The Putin Generation: How Will Its Rise Affect US-Russian Relations?

By Petro, Nicolai N. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Putin Generation: How Will Its Rise Affect US-Russian Relations?


Petro, Nicolai N., Harvard International Review


This year, young people are coming out in record numbers to support their political candidates, not just in the United States but in Russia as well.

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Although the phenomenon has been relatively ignored by the Western media, young people in Russia have become markedly more politically active during Vladimir Putin's second term in office, a striking change for a country where young people (ages 18-35) have traditionally been among the most politically apathetic segment of the population. In the 2000 elections, for example, Putin's support among pensioners was significantly higher than it was among young people.

Recently, however, young Russians have begun to display new patterns of both political and economic behavior that have led pollsters to refer to them as the "Putin Generation." The importance of this generation is epitomized by the rise of Dmitry Medvedev who, at 42, is not only Russia's youngest president, but also the youngest leader in the G8. This generation's values will pose a fundamentally new and different challenge to the West--how to deal with an increasingly prosperous and self-confident Russia.

Respect for the Past, Hope for the Future

Some observers of post-Soviet youth have emphasized the values that they share with their parents. Writing in the Washington Post in August 2007, academics Sarah Mendelson and Theodore Gerber, for example, warn that "a new generation of Russians who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union, ambivalent about Stalin, and hostile toward the United States may jeopardize US-Russian relations long after Putin is gone."

But a comparison of nine different surveys of Russian youth since 2005, conducted by the Fund for Public Opinion, the Yury Levada Analytical Center, and the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), reveals that what young people admire most about the past is not the regime or its ideology--words like "socialism," communism," and even "USSR" are perceived positively by less than 5 percent of young people, and only 6 percent say they would have liked to have lived in Soviet times. Instead, what they find admirable is the sense of common purpose their grandparents shared and how it united the country and made citizens feel proud. Young Russians growing up during the 1990s saw this inheritance, and along with it any sense of pride in the country's history, trashed in the mass media. Not surprisingly, as these young people mature, a counter-reaction has ensued.

One of the first to note the rise of conservative sentiments among young people was Alexander Tsipko, director of political programs at the Gorbachev Foundation. During his travels across the country lecturing to young audiences, Tsipko said he was struck by their yearning for a contemporary' patriotic agenda. His own generation, the generation of the 1960s, discovered patriotism "through books, through the beautiful minds and words of pre-revolutionary Russian thinkers." By contrast, the current generation has embraced patriotism as a defense mechanism against the blanket criticism of Russia's past that left them with nothing of their own to believe in. "Just as Christian asceticism was a moral protest against the debauchery and dissipation of decrepit Rome," he writes, "our youth conservatism and youth patriotism is a protest against the defeatism of the liberal elite. We now see the emergence of a Russian conservative elite that we didn't have in late 1980s and early 1990s, when the fate of the country was hanging in the balance."

According to Dmitry Polikanov, Director of International Relations at the All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center, today's youth patriotism combines a healthy respect for past Soviet achievements (especially for the sacrifices that their parents and grandparents made to achieve them) with an ambition to see Russia become a "great power." Asked to describe specifically what will make Russia "great" again, roughly half point to Russia's history, traditions, and "spirituality," while the other half point to economic growth, security, and the overall well-being of its citizens. …

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