Will a New Generation of Russians Modernize Their Country?

Will a New Generation of Russians Modernize Their Country?

Andrei Kolesnikov / Denis Volkov

Today, the young generation is more critical of the authorities than any other population segment. But how reasonable is it to expect the new generation to usher in modernization? Who will win the battle for the young: the state or civil society institutions? And will today’s young people become just another disappointed generation?

Just four years ago, young Russians were some of the most loyal to the regime, but in 2018 the situation began to change. This reflects a broader shift in Russian public opinion at that time, as voters of all ages became disillusioned by falling real incomes, economic decline, and an unpopular move to raise the retirement age. Today, the young generation is more critical of the authorities than any other population segment.

As a result, democratically minded Russians are pinning their hopes for change on the new generation. But how reasonable is it to expect the new generation to usher in modernization? Who will win the battle for the young: the state or civil society institutions? And will today’s young people become just another disappointed generation, forced to adapt to external circumstances?

To understand what young Russians think about and hope for, we organized six focus groups with young people in three Russian cities: Moscow (population: 12.7 million), Yaroslavl (about 600,000), and Bryansk (400,000). In each city we met with two cohorts: “younger” young people (aged eighteen to twenty-five) and “older” young people (aged thirty to thirty-five).

Diverse Views

Opinion polls confirm that young Russians think differently than older generations. They lead healthier lifestyles, make more active use of digital technologies,1 and watch less television. They are less narrow-minded and more open to the world and to new information. They are more accepting, for instance, of LGBTQ people, have a more favorable attitude toward the West, and are much more familiar with Western popular culture than older generations. They don’t actively support the government, and recently, they have also expressed more protest sentiment.2 Attitudes toward Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny can be viewed as a criterion for “radical thinking,” and approval of his actions is highest in the youngest generation.

The January–February 2021 protests in support of Navalny were associated above all with the participation of young people, particularly the youngest “angry urbanites.” The preponderance of “child protesters” was largely a myth created by government spin doctors. In reality, the makeup of the protesters was quite diverse in age, gender, profession, and income level, and there were very few minors.3 However, to justify the scale and harshness of the repressions, the authorities widely exploited the argument that children were being drawn into criminal activity. This tactic exposed the regime’s fear that it risks losing an entire generation that will grow up into an active community of disgruntled citizens who know their rights and are ready to stand up for them.

The political sympathies of young people don’t always lie with left and liberal-right opposition forces, however. Support for Navalny may be higher among the young than in older generations, but many young people are indifferent to Navalny, or support the regime.4

When studying the generation gap, we saw unexpected results. Our focus group participants predictably described the views of their parents and grandparents as outdated. This was particularly true on day-to-day matters, although there were also references to the “political backwardness” of the older generations “who are glued to the television and defend everything that [President Vladimir] Putin does.” Naturally, the older generations are not homogenous, and some respondents described their parents as having stronger democratic views than them, and more fiercely rejecting the Soviet and current Russian political realities.

Paradoxically, for some (albeit very few) young people, this provokes disagreements between generations, and in an unexpected sense. The older and younger generations seem to switch places: young people try to convince their parents that the latter do not appreciate how fortunate they were under the Soviet regime, when they didn’t have to look for work, fear being fired or not getting paid on time, or spend a lot of money on vacations (since there were labor union–sponsored “vacation packages”). These sentiments among young Russians are driven less by a rejection of market realities than by overall fatigue from increasingly complex living conditions. Furthermore, these feelings were expressed most strongly by respondents in the older Bryansk focus group. By contrast, the younger group in Bryansk had more democratic views than its peers in Moscow and Yaroslavl.

Life and Work

The majority of respondents in all age and regional groups noted that Russia has some focal points of active economic life, but generally spoke of those as being in major cities and often in the context of large companies.

Surveys show that more than half of young Russians would like to start their own business,5 but usually don’t go beyond daydreams of entrepreneurship. Focus group discussions suggest that when the government is the main player in the market and the largest and most reliable employer, many young people aren’t ready to take the risk of starting their own business. Rather, they prefer to work for someone else—not because it is a great option, but because all the others are worse. A long period of the pandemic, during which small business owners have faced the biggest challenges, has likely cemented these perceptions.

This outlook doesn’t always mean that coveted positions are those at government agencies and state-financed organizations. There is a clear trend of jobs at major companies (whether private or state-controlled) being considered the most desirable. Respondents believe that these jobs mean less red tape and higher salaries than positions at government agencies and organizations, but without worries about whether the business will survive.

The Kremlin, for its part, is making some efforts to court young people, offering them so-called “career elevators” and opportunities to participate in ersatz “civil society” organizations controlled by the government as a substitute for true civil society institutions. However, our study demonstrated that most young people don’t take advantage of those initiatives, or aren’t even aware of them. None of the focus group participants mentioned “career elevators” from the presidential and gubernatorial administrations.

As far as their work and their own lifestyles are concerned, even the youngest respondents are very pragmatic: “I have a public sector job with good benefits and a boss who is responsible for everyone and everything. I don’t even want to think about my own business”; “Things are simpler at a state company: there are options for horizontal and vertical mobility, and it is more relaxing because there are fewer risks.” Of course there are those who prefer the idea of independence and their own business, even though none of them have had real-life experience with private start-ups. Thirty-year-olds with more life experience made statements such as: “I’m not even considering my own business. In the current economic climate, there’s a 99.9 percent chance that it would go under.”

Focus group participants from the older cohort—those over thirty with family obligations and debts—“want to pay off loans, pay off mortgages, take out new mortgages, and pay them off again”; they “try not to rock the boat, try to just do my job, there isn’t really another job to go to, it’s better to hang on to the current one.” Many respondents want change, but don’t expect it under the current regime.

A sober assessment of their living conditions elicited empathy for those who move abroad: most focus group participants did not exhibit overly strong patriotic feelings. The twenty-year-olds postulate that “most people with desirable skill sets don’t stay in Russia, they move to other countries”; “there are more opportunities and professions [abroad] where one can grow and learn. We may have some good universities and jobs, but it is very hard to get those spots because they are all already taken, or you need money to access them.” One thirty-year-old said: “The further west you can go from here, the better.”

At the same time, many participants view moving to the West as a risky venture: “I think that one of the advantages [of working in Russia] is that you’re born here and you already have a certain comfort zone. You can plan your life; you have relatives who can support you.” Overall, while opinions about Russians who move to study or work abroad (in this case, to the West) range widely from “they lucked out” to “it’s unpatriotic, but it’s their choice,” the impressions of career opportunities in the West are favorable. Despite all government propaganda efforts, there is a stable perception that people in Europe and other parts of the West have better lives and more social protection. Quantitative surveys also confirm positive attitudes toward the West among young people.6

Digital Divide?

Many studies of the younger generations highlight a contrast in where Russians from different age groups get their information. For example, surveys conducted by the Levada Center (designated as a foreign agent in Russia) in the spring of 2021 showed that young people were half as likely to get most of their news from television as Russians aged over fifty-five, and twice as likely to get most of their news online. Previously, Russians aged thirty to thirty-five were somewhere in the middle in their media consumption (using the internet with ease, but still watching television); today there is virtually no difference between the youngest segment and “older” young people.7

The participants of all focus groups were almost unanimous in describing Russian television as “the mouthpiece of the state and the government,” “what they want us to see,” “what the authorities need.” They asserted that television “has a lot of censorship,” “conceals a lot,” and is “a madhouse,” “degradation,” and “zombification.” They said that “if you want to hear something different, go online,” “look up news in the search box,” because the internet is “the voice of the Russian people” (particularly various local and city-based public groups on social networks such as VKontakte: “Typical Bryansk” or public groups for Moscow neighborhoods); you can find news on the internet “that they wouldn’t show on television.”

The young generation’s rejection of television in favor of the internet and their labeling of television news as propaganda would seem to imply their greater skepticism toward information broadcast through official channels. However, focus groups reveal a more nuanced picture. The consumption of information by young people is extremely chaotic: it includes Yandex news, various YouTube channels and vloggers, and snippets of news on TikTok or even Instagram. Frequently, they watch “a bit of everything.” As a result, there is a lot of variation in the quantity and quality of the information young people receive.

The respondents have learned to compare information from different sources, but they only use these skills occasionally, when they are truly interested in a particular news story. A young person might listen to and watch the more liberal Yury Dud (a popular YouTuber) or Ruslan Usachev8 (another vlogger, who has emigrated from Russia), but also watch the programs of populist television talk show host Vladimir Soloviev, who fiercely defends official views. They might get news from uncensored sources such as Dozhd (which has been designated as a “foreign agent” and is gradually transitioning from a television channel into a mostly online and YouTube-based outlet), but also get news online from the state news agency RIA Novosti. Some still read the business newspaper Vedomosti (or at least tell the focus group moderator that they do, in an effort to seem more informed), without noticing the dismantlement of its editorial board in 2020, still listing the newspaper as an “independent media outlet” out of habit. Thus, it is still too early to say that young people are sophisticated in their online consumption of information.

Furthermore, not all of the young participants of the focus groups have completely gotten rid of their television sets. They often keep the TV on “as background noise” in the kitchen, listening to it “with half an ear,” perhaps “in the morning, while getting ready for work,” and only start paying attention when “something important” comes on. In other words, some young people still get news filtered through federal television channels; only a small number of respondents deliberately avoid state indoctrination.

There are also the rare examples of pure conformism: young people who regularly watch state television, work for public sector organizations, and are wholeheartedly loyal to the government. Or, if they have stopped watching television, they did so simply because “the internet is more convenient” and it is easier to find something interesting online instead of waiting for the nightly news, not out of protest against “state propaganda” or in search of higher quality sources of information.

Most of the time, what we see is an uncontemplative transition by young people from watching heavily regulated television to the unregulated but haphazard consumption of information online. Despite gaining some freedom from the pressure of state propaganda, as well as potential access to free and alternative information online, not all young people prove able to find, understand, and process this information. Strictly speaking, most young people—with some exceptions—aren’t able to pick out anything truly meaningful from the information stream.

In turn, as the number of Russians online grows, the authorities are increasing pressure on segments of the Russian-language internet that they don’t control directly, above all, foreign ones. In recent months, we have seen Russia’s telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor slow down Twitter9 and reach an agreement with Apple and Google on blocking the smart voting apps of Alexei Navalny’s team10 (later, the Telegram messenger service also blocked those apps11). Simultaneously, the authorities have been systematically purging the Russian internet of publications that offer alternative points of view and criticize the regime. A number of popular independent online media outlets have been designated as foreign agents, which has forced some of them to shut down. These have included VTimes, Open Media, and MBK-Media. The online investigative journalism publication Proekt was declared an “undesirable organization” and also closed.12 The criminal and administrative prosecution of members of the media has continued, including cases against journalists (Ivan Golunov, Ivan Safronov, the editors of student magazine Doxa) and “critically minded” bloggers.

Surveys show that these dynamics are creating an environment for promoting ultraconservative sentiment among young Russians, as evidenced by public opinion on the erection of a monument to Stalin (see figure 1). Nostalgia for the Soviet dictator appears to be on the rise across all age groups, but the escalation among Russians aged eighteen to twenty-four has been the most dramatic, from 11 percent in February 2005 to 50 percent in 2021.13 This trend, accompanied by growing dissatisfaction with life on the one hand, and a lack of knowledge of history among young people and rising focus on historical issues by the regime on the other, suggests that young people don’t have stable moral benchmarks.

Politicians of Influence

For many years, until mid-2018, young Russians aged twenty-five to thirty exhibited the highest level of support for the regime, on a par with elderly Russians.14 However, over the past two or three years, the feeling in Russian society overall has changed considerably. Approval ratings for government institutions have dropped by an average of 20 percentage points; pessimism about the future has increased; and willingness to participate in protests has grown. Young people have been at the forefront of these transformations: their sentiment has changed the most, and their disappointment with the government has shown through more strongly than that of older generations. The aforementioned migration of young Russians online and to social networks has certainly played a significant role in this.

Russians aged twenty to thirty are currently one of the social groups that are most critical of the regime. Their level of protest sentiment is relatively high,15 as is their concern for protesters in other parts of Russia and abroad16 and their support for young opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny, the communist blogger from Saratov Nikolai Bondarenko, and former Khabarovsk region governor (for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) Sergei Furgal.17 At the focus groups, the young respondents described the ongoing distancing of young people from the government as follows: “we aren’t interested in them, and they aren’t interested in us.” The Russian authorities and the existing political parties don’t represent the interests of the young people, “they represent the interests of old people.”

At the same time, President Putin remains the most popular politician among young people, even if their support for Putin is about half as strong as that in the older generation. As for Navalny, approval of his actions is three times higher among young people than in the older generation, but only a quarter of young people approve of his actions, while more than half do not (see figures 2 and 3).

Furthermore, not all of the young people who would like to see change are ready to criticize the government and support the non-systemic opposition. There are many who view Navalny as too radical. These voters made up a significant share of the electorate of a new political project, the New People party (which claims to represent the position of forward-thinking Russians, and is presumably approved by the Kremlin), which cleared the 5 percent threshold to enter the State Duma in the September 2021 parliamentary elections.18 Some of these young people favor government officials—from heavyweights such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to members of the new generation of Russian politicians, such as Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, former mayor of Yakutsk Sardana Avksentyeva, and technocratic governors. Supporters of the regime were, however, in the minority in our focus groups, and most respondents were skeptically minded.

Involuntary Depoliticization

At focus groups with young people, it’s always more difficult to discuss politics than the participants’ problems and interests (in contrast, older generations are happy to talk about politics at length). Some young people find politics boring. Others—above all those dissatisfied with the current state of affairs—are frequently clearly uncomfortable sharing their political views and, more recently, exhibit fears of the possible repercussions for openly speaking about the powers that be.

Thus, the young participants of focus groups who speak favorably about Alexei Navalny often emphasize that they don’t personally attend rallies and don’t support the opposition leader. Our respondents frequently avoid referring to Navalny by name, instead using euphemisms (such as “he who shall not be named”), dropping hints, or simply refusing to discuss him. Most respondents in all focus groups concurred that participating in a rally, engaging in opposition activities, or even writing a critical post on social media can elicit a beating with a police baton, a fine, an administrative arrest, criminal prosecution, or “a prison term for extremism.” In the words of one respondent, overt protests “now mean either a fine or jail.”

Respondents in all three cities recalled the unfortunate fates of opposition figures: former deputy prime minister and liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead in 2015; Alexei Navalny, who is serving a prison term; Sergei Furgal, who is under investigation; leftist activist Nikolai Platoshkin, who has been convicted of calling for mass unrest; and Sardana Avksentyeva, who has been forced to step down from the mayor’s seat in Yakutsk.19 The focus group participants believe that all of these politicians had defended the interests of the people against government officials and representatives, and were “silenced” “because they went against the regime,” “spoke the truth,” and “were gathering political power”; “because our leaders don’t like it when people put spokes in their wheels.” The sentiment that seemed to dominate all of the focus groups was that “nothing will change no matter how hard you try; everything will stay the same; the authorities will do what they think is necessary.”

The focus group participants were especially affected by the case against Navalny, as well as the arrest of Furgal and the subsequent protests in Khabarovsk. However, whereas in the summer of 2020 rallies in the Russian Far East were a source of inspiration and interest, a year later they had come to symbolize dashed hopes for concessions from the regime: “In Khabarovsk, 100,000 people took to the streets and what was the result? Nothing has changed; they demonstrated, and then they settled down.” The winner of the gubernatorial elections that followed in Khabarovsk was a Kremlin-backed candidate, which definitively showed that the federal government had withstood the protests and maintained control over the region. Many respondents asserted that “protests don’t work,” predominantly viewing participation in rallies as senseless and dangerous.

The focus groups clearly demonstrated the difference in the sentiments of “younger” and “older” young people. More of the respondents who hadn’t yet turned twenty-five believed in their own power and in their ability to change the situation for the better; they also expressed more interest in domestic developments and more trust in public figures. Young people aged thirty and above looked more tired and did not always seem able to handle the burden of responsibility for not just themselves but also their families and their children. They exhibited less interest in current events and made more cynical comments about public figures (“there’s no one who stands out”; “I don’t intentionally follow anyone”; “I don’t like anyone, don’t want to hear anyone”).

There is a temptation to explain the differences between the two cohorts by pointing out that the younger group represents a freer generation, independent of the censorship of state television channels and more integrated into the global community. However, the real reason is likely different: the older group has simply grown disillusioned in their capabilities and in their power to change the situation. As they age, these feelings increase, and interest in change wanes under the burden of accumulating challenges such as mortgage payments, looking for work in a shrinking job market, and so on. Some respondents lamented the failures of their own small businesses during the pandemic, the difficulty of finding daycare spots for their children, the high cost of preparing kids for school, and not having enough money for family expenses. Simultaneously, they were growing more and more convinced that it is impossible to change the situation, that the authorities aren’t listening to them, and that politicians aren’t fulfilling election and other promises. Essentially, this is what is defined as “learned helplessness.”

Motivations for Participation: Despite Everything

Despite the young people’s conviction that the government doesn’t want change or opposes change, a significant share of the focus group participants said that it was necessary to keep fighting for their rights and to not give up. Speaking about elections, respondents in all three cities often expressed the position that even though elections don’t change anything (“don’t solve anything,” “don’t work,” “everything is decided in advance”), it is still important to vote, despite everything. There was a range of justifications offered for participation in the electoral process, from the idea that elections “are our right” and “it would be a shame not to use it” to the hope that low electoral support for the ruling party would force the powers that be “to pay a little attention” to ordinary people and notice their problems. In conditions of escalating repressive pressure on the public, elections are viewed not as a method of fighting for influence or changing the regime, but exclusively as a feedback channel for the public’s communication with the authorities—albeit, without any guarantee that the government will react to the signals from below.

Similarly, the few respondents who did not rule out their own participation in rallies generally referred to them not as an instrument for bringing about regime change or forcing the authorities to make desired decisions, but as “the only way to be heard”: “a way to bring the state to the people,” “a way to make those at the top think” and make some changes. Furthermore, despite the skepticism about the usefulness of rallies and the disclaimers about their own nonparticipation in them, the respondents expressed more sympathy toward the protesters than condemnation: “I respect people like that” because they take action despite the threat of persecution; “they rally because the government isn’t listening to them.”

The experience of recent years compels the focus group participants to say that victory against bureaucracy is only possible in “day-to-day,” “small,” “personal” issues. Even this often requires colossal efforts in finding “the right phone number” or “the right official” and making dozens of phone calls or sending dozens of letters. Nevertheless, a significant number of respondents appear to have learned the right approaches for resolving routine problems and occasionally resort to these approaches: they “get through on the phone,” send “petitions to the authorities,” “raise issues” on social media, and get the attention of bloggers and local media. The more cynical and disillusioned “older” young people use these mechanisms even more effectively than the still hopeful twenty-year-olds.

By contrast, when it comes to general political issues, the prevalent opinion expressed in our focus groups was that these problems cannot be resolved: “this is a system that cannot be broken with elections or with protests”; “there is nothing you can do, except on trivial matters.” The respondents are aware of sporadic occasions when ordinary people have been able to defend their interests against bureaucrats, including the closing of the landfill in Shiyes, Arkhangelsk region; the conservation of a park in Yekaterinburg; and the prevention of a program to transport trash from Moscow to the Yaroslavl region. The respondents believe that the way for ordinary people to succeed in such instances is to “act in concert,” “find like-minded people,” “join forces,” and “help each other,” but not everyone is ready to do the same. A safer and more attractive option is focusing on their own lives: “self-improvement,” self-education, career-building, and perhaps even migration—either to Moscow or another major Russian city, or to another country.

A Lost Generation?

There are more than 43 million Russians aged fifty-five and over (out of a total population of 145 million), and over half of them vote in elections. This means that the oldest generation accounts for more than 20 million disciplined voters. The number of Russians eligible to vote under the age of thirty-five is about 30 million, but only a third of them vote regularly.20 Thus, there are only half as many disciplined voters in the youngest voting generation as in the oldest voting generation.

Because of demographic dynamics, the oldest generation enjoys a numerical advantage, and the number of young people among Russians who show up at the polls is significantly lower. Young people therefore aren’t as valuable for the legitimation of the regime, and the government can, for now, ignore their interests. This is a rational approach at a time of crisis and falling ratings, when the authorities can no longer count on the support of wide segments of the population to preserve their power and instead have to prioritize which groups to rely on and which groups to overlook.

Yet the regime needs to think about the future, and that means finding supporters among young people. Meanwhile, the young generation does not have a particularly favorable impression of the regime. One of the recurring topics raised by our respondents was the ineffectiveness of the feedback channel for young people to communicate with government representatives and officials. The authorities “don’t hear and don’t want to hear”; they “don’t listen to the people”; they do whatever they think is necessary; they suppress those who don’t agree with them—these opinions were expressed by the participants of all focus groups: in both age groups and all three cities.

The aging members of the Russian elite are also finding it harder and harder to find common ground with young people because of a generational conflict. This conflict manifests itself not only in the regime’s repressive policy toward young people, but also in the approval for this policy from a considerable share of the older generation. Young people and their parents don’t understand each other well when it comes to political issues, the general situation in the country, and views of the outside world. The generational divide will most likely only continue to grow if the authorities keep ignoring the interests and opinions of young people.

To turn young people into supporters, the government will need to conduct a more active youth policy within the current political cycle, before the 2024 presidential elections. For now, this policy is limited to attempts to indoctrinate the young with conservative ideology, to cultivate a new generation of conformists and careerists. The main priority of the regime is to do whatever it can to keep young people away not only from political activism but also from any civic activism that it is not sanctioned by the government.

It might seem that this objective would be harder to achieve in conditions of almost total urbanization, a new way of life, a reduced television audience, and an increased online audience. However, pressure and prohibitions on the internet can partially prevent or limit the politicization of young people and nip civil activism—and any expression of discontent—in the bud.

These tactics are not the most effective means of improving the quality of human capital, which is vital for national development. Disillusioned young people will prefer emigration (for the most active young Russians, or a retreat into “internal emigration”—a depoliticized private life—for others) or a cynical, fatigued adaptation to the circumstances and rules of the game offered by the regime. The symptoms of this fatigue that can be observed in current trends include choosing vocational training over higher education and a rapid transition to the labor force instead of pursuing further professional training,21 a decline in entrepreneurial initiative, and a loss of interest in new experiences. Is producing a docile, socially apathetic, “lost” generation really the right objective for a government?

The emergence of a new generation of Russians will not automatically bring positive changes to the state and society. Young people don’t feel free enough and they don’t view the future as anything concrete, despite their abstract desire for “self-improvement.” However, we should emphasize that young people are not all alike, and for now, the quality of Russia’s human capital is very high. Whether or not there will be demand for this human capital depends on the authorities.

Courtesy: (carnegiemoscow.org)

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