KURGAN, Russia – A young woman, riding a city bus to her journalism class, enjoys using the time to scroll through an independent news site that can be scathing in its reports on Russia’s authoritarian president – leaving her to wrestle with a paradox, the paradox of her generation.
“What the Russian soul demands,” says Yekaterina Mamay, “is that there be one strong politician in the country who resembles a czar.”
In Russia’s upcoming presidential election, the 20-year-old student, who knows that journalism in her country is not free, will nonetheless vote to reelect Vladimir Putin.
Here, where the forest of the taiga meets the grassy steppe, the “Putin Generation” is no different from anywhere else across Russia’s vastness: coming of age without a rebellious streak. Today’s Russian young adults have no memory of life before Putin, who first took power as their president 18 years ago. Some have taken to the streets in protest, but social scientists say many more have grown to accept him. Polls show that Putin enjoys greater support among youth than among the public at large.
To Western eyes, young Russians such as Mamay who espouse some liberal values but back Putin live in a world of contradictions. In fact, their readiness to accept those contradictions helps explain Putin’s grip on power.
“You realize that it’s good to live with him. You don’t complain,” Dmitry Shaburov, an 18-year-old budding entrepreneur, said of Putin. “When I wake up in my apartment, no one takes me to the Gulag.”
On March 18, Russians will go to the polls to confirm a fourth presidential term for the 65-year-old former KGB officer who turned this country’s young, chaotic democracy into an authoritarian system beholden to his rule. He has batted back the opposition thanks to his control over Russia’s main television channels, the security services and the judiciary – but also because, as even many of his opponents acknowledge, most of the country supports him.
According to a December survey by independent polling firm Levada Center, 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.
The most internationally connected generation in Russian history, with access to more information than any of their predecessors, is now helping Putin solidify his authoritarianism.
Rather than dwell on Putin’s crackdown on his opponents, young Russians draw a sense of personal liberty from those freedoms they do enjoy – a mostly open internet, an open job market and open borders. Many of them reject state TV as propaganda but nevertheless repeat its central tenet – that Russia needs Putin to stand up to U.S. aggression. And perhaps most important, these Russians seem shaped by a collective history they never knew – by fear of a return of the crisis-stricken 1990s or the stifling Soviet era.
“We already know everything about him,” Pavel Rybin, 20, who is studying event management, said of Putin. “If now the people elect him again, everything will be quiet and calm.”
Young Russians made headlines in the past year for forming the backbone of thousands-strong street protests backing opposition leader Alexei Navalny, inspired by the youthful anti-corruption activist’s YouTube videos spotlighting apparent wrongdoing. But analysts warn it’s wrong to take those protests as a sign of a wave of anti-Putin fury reminiscent of the Arab Spring.
“There is no critical mass of people demanding radical change,” political scientists Ivan Krastev and Gleb Pavlovsky write this month for the European Council of Foreign Relations. “Contrary to Western fantasies, Russians under the age of 25 are among the most conservative and pro-Putin groups in society.”
The stories of three young people in Kurgan – a city of about 300,000 on the Trans-Siberian Railway near the Kazakh border – help explain why. All three are voting for Putin out of a mix of hope, resignation and fear.
Their reasoning begins with a visceral sense of a darker, poorer past. In the 1990s – before Putin came to power – lawlessness in Kurgan was such that innocent locals could get killed simply for sitting in the wrong seat on a bus or in a movie theater, Mamay recalls her grandmother telling her when she was little.
Later, her father – a firefighter – told her grandfather, “I live better than you, and I hope that my children will live better than me.” Mamay says she now has the same hope for her own future in Putin’s Russia.
“These will probably be small, small improvements,” Mamay said. “But that’s better than if some person comes to power who won’t be able to keep everything in balance.”
Mamay wants to be a journalist, but she says the press in Russia is not free. She follows the news on Meduza, a Latvian-based Russian-language news outlet frequently critical of Putin. Privately owned news outlets sell their reporting to the highest bidder, while state television amounts to government propaganda, she said.
“That’s probably how the media works everywhere,” Mamay said. “They’re trying to make us think poorly of America. I figure that in America, they are doing the same, trying to make people think poorly of Russians.”
It was Putin, when Mamay was little, who forced some of Russia’s richest men to yield control of the country’s main television networks. But she doesn’t fault the president for Russia’s stifled media atmosphere. In fact, she recently found a way to practice her chosen craft. She joined the local Vladimir Putin youth fan club as its press secretary.
Shaburov, the 18-year-old entrepreneur, recently moved from the countryside to Kurgan, where he first tried to make ends meet by delivering sushi and pizza and working as a taxi driver. His latest venture is called “crowd investing,” and he said he was hoping to move to Moscow to take advantage of the greater opportunities in the capital.
He said he realizes that Russia offers its citizens fewer freedoms than Western countries do – and that Putin may have something to do with this. But he prefers to focus on the freedoms he does have, such as being able to start a business and traveling abroad.
“There are jobs. You can do whatever you want. You can travel wherever you want,” Shaburov said. “The borders are all open before you – and this truly makes me happy.”
Shaburov said he has watched Navalny’s videos highlighting apparent government corruption. He said he is upset to see officials steal public money in broad daylight and “grandmothers and kids” dragged from Navalny rallies by the riot police. But this is no time for an untested leader like Navalny, he said, given Russia’s tumultuous history.
“Making a change could lead to the collapse of the country,” Shaburov said. “If we look back and see what happened in the past, it’s better that everything continue as it is now.”
The sense that things used to be much worse – and could again get much worse – is a defining characteristic of the Putin Generation, researchers say. In a study of more than 6,000 Russian university students last year, 80 percent of respondents said, like Mamay, that they believed they had more opportunities than their parents. At the same time, a clear majority said they worried about an uncertain future and the threat of a new world war.
That sense of an improved lot and fear of the future, say the authors of the study, conducted by the Laboratory for Politics Studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, enhance the appeal of the status quo – which in Russia is personified by Putin. More than 47 percent of the students surveyed said they would vote for Putin in the presidential election, compared to 7 percent who chose Navalny, the No. 2 candidate among the responses.
“Putin is the one who has led the country all their conscious lives, and their lives are going well,” said laboratory head Valeria Kasamara, who led the study. “They think, ‘We don’t know how it will be under someone else, but under Putin, things are good.’”
The community theater where Rybin works part-time used to be filled with snow and dead birds because of a hole in the roof, the aspiring director recalls. It was finally renovated last year and now features about 500 plush blue seats – thanks to a Putin-ordered regional development program.
But to Rybin, who sports bright red, thick-frame glasses and boasts a collection of more than 30 bow ties, Putin’s biggest achievement is keeping Russia safe. He has prevented the war in Ukraine, Rybin said, from spreading into Russian territory.
Pavel Rybin, 20, is an aspiring theater director from Kurgan, Russia, and a Putin supporter.
“Tanks are stationed on our borders,” Rybin said. “We have good troops defending our borders, defending our Russia. If we elect a different president, can we expect this from him, or not?”
The idea that Ukraine threatens its much bigger neighbor Russia sounds jarring to Western ears, since it was Russia that backed separatists there and annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. But Rybin learns about current events from Russian state TV – which scholars say continues to influence many young Russians even if they watch less television than their elders. Rybin said he hadn’t heard anything about allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
“I know that Great Britain is interfering in the Russian elections,” Rybin said. “I don’t know why.”
Not everyone is convinced of the staying power of young Russians’ pro-Putin views. Journalist Alexey Dedov, who teaches television journalism at the local university and works for the Kurgan office of state broadcaster Rossiya 1, said he felt many youths were going along as Kremlin supporters just to fit in.
“Patriotism is a trend right now,” Dedov said. “As soon as the trend changes, I think they will change, too.”
But young Russians’ acceptance of the status quo goes beyond whom they’ll vote for. For people like Rybin, Shaburov and Mamay, the Kremlin’s years-old strategy of “managed democracy” – creating the appearance of political freedom despite an increasingly authoritarian reality – appears to be working. Asked whether Russia had free speech, Rybin responded by referring to the raucous talk shows on state television, in which politicians and journalists hurl invective at one another but hardly ever criticize Putin.
“People say all kinds of crazy things, so that means [free speech] exists,” Rybin said.
To the Navalny activists in Kurgan, many of whom are also in their late teens and early 20s, Putin’s backers are living with blinders on. They say that people who support Putin because they fear the worst should recognize that accepting the status quo means things will only get worse. Russia’s stagnant economy has been growing at an average of just over 1 percent a year since 2008, and some analysts predict that the Kremlin crackdown on political dissent will intensify after the election.
“Russian people just don’t understand that everything is awful and it’s possible to fix it,” said one of the Navalny volunteers, 19-year-old Nikita Ilyin.
Shaburov, however, sees no major change on the horizon. A Putin presidency for life, said the young man born just months before the leader took power, may well be better than a lurch into the unknown.
“I think it will be like in Cuba, Fidel Castro, all the way until death,” Shaburov said.
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