Tag Archives: youth

Russia’s not so radical youth

One of the regular themes of the ‘Putin is doomed’ crowd is the idea that while older Russians are deeply conservative, undemocratically-minded, and deeply traumatized by their Soviet upbringing, Russian youth, brought up entirely in the post-Soviet era, are of a much more liberal inclination, deeply dissatisfied with their lot and the governing system, and thus likely to sweep away the current order as soon as they grow a little older. This isn’t based on very much other than the fact that those who attend anti-government protests in Moscow contain a large number of young people. But, as I’ve pointed out before, sociological surveys don’t provide much ammunition to support the idea of Russian youth as revolutionaries in waiting – quite the opposite, in fact. So, it’s interesting to see the results of a new survey of young Russians by the German research foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, with help from the Moscow-based Levada Centre.

The research polled 1,500 people aged 14 to 29 across Russia, and also involved focus groups. These were some of the points which emerged that I found interesting:

When asked which values were most important to them, 76% said human rights, as shown below. Similarly, another chart later in the report shows 80% of respondents saying that ‘securing rights and freedoms’ should be a priority for the national government, with lower numbers for improving the economy, reducing unemployment, providing social security, and so on (with bottom place going to ‘development of private entrepreneurship’, suggesting a lack of economic liberalism). This somewhat surprised me as previous polls that I had seen suggest that Russians of all ages are more concerned with social and economic issues than with human rights.

survey1

Much, though, depends on how rights are understood, and once you dig a bit deeper things become a bit more complicated, as shown by the next diagram:

Continue reading Russia’s not so radical youth

Young Russians for Putin

Remember all the articles a few months back, following one of Aleksei Navalny’s rallies, about how young Russians were turning against Vladimir Putin? At the time I pointed out how wrong this is – numerous surveys have shown that Russian youth are the most pro-Putin element of the Russian population, as well as the most patriotic and the most optimistic about their country’s future. It seems that the English-speaking media have finally woken up to this reality. This week, we have not just one , not just two , and not just three, but four articles pointing this out.  Let’s take a look.

First, the Washington Post’s Anton Troianovski notes that, ‘81 percent of adults approve of Putin as president – including 86 percent of Russians 18 to 24 years old. Among the age group, 67 percent told Levada they believed the country was going in the right direction, compared to 56 percent of the general public.’ Troianovski speaks to three young Russians in the city of Kurgan near the border with Kazakhstan. The prevailing mood is that their lives are better than those of their parents. They profess awareness of restrictions on their freedoms, but at the same time consider themselves freer than any previous generation. As one says, ‘There are jobs. You can do whatever you want. You can travel wherever you want. The borders are all open before you – and this truly makes me happy.’ They credit Putin for the improvements in the quality of life and fear that any attempt to overturn the existing system would result in a return to the chaos of the 1990s.

Similar themes come up in the second article, in which Wall Street Journal writers James Marson and Thomas Grove interview young Russians in the towns of Chelyabinsk and Tyumen. The tone is set by the introductory paragraph which says,

Nikita Ivlev doesn’t really follow politics. But the high-school student says he is sure that only President Vladimir Putin can manage a country as big as Russia. Anastasia Kuklina, who is studying law, values the “peace and stability” of Mr. Putin’s rule and is thrilled with new shopping malls in her hometown. Darya Yershova says Russian life is better and freer than in the past. “When we talk with our parents, they are sometimes shocked by the numerous opportunities we have today,” she says.

Marson and Grove note that, ‘Many say their lives are better than their parents.’ Material conditions have improved:

Chelyabinsk’s supermarkets and shopping malls are packed. … The young generation has broader horizons: They can travel abroad on cheap package tours to Turkey or Egypt and around one-third speak a foreign language. … A coffee-lover who wears a Vincent van Gogh pin, Ms. Yershova says her generation has much more freedom to develop and express itself than her forebears, who had more run-of-the-mill concerns amid the hardship of the 1990s.

In the third article, the Associated Press takes a slightly different line, with the headline ‘Breaking mold, some Russian youth speak out against Putin’. Author Francesca Ebel quotes a Moscow student as saying that, ‘I don’t think I have a single friend who thinks that Putin is good.’ But as Ebel then admits, ‘polls show Moscow’s metropolitan, middle-class youth are far from representative of Russia as a whole.’ Like the other authors she cites polling data showing Putin’s high level of support among youth, and adds, ‘Many young Putin supporters feel they have more opportunities in Putin’s Russia compared with their parents. “Our generation is really lucky because we can do absolutely everything that we want,” said Anna Lichaeva, 19.’

Finally, the Economist publishes a series of interviews with young Russians which provide a revealing insight into the way they think.

The first interviewee is aspiring actress Valeria Zinchenko from Moscow, who thinks that life is easier in the West, but declares that, ‘I wouldn’t want to move away from here. I’m used to the mentality. I’m proud because we have a glorious history—we have so many great people, great writers, politicians and artists. If you look at world history, we’ve had so many victories. We’re a great power.’ She notes also: ‘I wouldn’t want to see two men kissing on the street. I think it’s a violation of physics or nature. I understand that such people exist, but it’s not natural.’

Next in the Economist article is army conscript Vyacheslav Volkov, who declares his desire to become a priest once his army service ends. Volkov says:

We have a lot of people in the country these days who criticise instead of doing something. They like to shout loudly about how bad everything is here. I don’t agree. I like living here. I have everything I need. Some people say that we live poorly. I say: guys, every second person, even in villages, has an iPhone. Every other family has three cars. And you say that our lives suck?

I’m going to vote this year. I’ll lose my electoral virginity. I believe that Vladimir Putin is a great leader. Knowing the history of this country, he really pulled us out of the shitter.

‘From a biblical point of view, a wife exists for her husband,’ claims Volkov, ‘The husband is the one the whole family hangs on, and the wife is there to help him.’

Third in the Economist is Abubakr Azaev, a Muslim from Dagestan. Azaev comments that ‘Religion plays the central role in my life.’ ‘Having multiple wives is permitted in Islam–to some extent it’s Sunnah, so it’s even a desirable thing,’ he continues.

Thereafter, the article provides us with a variety of different perspectives. There’s a trainee veterinarian from Barnaul in Siberia, who’s a Navalny supporter, but rejects revolution; a student chef from Novosibirsk, who has a much positive attitude towards same-sex relationships than previous interviewees and who says he isn’t religious, but is rather at a loss when it comes to Russian history. ‘I’m not sure who Lenin was and what he did,’ he says, ‘And Stalin, was he president? I don’t know, I heard he was a really harsh guy.’ There’s a gay chemistry student from Moscow who dislikes Putin; an economics student from Murmansk who favours greater sexual equality; a girl from Dagestan who wants to leave Russia and live abroad; a student from Khimki who is thinking of voting Communist but declares that, ‘Our generation already has more opportunities than our parents. It’s obvious.’; and a law student from Murmansk who thinks that domestically things are getting worse in Russia but that ‘Putin is a strong leader. As long as he’s in power, there won’t be any attacks on us.’

The Economist article ends with Mikhail, a telecoms student in Novosibirsk, who says ‘I hope to serve in the army as a signals operator, to make a contribution to the Fatherland.’ ‘Putin is a good president,’ says Mikhail, ‘There’s nothing I don’t like about him.’

Less TV, more conservative

The anti-corruption protests in Moscow and elsewhere a few weeks ago were interpreted in many quarters as evidence that Russian youth were increasingly opposed to the ‘Putin regime’. As I pointed out at the time, the available sociological evidence doesn’t support this claim. Nevertheless, various analysts continue to believe that changing patterns of media usage will eventually work in that direction.

Part of the narrative which emerged from the protests concerned the fact that young Russians watch less TV than their parents and grandparents. According to some commentators, this means that the Russian state is losing its ability to spread its propaganda, and is therefore in danger of losing control of the population. For example, an article published today by the reliably ‘anti-regime’ Intersection Project discusses how the Russian state is waging an information war designed to create a sense that Russia is under attack from external and internal enemies, but:

Not only do young Russians predominantly access news via the Internet but they also choose to ignore the prospect of a conflict with the West. … the inevitable generational change may bring about a situation where the very idea of information warfare as a means of rallying Russian citizens against external and internal enemies will lose its former efficacy.

It is a superficially plausible thesis, but it doesn’t stand up to very close scrutiny. As the Levada Centre’s Denis Volkov argues in a recent edition of Gazeta.ru, on the basis of surveys carried out by the Centre, the fact that young Russians don’t watch as much TV as older generations doesn’t mean that they are compensating by accessing political news on the internet, let along accessing ‘liberal’ or ‘pro-Western’ news sources. They aren’t. Instead, they just aren’t accessing political news at all!

If you turn on the TV news, you get politics whether you want it or not; on the internet, you have to actively seek politics out. Many don’t bother. They use the internet to find out the sports news, to track what’s happening to their favourite celebrities, and the like, but they pay little or no attention to Russian or international politics. Consequently, Volkov says, ‘The massive rejection by youth of television in favour of the internet doesn’t signify an alternative point of view, but a low level of knowledge about what is happening.’ In other words, the shift to the internet isn’t making young Russians more anti-regime, just more ignorant.

Volkov points out that the combination of the internet and Russian youth’s relative political ignorance does offer opportunities to those who can exploit the internet to grab young peoples’ attention. This would seem to give some hope to politicians like Alexei Navalny, but in fact Navalny is less known among youth (45%) than he is among the Russian population as a whole (55%). Young Russians ‘know little about the opposition’, says Volkov. The turn to the internet does not seem to helping the opposition much.

Indeed, Volkov suggests, the increased ignorance may actually make young people more conservative, more supportive of those in authority. Since they don’t bother informing themselves much about politics, they pick up their political attitudes from those around them, such as family and older people. The result is that, ‘as even independent sociologists note, support for the authorities is 15% higher than average among young people.’

The internet is indeed changing how people get information about politics, and thus is shaping the way they view the world – but not, it seems, in the way so many think.