Is There Really a “Putin Generation?”
(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – Jill Dougherty, Global Fellow; Former CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent – July 8, 2020)
Vladimir Putin and his former wife Lyudmila have two grown daughters, but that’s not the “Putin Generation” I am interested in. It’s young Russians, twenty years old or younger, who’ve grown up with no leader other than Putin (with the brief but ultimately insignificant interlude of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency).
I’ve had my eye on them for quite some time. I’ve seen them hanging out in downtown Moscow and St. Petersburg, chatting, playing music, and (with their t-shirts, tats, jeans, and smart phones) looking pretty much like teenagers in any American or European city.
I’ve seen them, too, at protest rallies and marches. The first notable one was in the winter of 2011-2012, when Russians of all ages hit the streets to protest alleged ballot rigging in Russia’s parliamentary elections. Those teenagers didn’t seem that different from the older protesters; everyone was angry about political corruption. But five years later, at another large protest, things had noticeably changed.
On June 12, 2017, along with a CNN camera crew, I headed down Moscow’s Tverskaya Street, one of the capital’s most famous and elegant thoroughfares, lined with clothing stores and coffee shops, that slopes down to the Kremlin and Red Square. As we passed the famous statue of Yuriy Dolgoruky, founder of Moscow, I noticed that the crowd around us was mainly young people – some looked like teenagers.
It was a surreal scene. The protest had been organized by the influential anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, whose 2017 online video accusing Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of taking massive bribes has more than 22 million views. The Moscow city government refused to give Navalny a permit for Tverskaya Street, consigning his protest to a remote location in the city instead.
But Navalny’s supporters showed up on Tverskaya Street anyway. The city government had closed off the street near the Kremlin for an historical reenactment of “The History of Russia’s Victories.” The resulting scene: Actors dressed in costumes evoking eras from ancient Rus’ to World War II posed near their exhibits as couples with children strolled by, while a few blocks away young protesters clutching mobile phones chanted “Russia without Putin!” as riot police wielding batons randomly grabbed young men and hustled them into vans.
Looking for a vantage point where we could get wide shots of the action, we pushed our way through the protesters to a nearby building and talked our way up to the second floor where there was a coworking office space, complete with coffee bar. Most of their young clients were on the street. As the crew shot video from a window I went to an adjoining room where I noticed a young man (he looked about 18 or 19) on the balcony, watching the crowd below. In spite of the anti-Putin chants, a number of the of the protesters carried small Russian flags and, at one point, to my surprise, they broke out singing the Russian national anthem. The teenager on the balcony joined in, singing quietly to himself, apparently moved by this spontaneous display of patriotism.
This was not the protest I expected. Later, on the street, I asked some of the young people what they were protesting against. Several wanted to tell me instead what they were protesting for: “Respect.” Nothing more specific-just to be left alone to live their lives the way they wanted. What did they think about Vladimir Putin, I asked? They wanted him out of office, but there was no pent-up anger. They seemed frustrated, but almost dismissive. Putin, they told me, was corrupt, sure….but he also just didn’t get it. He was like all the political leaders they knew: intent on milking the system for their own benefit, but ultimately clueless and incapable of doing anything good for the country.
I’ve covered a lot of protests in my years in Russia-hungry miners from the Urals whose salaries had stopped after the Soviet Union collapsed, ecstatic supporters of Boris Yeltsin, even Communists angry about rising food prices-but this was something different.
Intrigued, I looked for any information I could find on this “Putin Generation.” I soon learned that a few sociologists were beginning to examine them. Some of the earliest and most detailed studies came from the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling organization. The trends they were seeing were very new, and sometimes contradictory. The polling showed, for example, that some of this generation, like their parents and grandparents, supported Putin; yet they also yearned for a different Russia, one they doubted he could give them.
Last year, when I began teaching at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, I was encouraged to pull together the existing data, my own experience in Russia, and my ongoing research to create a course I called “The Putin Generation,” an examination of Russian young people who’ve grown up under Putin. But, when I called a Russian friend, an academic researcher in Moscow, to discuss my plans she yelled at me: “There is no such thing as the Putin Generation!”
Generations, she said, don’t fit neatly into defined groups. Sure, there are generations who grew up and are marked by, say, the Stalin years, or by World War II, or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin, she insisted, does not define this young Russian generation. Even though they are young, their “mental maps,” she explained, are much broader. Many young Russians live with their parents and grandparents and they are influenced by their relatives’ experiences too. Besides, she said, a more important factor than Vladimir Putin is the Internet.
I ended up calling the course “The Putin Generation” anyway; it was a concise and intriguing title. But I agreed with my friend that there were other factors that helped define this generation. Last September, as I started my first lecture of my seminar in front of nineteen Georgetown undergrads and graduate students roughly the same age as the “Putin Generation,” I told them our task would be to understand how these young Russians define themselves, how they communicate with other young people, and how they see their own role (and Russia’s) in the world. Ultimately, we would try to determine whether there actually was a “Putin Generation.”
The Digital Generation
The “Putin Generation” (most studies define it as young Russians from 17 to 25) is comparatively small, just about 9% of the overall Russian population, according to most studies. They are diverse, living in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, and in small towns and villages throughout the vast country. Their economic situation varies enormously, as does their access to higher education. But two factors apply to all: they are Russia’s first entirely post-Soviet generation and the first generation to grow up with the Internet.
That second factor defines my students too: they live online and that is where they get their information about the world. But, for young Russians, the Internet is even more significant. For decades, almost all Russians got their news and information, as well as entertainment, from television. Older Russians continue that pattern, but many younger Russians ignore TV completely, turning to the Internet, social media, video blogs, YouTube, Instagram, and other digital sources. According to most studies, more than 90 percent of them are daily Internet users. They are less exposed to government media and propaganda. They mainly frequent Russian-language sites, but also are drawn to music and culture from around the world.
Increasingly, they are getting their social and political ideas online as well. Anti-corruption activist and political opposition leader Alexey Navalny is one of the best-known Internet figures in Russia, but vlogger Yury Dud’ is even more influential, with nearly seven and a half million subscribers to his YouTube channel. At 33, he’s slighter older than the Putin Generation, and his day job is a sports website editor. He began his YouTube channel in 2017 interviewing pop music starts and other famous Russians. With a hip, yet earnest and engaging style, Dud’ began producing documentaries on subjects the Russian state media rarely touch, like the 2004 terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, on HIV-Aids, and on the Stalin-era Gulag labor camps of Kolyma.
His introduction to Kolyma gives a flavor of how he speaks to the Putin Generation: He doesn’t tell them what to think. There’s no Soviet-style call to patriotism and no modern-style cynicism. Dud’s approach is personal, intimate, brave enough to show the horror, but understanding enough to see why his parents could not express it publicly:
“I don’t know how it is with you, but I’ve heard from my parents all my life: well, be careful; don’t attract too much attention; don’t stick your head up – it’s really dangerous; and, basically, we’re just ordinary people – nothing depends on us. My parents are wonderful people, I love them madly. But they’ve been saying this for decades – even in situations where it just goes against common sense, where there’s no justice, where we’re right. I always thought “where did the older generation get this fear, this desire to smear everything up with gray paint? Why are they afraid that even for the smallest show of courage punishment will swoop in?” My hypothesis: this fear arose in the last century and came down to us through the generations. One of the places this fear appeared is Kolyma.”
The “Putin Generation” and the West
In his vlogs, Yuri Dud’ often travels-within Russia, to Europe and to the United States. Like some of the “Putin Generation,” he’s thoroughly Russian, but he’s also very much part of the broader world…and that is affecting this young generation’s views of the West.
Some of the earliest and most detailed studies of young Russians has been done by Denis Volkov of the Moscow-based Levada Center. His data show that young Russians’ exposure to the Internet and the broader world is affecting their opinions on the West. In spite of Russian state media’s frequent anti-Western slant, this generation (especially those living in big cities who have more opportunity to travel abroad and speak foreign languages) is generally positive toward Europe and the U.S., with almost two-thirds of them expressing positive views. This breakdown is the complete opposite held by Russians over 65.
This doesn’t mean, however, that young Russians are attracted to Jeffersonian ideals of democracy. For them, the West is a place where things are stable, where things work, where the rights of average citizens are protected. The West also represents for them influential music and popular culture. Some young Russians even say they want to leave Russia and emigrate abroad, numbers reaching as high as 45 percent in big cities, according to one Levada Center study. Some eager to leave cite the political situation in Russia, but most simply want a better life, or better education. That surprising figure, however, seems to be more of an expression of dissatisfaction than an actual intention to emigrate. Only 1 percent of Russians actually leave Russia for good.
Views on Putin
Just two years ago, polls showed that the “Putin Generation,” by and large, approved of Vladimir Putin and his government, mirroring the views of their parents. That appears to be changing. They are more worried about Russia’s economic problems and about the sometimes-violent crackdowns on political protests. They are also not, as whole, politically active and do not vote as frequently as older Russians. At the same time, even as they appear to be turned off by Kremlin-controlled “politics,” a growing number are becoming more active in their communities at the grassroots level.
Some of the most interesting studies of Russian young people are conducted by Elena Omelchenko, director of the St. Petersburg-based Center for Youth Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, who has examined youth culture since 2000. Instead of traditional parameters for defining Russia’s young people, she describes what she calls a “unique Russian youth cultural space.”
Even though today’s young people are part of the “post-Soviet” generation, Omelchenko says, they “have a special experience of Soviet social structure sociality.” They have been immersed in the Soviet reality that their parents and grandparents lived through, but also in a “symbolic presence of this Soviet reality in contemporary life.” Retro-Soviet symbols and romanticized versions of Soviet history are everywhere, and some Russian young people adopt this as part of their cultural identity. However, this memory, she says, “is idealistic, sketchy and contradictory.”
When it comes to young Russians’ participation in political life, the traditional view is that they are apolitical, but this “don’t give a damn” view is wrong, says Omelchenko. “There is another political life,” says Omelchenko, “which we call everyday citizenship. This is the sensation and understanding of oneself as a citizen of a country, responsible for its present and its future. It is an open, and recently more public expression of one’s right to participate in the country’s life and to change it.”
Young Russians today may be less hopeful of change on a national level, but they are becoming more actively involved locally. Volunteerism is growing, as are locally-based protests over environmental pollution and other causes.
The young Russian generation, Omelchenko says, doesn’t know “where we as a country are going.” There’s a feeling of stagnation “when a whole generation has known no president other than Vladimir Putin.”
That, I think, is what I was hearing on Tverskaya Street from the young Russians I spoke with during the protest.
Is it really the “Putin Generation?”
Throughout the semester at Georgetown, I invited Russian and American experts, along with a few young Russians, to talk with my students (in person and, after COVID-19 struck, on-line). One of our most memorable exchanges happened just at the beginning of the pandemic. I had agreed with a young Russian journalist from Moscow that she would visit my class when she was in Washington on a trip. She decided not to get on the plane (a wise decision) and, instead, spoke with my students via Zoom just as Moscow began grappling with the virus.
It was late afternoon in Washington, almost midnight in Moscow, when we talked. She described her friends worriedly texting each other, wondering what would happen next. Would they ever be able to leave Moscow? My students understood her pain, but it was a graphic example of how many young Russians live their lives in a digital world.
The main assignment I gave my students during the semester was to pick one aspect of the “Putin Generation” they wanted to explore more fully, hopefully something that would capture their interest. Some students spoke Russian or were studying the language, and they put that knowledge to good use, reaching out through the Internet to talk with young Russians (bloggers, rap musicians, lovers of anime, young feminists). The breadth of the subjects they chose astounded me, and helped me to understand better what young people in Russia, in the United States, and around the world have in common.
So, should we call it the “Putin Generation?” Perhaps. The “Internet Generation?” Definitely. Ultimately, the Internet, the digital world in which they live, will define these young Russians far more than their president, who increasingly seems irrelevant to their future.
[article also appeared at wilsoncenter.org/article/there-really-putin-generation]