The Views of the “Putin Generation”

To the great surprise of many Western commentators and journalists, Vladimir Putin voluntarily stepped down as President of the Russian Federation after completing two four-year terms. This is the first time in the 1,000 year history of Russia that a leader, at the height of his popularity, voluntarily relinquished power. In addition, a new precedent has been set. Putin’s decision has established a belief that Article 81 of the Russian constitution is to be respected and that any future Russian President is to serve no more than two successive terms.

The “Putin Generation”

The enormous popularity of President Putin is unmatched anywhere in the West and recent surveys have documented that Russian young people, ages 16 to 29, are enthusiastic supporters of the ideological platform that Putin has built. These young people, born between 1976 and 1991, are best described as the “Putin Generation.” Unlike young people in Eastern Europe, for example, who became committed to democracy and human rights after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, young Russians reflect and support the values and aspirations of their President.

One key ingredient in Putin’s ideological platform is the encouragement of Soviet nostalgia. Putin has frequently made efforts to restore a sense of pride in the accomplishments of the Soviet Union and to use this pride to bolster the policies of his administration. In his State of the Union address in April 2005, Putin said, “The collapse of the Soviet Union [was] the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” and this statement is often repeated by Russian youth. Another related dimension of this nostalgia is the ambivalence with which they view Joseph Stalin. In a 2005 survey of Russian youth, the majority believed that Stalin did “more good than bad.” A survey two years later confirmed the same results. Many of these young people are reflecting the rewriting of Soviet history that has occurred in the last decade — a rewriting which portrays the Soviet experience in a positive light.

A second key ingredient in Putin’s ideological platform is the manufacturing of enemies both within and outside of Russia. Russian youth have picked up these themes and survey results indicate that they share the President’s concerns. Although many young Russians have been generally apathetic and apolitical, they believe the President’s warnings about enemies in their midst.

Attitudes Toward Americans

In light of the Kremlin’s warnings about both domestic and foreign enemies, it is not surprising that many Russian youth have negative feelings about U.S. policy and especially President Bush. What is surprising to me is that survey results show that highly educated young males living in Moscow are actually the most anti-American. This is discouraging since many of these men will be future leaders. The second surprise is that young Muslim Russians hold the United States in substantially higher esteem than non-Muslims.

It is important to note, however, that Russian youth, like their parents, differentiate between the American people and the American government. Only 14 percent of the youth said they disliked both the American President and the American people; 24 percent said they liked both. Thirty-eight percent said they liked the American people, but not the American President. Twenty-one percent said it was “hard to say.” In summary, researchers who conducted these surveys concluded that the “Putin Generation” holds largely negative views towards the U. S. government, but these feelings have not translated into animosity toward the American people.

Who Do They Trust?

When young people in Russia were asked who they trust, President Putin’s ratings were 82 percent in 2007, up from 78 percent in 2005. The army and the mass media are viewed as trustworthy “fully or somewhat” by 50 percent of the youth, while the police receive a 30 percent rating and this rating has been on a decline in recent years. When asked if Russia is “currently on the right path,” 56 percent of the Russian youth surveyed “fully agree” or “somewhat agree,” while 15 percent said “hard to say” and 29 percent “somewhat disagree” or “fully disagree.” These results were significantly higher than survey results from two years earlier.

What Can Be Done?

The state-controlled mass media in Russia often portrays the U. S. government in a negative light and the American press reflects the same hostility back. For the youth in both nations, it is hard to get a realistic understanding of the other country. People-to-people exchanges are one key way of combating those who want to create a rivalry between Russia and America. Joint projects involving non-governmental organizations that address common concerns, such as public health issues, urban decay, handicapped children, etc., are another means to build positive relationships between these countries.

RACU was established as a bi-cultural, bi-national higher educational institution in order to develop a means by which ideas, resources and people could move back-and-forth between these two continental powers. Education is an important tool in building a healthy relationship between two people who have so much in common.

NOTE: This essay is based on the surveys and analyses of Sarah Mendelson (Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.), and Ted Gerber (University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin).