 to 29, are the most likely to hold positive views about the economy’. This perhaps helps in part explain why Putin’s popularity is higher among young Russians than among older ones. As the Levada Centre noted, in a 2014 poll ‘Eighteen-to-24-year-olds … backed Putin more than any other age bracket’. Later polls have shown a similar picture. Julia Ioffe admits, ‘Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 approve of him [Putin] at a higher rate than any other age group: 88 percent.’ This hardly suggests that Russian youth are turning against their political leadership en masse.
As for more general political attitudes, Pew Global concludes that, ‘Older Russians ages 50 and older are more willing to say NATO is a major military threat (55%) than Russians ages 18 to 29 (43%)’, but also says that, ‘Nearly equal numbers of men and women and young (18-29) and old (50+) think homosexuality is morally unacceptable.’ Thus while, younger Russians may be less hostile to the West than their parents and grandparents, they are not obviously more socially liberal.
All in all, therefore, sociological data suggests that on the whole young Russians are politically apathetic, but in so far as they do have political opinions they are in fact more patriotic than their elders, more optimistic about the future, more supportive of the country’s president, and just as socially conservative. The hype about youth participation in last Sunday’s protests is probably just that – hype.