This undermines the narrative of Western analysts who mainly attribute Putin’s hold on power since 2000 to political repression. A better explanation is that his ascendency and widespread popularity have corresponded to the rise in the world oil price and the related recovery of the Russian economy from the devastating neoliberal “shock therapy” administered to it by the pro-Western Yeltsin regime following the disillusion of the USSR in 1989. The memory of the post-Soviet economic collapse has tainted Russia’s weak liberal opposition ever since.
* * * Better Off Than Their Parents: Why Russia’s Youth Are Backing Putin By James Marson in Chelyabinsk, Russia, and Thomas Grove in Tyumen, Russia Wall Street Journal March 17 2018
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.
The three young people, like all Russians of their generation, have known no leader other than the former KGB colonel, who is on track to win another six-year term in presidential elections on Sunday.
Over the course of their lives, Mr. Putin has transformed Russia from an at-times chaotic democracy to an authoritarian state. He has written a new social contract that offers citizens far better living standards and restored swagger on the world stage, while limiting political freedoms. Polls, sociological research and interviews with more than a dozen young Russians in four cities reveal a generation largely at ease with that trade-off, though there are some browbeaten but committed dissenters.
Russia’s young adults are mostly disengaged from politics, broadly supportive of Mr. Putin and primarily focused on their own lives. They are largely satisfied with their lot and aware that they are living better than their parents.
“No one’s bothering me, no one is confiscating my apartment, my bread, so everything’s fine,” said Mr. Ivlev, who lives in the industrial city of Chelyabinsk east of the Ural mountains. “Politics doesn’t interest me.”
Mr. Putin’s approval rating among those in their late teens and early 20s is 86%—higher than in any other age group, according to a December survey by independent pollster Levada-Center. Two-thirds of people aged 18 to 24 believe Russia is heading in the right direction, compared with a national average of 56%, the survey shows. That youthful support underlines the durability of Mr. Putin’s political model as he approaches what, according to the constitution, should be his final term.
“Young people are more satisfied with life. They are better educated, have more opportunities, support from parents,” said Denis Volkov, a Levada-Center sociologist.
Stagnating oil prices have caused living standards to drop since 2014, but they remain considerably higher than when Mr. Putin came to power. A further deterioration of the economy, burdened by U.S. sanctions, could undermine Mr. Putin’s bargain and fuel support for opposition figures such as anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who has been barred from running in Sunday’s vote.
“If the mood in society worsens, they will be swept along by that,” Mr. Volkov said.
For now, though, most young people are busy with other things. In the prosperous Siberian oil city of Tyumen, 20-year-old Irina Melnikova competes in singing competitions, collects knitted scarfs for the elderly and trains dogs as guards and for shows. One place she is sure she isn’t needed is in politics.
“There are people who work especially in the realm of politics. Let them do their jobs,” said Ms. Melnikova, who has a round face and a ready smile.
Young adults are more mobile than previous generations and often move to larger cities in search of better opportunities. Ms. Melnikova moved from her hometown—where temperatures can fall to -76 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and the ground turns to swamp in the summer—to Tyumen to pursue her dream of training dogs for rescue workers or working with dogs in conflict zones.
Aleksei Nefyodov, a 20-year-old who works in sales for an information-technology company, completed vocational school in his impoverished hometown then jumped on a bus the next day for Chelyabinsk, the regional capital.
One support for such movement is a new state exam that has made it easier for children from out-of-the-way places to secure spots at good universities. Daniil Pavlichenko, 18 years old, came to Moscow from a town 500 miles to the east to study at a top international-relations school.
“Our Moscow acquaintances were stunned that you can just come from the regions and get into university,” he said.
Many say their lives are better than their parents’. At around the same age in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Ivlev’s mom has told him she would rise at 6 a.m. to stand in line at food stores trying to procure milk and bread. Shortages meant latecomers would find shelves bare apart from cans of pickled seaweed.
She has recounted how some neighbors in Chelyabinsk would wind up dead in the lawlessness that swept the country at that time. “They were killed and forgotten,” said Mr. Ivlev, who was also born and raised there.
Now, Chelyabinsk’s supermarkets and shopping malls are packed, and he spends his time watching films, hanging out with friends or listening to music on his smartphone. 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.
In Vladivostok, a port city in Russia’s Far East, the opportunities are often linked with nearby China. Ms. Yershova is studying Chinese and plans to travel there this summer, and later take part in a student-exchange program.
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.
For example, she is part of a group that organizes discussions about literature and publishes a cultural magazine. “In their time it was impossible to imagine,” she said.
Many young Russians say they see problems—primarily corruption and its effects—but are either resigned to them or busy with their own affairs.
Mr. Nefyodov, the IT worker, said he tries to avoid conversations with his girlfriend’s mother, an opposition supporter. “One wrong word and you’re done for,” he said.
“Better to watch a film,” Mr. Ivlev said. “People’s lives aren’t all honey anyway, but if you start to think too deeply you’d get really depressed.”
Mr. Ivlev wants to be a sound engineer and intends to move to St. Petersburg. He would like to start his own company but worries that as a business owner in Russia, “you are a billionaire one day, and the next day everything goes belly up and you are cleaning the floor in a food store.”
Young people tend not to watch state television channels, but many of them hold to the narratives frequently found there. Ms. Kuklina, a 20-year-old law student in Chelyabinsk, says there is no obvious alternative to Mr. Putin, whom she sees as a bulwark against violent upheaval like that racking eastern Ukraine. Mr. Nefyodov says some of his friends went to fight on the side of Kremlin-backed insurgents there, and he admires Mr. Putin’s foreign military interventions for making people fear Russia again.
Opposition politics is often seen as at best futile or distasteful and at worst dangerous. Ms. Kuklina runs clubs to teach youngsters about their civic rights and responsibilities, and says any changes should come slowly without risking turmoil.
Some young political activists are injecting new energy into a weak and divided opposition movement, but they are a minority under constant pressure from authorities. They are led by opposition blogger Mr. Navalny, who uses YouTube and social networks to connect to supporters. He was barred from running in the election by a criminal conviction that he called politically motivated, but established offices in dozens of cities that serve as a meeting place for like-minded young people.
Aleksandr Belyayev, an 18-year-old advertising student, supports Mr. Navalny’s call to fight corruption and boycott the election.
“To be silent now is stupid. If you are silent and don’t demand anything, everyone thinks you are satisfied with life. But what is going on in our country?” said Mr. Belyayev, who has an earnest face beneath tousled brown hair.
After efforts to register a political youth organization came to naught, he and his friends founded a religion called “The Grand Church of the Deification of Information,” in part to poke fun at the authorities. Prosecutors soon summoned him for questioning over alleged violations of missionary practice, he says.
At the prosecutors’ office one day last month, friends joked as Mr. Belyayev’s hands trembled and he bit his lip. “We’ll come visit you in jail,” one said.
In Tyumen, Ivan Mikhailov, a muscular 22-year-old, says he isn’t an advocate of Mr. Navalny, but regrets that his studies prevented him from taking part in large demonstrations last year. His father died when he was five, and he sees his future as a drilling engineer as a way to support his mother and sister, who like him was raised on the vegetables from their backyard garden.
Mr. Mikhailov says he won’t vote in Sunday’s elections, which he views as a charade of democracy.
“We live in a country where there are elections and leaders should change,” he said. “But we have a unique situation here.”