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Who is Putin really fighting? Maxim Trudolyubov on the Russian president’s ruthless war of generations

Source: Meduza

Russia’s war against Ukraine has unleashed a battle not only between two armies and two societies, but also between two generations of leaders. Indeed, a striking age gap divides Russia and Ukraine’s top brass. Vladimir Putin’s close associates and key officials were largely born in the 1950s and 1960s. Whereas the most important positions in the Ukrainian leadership and on Volodymyr Zelensky’s team are, for the most part, occupied by people born in the 1970s and 1980s. But there’s also another clash of generations, one occurring not at the interstate level, but inside Russia itself. Putin’s contemporaries are afraid to relinquish power and bequeath it to those who should be their successors. Instead, they’ve worked to bring the younger generations of would-be leaders to heel, pushing them to the margins of public space or driving them out of the country altogether. 

Russians close to Putin’s age — those born between the second half of the 1940s and the mid-1960s — belong to what anthropologist Alexei Yurchak called the “last Soviet generation.” Since they grew up and began their careers during the Brezhnev era, sociologist Mikhail Anipkin offers another term — the “Stagnation generation.” As studies show, in the USSR’s later years, the period when Putin was growing up, Soviet society lost any remnants of collectivist idealism and turned towards material well-being and the values of individualism. These people had experienced deep disillusionment with regard to their country’s prospects. And it was they, who, without setting themselves an idealistic goal, buried the Soviet system (as Yurchak showed in his seminal book, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More). 

If Russia had functioning elections and other competitive processes for political and economic power to change hands, those who grew up under Brezhnev would have been replaced by those who grew up under Gorbachev and Yeltsin — people born between the second half of the 1960s and the early 1980s (this roughly corresponds with what’s referred to in the West as “Generation X”). The social and cultural context of their youth, and their shared historical experience, is profoundly different from the context in which their predecessors grew up. The children of the Stagnation era had disappointments — the children of Perestroika had hopes. 

Russian “Gen Xers” went through school and university at a historical turning point: during the weakening of a totalitarian state and rising expectations of Russia’s full integration into the world. For many of them, although not everyone, the Putin years have been a time during which they were deprived of freedoms, opportunities, and prospects that seemed only natural, because they raised on them. 

Of course, differences in experience are not determined by age alone. There are “others” of all ages who bear no resemblance to Putin’s generational cohort. Putin has fought against these “others,” those who have experienced freedom, throughout his reign.

Dismantling the elite

National security specialists didn’t really suffer in the 1990s. Russia’s academics, engineers, and doctors had it much harder back then. But during a time of creating new reputations, accumulating new social capital, dismantling the old “socialist” (read, state) property and creating new enterprises not linked to the past, intelligence officers found themselves playing second fiddle. The Putin years have been their revenge — their struggle against autonomy, independence, and youth as such. 

People in Putin’s circle see those who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps as enemies. Putin is fighting against those whose readers, viewers, listeners, customers, voters, and supporters came to them by choice, not on anyone’s orders. The politicians ruling Russia strive for any figure that they view as significant to be appointed, rather than allowing them to come up on their own (effectively, this has already been achieved). Those who Putin considers enemies, and labels “foreign agents” and “extremists,” are a very diverse bunch, including in terms of age. They are only united by the fact that they — unlike the ruling cohort — stand for something. 

“There are a multitude of myths associated with Putin’s elite, and the main one is that it, this elite, exists. In fact, it doesn’t,” writes researcher Nikolai Petrov, who studies the Russian elite. Representatives of “Putin’s elite” cannot boast independent achievements or individual recognition, their positions in society are appointed from above — just as Putin himself received all of his posts. They are easily interchangeable and, having lost their position or found themselves out of favor, lose both their social and material capital (this manifests itself in their disappearance from state-controlled media and the loss of their assets). One shouldn’t forget that the construction of the managed elite took place through a variety of means, including assassinations and persecution on fabricated charges. 

“The main traits of Putin’s elite,” Petrov writes, “are the primacy of the office, not the individual…the requirement of loyalty to the system; obedience to a superior, provided by granting or restricting access to nomenklatura benefits and privileges; the existence of two supporting hierarchies, the party–administration and the Chekists; [and] the primacy of loyalty over efficiency, with a guarantee of not losing status, on the condition of loyalty.”

Ukraine’s change in leadership culture

In 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and ignited a war in the Donbas, Ukraine found itself facing an existential crisis — and the change of elites and generations was recognized as a vital necessity. Today, the Ukrainian government, president’s office, army, and other state structures are dominated by people who mainly remember the USSR from their school years and early university days. They completed their higher education and embarked upon their careers in post-Soviet Ukraine. Most of them have created or built something for themselves — and obtained their positions by winning elections.

About a third of the Ukrainian Cabinet was born in the 1980s, including First Deputy Prime Ministers Yulia Svyrydenko and Olga Stefanishyna (both born in 1985). Ukraine is represented on the world stage by 41-year-old Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who is the same age as Finance Minister Sergii Marchenko and Justice Minister Denys Maliuska. Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov is 40 years old and Health Minister Viktor Liashko is 42. Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov is just 31. Key members of Zelenky’s office are between 40 and 50 years old — including the president himself, who is 44 (born in 1978). 

Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the 48-year-old general Zelensky appointed as Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces in 2021, considers himself responsible for accelerating the generational change in the country’s military. “Young soldiers and officers are completely different people, they aren’t like us when we were lieutenants. These are new seedlings that will completely change the army in the next five years. Almost all of them know foreign languages, have a command of modern technology, and are well-read,” Zaluzhnyi said in an interview before the Russian invasion. “The new sergeants aren’t patsies like in the Russian army, for example, but real assistants who will soon replace officers in some capacities.”  


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Ukrainian officers are expected to be prepared to make tactical decisions and take initiative in battle, which, in situations where conditions are changing rapidly, can mean departing from the command’s original orders. Indeed, the rigidly centralized Russian-style of operational decision-making is precisely what the Ukrainians sought to move away from through training with Western military instructors. 

Ukraine began actively reforming its military in 2016, bringing about a change in the entire organizational culture in just six years. Today, people who have no Soviet experience already hold key positions in the Ukrainian army and security sector. By comparison, in Russia, the requirement of absolute subordination to one’s superiors has actually tightened. And if it’s true that Vladimir Putin is personally involved in making operational and tactical decisions in the war against Ukraine, this cannot but have a paralyzing effect on Russia’s senior command staff — after all, generals have to coordinate their every move with the top brass. This is all part of the same culture that values loyalty over efficiency. 

Russia’s lost generation

For the generations that came after Putin, rigid filters and barriers were placed along the path to the top. Anyone admitted to the nomenklatura through family or dynastic ties; anyones who made it through the array of checks and studied at the “school of governors” (RANEPA) tied themselves to the regime through unconditional loyalty. The fact that extremely few people have defected from the system speaks to the fact that a place in the nomenklatura is still profitable — and to the fact that the “exit cost” is very high. From the point of view of the authorities, leaving is tantamount to betrayal (take, for example, the story of Aeroflot’s former deputy CEO Andrey Panov or the former Gazprombank executive Igor Volobuyev). 

Those who considered themselves “non-politicized professionals” could once describe holding nomenklatura jobs as a neutral part of their career. Defending this position is hardly possible today. Russians born in the 1970s and 1980s — who could have been key decision makers in a completely different Russia — must either settle for the role of cogs in the machine, risk their freedom (like opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who is only a year and half older than Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky), or emigrate — either physically or internally. This is a war of 70-year-olds against 30- and 40-year-olds — a war of generations, which, in principle, shouldn’t have happened. Ideally, generations shouldn’t fight each other at all; there can and should be harmony. 

Russia already has at least one lost generation: those who grew up during the Perestroika years. They pose a danger to the system. “Putin’s generation trusts my generation — the Perestroika generation, born in the late 1960s to early 1970s — least of all, believing (quite rightly) that we have a grudge against them,” writes sociologist Mikhail Anipkin. According to Anipkin’s research, his generational cohort feels that Putin’s generation “screwed them over” — not only by refusing to step down, but also by promoting their own children, bypassing the Perestroika generation altogether. 

Anipkin’s research reveals both a “lack of enthusiasm” among people in their 40s and 50s, as well as a deliberate desire to stay out of politics and focus on personal and economic achievements. As one Russian “Gen Xer” told Anipkin in an in-depth interview: “Our generation was waiting for its time to finally come. And now it’s surprised to discover that it won’t be allowed to come to power. And that, in general, the generation that’s 10–15 years older than us has firmly occupied all the positions. Moreover, they’re preparing their own children to replace them, that is, completely blocking the social elevator…bypassing our generation.”

Discontent around Putin

‘Almost nobody is happy with Putin’ Meduza’s sources say a new wave of pessimism in the Kremlin has Russia’s hawks demanding more brutality in Ukraine while others scout for presidential successors

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‘Almost nobody is happy with Putin’ Meduza’s sources say a new wave of pessimism in the Kremlin has Russia’s hawks demanding more brutality in Ukraine while others scout for presidential successors

When transfer of power becomes a political taboo

This is a manifestation of one of Russia’s fundamental problems as a political society. In Russia, there is no automatic institutional mechanism for the transfer of power and property. The “children” who appear “destined” to become the next generation of leaders rise to the top not on their merits, but because they’re the children of the “right people.” The current authorities have had more than two decades to develop a real mechanism, but instead they’ve consistently destroyed any open, minimally competitive processes. Moreover, they’ve constructed barriers that hinder the peaceful change of elites and generations. 

The complete rejection by Putin and his circle of elections as a process for transferring power has recently developed into a fear of any political or economic “heirs” that they haven’t chosen personally. In Russian politics, the issue of the transfer of power and “succession” has become something like a keystone. 

This is a real tragedy. Russia had a chance for a peaceful and open change of power. There was a chance to avoid another 1991, another reset of experience and capital. On paper, even the authorities would like to avoid this. But instead they’ve done everything possible to make transferring power and property impossible without a deep crisis. 

Many people tend to think that Putin and his circle are trying to revive the USSR, which collapsed in their living memory. But this isn’t the case. They aren’t preoccupied with bringing back the Soviet Union or reconstructing an empire, although they certainly have imperial instincts. They aren’t even preoccupied with the “war” with the West, even though they dislike it. 

What they’re doing is seeking to prevent people who are fundamentally alien to them from accessing power and property. And there are many such people, from more than one generation: not only “Gen X,” but also the vast majority of “millennials,” because the children of the current leaders account for only a small number of them. 

By constantly raising the stakes and making their rule ever more extreme, Putin’s peers in his inner circle acquire more and more mechanisms for controlling access to power and politics. This fear of relinquishing power is the underlying cause of the war Putin has unleashed. 

On Putin’s elites

Erroneous predictions Political scientist Kirill Rogov on why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t just ‘Putin’s war’

On Putin’s elites

Erroneous predictions Political scientist Kirill Rogov on why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t just ‘Putin’s war’

Essay by Maxim Trudolyubov

Translation by Eilish Hart 

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