SAINT PETERSBURG — Street protests in Russia over the past year have turned very much into a youth movement. But the increasing presence of university activists, and even high school students, seems to fly in the face of the belief that the young generation is widely considered to be apolitical and consumerism-oriented.
In light of this apparent contradiction, and ahead of next spring's presidential election, Kommersant has sought to better understand today's youth, and attempt to predict whether they will support President Vladimir Putin's campaign for a fourth term.
Kommersant commissioned the Public Opinion Foundation to study 18-25 year-olds in its recent weekly survey of electoral preferences, and the results turned out to be quite similar to polls of the whole population. In November, the national survey showed 68% of the entire population supported Putin, compared to 66% of young people.
Putin's popularity among the youth is generally confirmed by the Higher School of Economics' survey results. Among 6,000 students from 109 universities, 47% are ready to vote for Putin in the upcoming presidential election. Alexei Navalny comes in second with only 7% of potential votes, while 12% do not intend to vote at all, with 15% undecided.
According to Higher School of Economics’ researcher Valeriya Kasamara, a significant portion of young people sympathize with Putin "because he is the president who has been in power for as long as they can remember." Navalny, by contrast, is seen as a threat to stability and is particularly criticized by voters outside the capital.
Attitudes toward street protests are rather skeptical: 72% say that such anti-government demonstrations is not an efficient way of influencing the authorities, though 34% of respondents consider a mass protest across the country possible, and 14% are ready to take to the streets.
I feel close to the USSR, though it is hard to explain why.
While Putin remains "a national hero" to many, deputies of the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, are considered the least trustworthy according to 66% of respondents, followed by local deputies, mayors and governors (61%). Journalists and TV presenters come third with 56% considering them unreliable. Curiously enough, television maintains a relatively high level of trust as a source of information, with 42% of students trusting it.
Russians in the 18-to-25 year-old strata are the first generation that did not live in the Soviet Union. Marking 100 years after the October Revolution, sociologists note that many students have a vague image of Soviet history, though they do have clearer knowledge of a few individual figures, like Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. The latter is associated with tyranny, victory in World War II, and the "efficient management" assigned to him by many history books. Lenin remains a "great revolutionary" in the eyes of today's youth.
Putin poses with the military police — Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Planet Pix/ZUMA
"I feel close to the USSR, though it is hard to explain why. Somehow I like everything — photos, fashion, songs of those years. The era is perceived as something inherent even to our generation", says 23-year-old Kaleria. Another young Russian girl Alexandra knows the USSR by her grandmother's tales and history classes, and associates it with "debt," "hard work at plants,", "space conquest", "war", "waiting in line" and "world’s best educational system."
While interest in the Soviet past remains, it is now in decline, Valeria Kasamara from the Russian Public Opinion Research center explains, noting the decline has accelerated since 2014: "Before that, there was nostalgia. The country seemed to be moving forward with its head turned back to the past," she says.
While letting go of the Soviet past, Russian youth does not seem to have a clear idea on what the country’s new unifying national ideology could be. A 23-year-old St. Petersburg State University’s graduate name Alexandra admits that when given such a task, her group of friends has "failed miserably."
The concept of traditional values for students is vague. A sociologist Yana Krupets remembers how young respondents named "traditional Russian birch trees" a national value to her once.
"For me, traditional values are in our history, culture, characteristic rituals like bathhouses or Orthodox holidays, or Soviet movies only dear and comprehensible to a Russian soul," says 20-year-old Galina.
Victor, 22, who identifies himself as a "social democrat, says traditional values lie in the "family institution," based on "marriage, heterosexual love, caring for children, virginity, fidelity, patriotism and heroism."
According to other recent surveys, a significant number of Russian students are having doubts on whether to stay in Russia or to leave the country for good. Among the reasons for emigration, students cite the Orthodox Church's growing influence on everyday life, lack of career opportunities, fears associated with the growth of nationalism and the likelihood of inter-ethnic conflicts.
Then there was the November study by a Russian social design center that found a significant number of young people "love their country but, should anything happen, would leave at once."