Skip to main content

The next Russians New focus-group study tests prevailing wisdom about ‘the Putin Generation’

In a study of Russian youth attitudes for Carnegie Moscow Center, a research team led by Andrey Kolesnikov and Denis Volkov gathered a total of six focus groups in three cities (Moscow, Yaroslavl, and Bryansk), assembling two groups in each location, one comprising 18–25-year-olds and the other 30–35-year-olds. The project was designed, in part, to test speculation that a supposedly liberal-leaning, relatively oppositionist new generation of Russians will challenge the current regime’s grip on power. Kolesnikov and Volkov attribute the “myth” that youths formed the heart of this year’s pro-Navalny protests to the Kremlin’s own propaganda, arguing that the authorities used this narrative to depict the Navalny movement as an illegal enterprise, thus justifying a police crackdown. At the same time, however, the narrative betrayed the Kremlin’s own concerns about “losing” the next generation.

When it comes to mass media, Andrey Kolesnikov and Denis Volkov found that young people have “unconsciously migrated” from censored television to freer social networks (they especially like local communities on Vkontakte where people share stories from around town), but the researchers say the consumption of this online content is “chaotic,” and relatively few young people deliberately reject state propaganda.

Some ultra-conservative views, like support for new monuments dedicated to Stalin, still enjoy popularity among young Russians, and Putin remains the most popular politician with this demographic (though favorable attitudes are half what they are among older generations). The study’s respondents expressed relatively more support for Navalny, but some parroted Putin’s own euphemisms about Navalny, avoiding the use of his actual name. (Kolesnikov and Volkov suggest that the reluctance to name Navalny was based on fears of provoking the authorities.)

While young Russians may not exhibit as much support for the state as their elders, civic pessimism reverberated in the focus groups. Jailed opposition figures like Navalny and ex-Khabarovsk Governor Sergey Furgal are the new cautionary tales proving that “protest doesn’t work.” The study’s older group of young people demonstrated even greater defeatism and “learned helplessness.” Respondents also said that voting in elections is necessary, though “elections are seen not as a way of fighting the authorities or changing the government but solely as a channel for sending popular feedback to the authorities.”

Because Russia’s young people are less likely to vote and numerically fewer, the Kremlin has not had to rely on this demographic for legitimacy, but this is changing with time, and the authorities find themselves trying to cultivate loyalty (dissuading unsanctioned political and civic activism) while simultaneously ensuring that Russia is still developing the human capital needed to sustain an advanced economy. 

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

Cover photo: Pixabay