Ruslan Parshutin was just a teenager, but he still remembers New Year’s Eve 20 years ago.
Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, flickered on TV screens, speaking slowly and deliberately. Eight years of political and economic turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union had taken its toll on him. Yeltsin announced his resignation and handed over power to his energetic 47-year-old prime minister, Vladimir Putin.
“We had hopes that there would be changes for the better,” says Parshutin, now an engineer. “And those hopes were justified — that’s obvious. It’s just enough to look at our city and see how much it has changed.”
Parshutin, 35, stands in the new riverside park in Tula, an industrial city 100 miles south of Moscow. For Russians like him who lived through the poverty, crime and chaos of the 1990s, Putin represents a return not just to stability but to national greatness. Even after two decades in power, Putin consistently enjoys approval ratings around 70%.
At the same time, younger Russians with no memory of life before Putin are more likely to perceive stagnation where their parents see stability. A recent poll shows that more than half of Russians between 18 and 24 would like to move to another country for good.
Parshutin blames foreign movies and “propaganda” for changing attitudes among young Russians. He calls himself a “Soviet” person, and that’s why he values Russia’s return to the world stage.
“It’s important to us because we remember our roots from Soviet times. Patriotism is in our blood,” he says. “We always aimed to be number one in the world, and Putin understands that.”
Andrei Makhrin, a political scientist at Tula State University, says his students are more interested in politics than ever before — but he attributes their opposition leanings to the “destructive element” of youth, as well as a lack of socialization.
Makhrin defends Putin’s legacy, arguing that he managed to pull Russia back together after centrifugal forces threatened even further disintegration after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.
“There isn’t a single unstable element in the management of the country,” Makhrin says. “Take a look at the United States. I think that’s where there’s instability and political chaos.”
Makhrin says that Tula, a center of arms production for 300 years, is especially supportive of Putin because of his revival of the defense industry. Some of the dividends are now flowing back to the city in the form of urban renewal.
In 2016, Putin named one of his bodyguards the head of Tula region. Since then, the new governor has renovated the city’s 500-year-old kremlin, or fortress, pedestrianized a historic street and built a promenade along the Upa River. Moribund factories in the town center have reopened as cutting-edge cultural centers offering lectures, concerts and exhibits on Tula’s past.
Many of the young people who hang out in Tula’s converted industrial spaces were born after Putin came to power. For them, nostalgia for Soviet glory or talk of stability is abstract, especially in the face of falling living standards and decreasing economic opportunity.