Putin’s War on Young People

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is a war against youth—and not only in the sense that he is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of young Ukrainians and Russians. To the clique of aging former KGB officers who have effectively usurped power in Russia, young people—if they are not cogs in the Kremlin’s war machine—are a threat simply because they will live longer and one day be able to redefine what it means to be Russian.

Putin, who turned 70 last October, has amended Russia’s constitution to remain president until 2036. Almost unnoticed, a generation of Russians has come of age during his 23 years in power as Russia’s president and prime minister. Like young people anywhere, they are overlooked, misunderstood, and maligned by their elders. Yet if Russia is ever to become a country that seeks peace with its neighbors and respects the rights of its own citizens, then such a future depends on Russia’s young people.

I took notice of this new generation of Russians six years ago after becoming NPR’s Moscow correspondent. The young people I met struck me with their sophistication and awareness of the wider world around them. They were students and entrepreneurs, fashion designers and musicians. They lived on the internet, traveled abroad, and shared the sensibilities and lifestyles of their peers elsewhere in Europe and in North America. What I found so surprising was how different this new generation was compared to young Russians I had encountered in the past.

When I began traveling to Russia in the early 1990s, it was a time of political liberation and economic collapse. The young Russians I got to know then were curious and open-minded. But having grown up in the isolation of the Soviet Union, they were also naive about how the rest of the world worked. There was a yawning cultural gap between the ruins of the Soviet empire and the West, which young Russians were eager to emulate if not join.

In 2003, when I moved to Moscow as a journalist, Russia was at the start of an unprecedented oil boom that coincided with Putin’s first two terms in office. Moscow had turned into a nonstop orgy of conspicuous consumption in glossy new shopping malls and extravagant nightclubs. The young people I met were unapologetically materialistic and apolitical, as they sought compensation for the deprivation and overpoliticization of life under communism. The parvenu glitter made Moscow feel palpably different from London, Berlin, or New York, and a culture gap continued to separate young Russians from their peers in the West.

By the time I moved back to Russia at the end of 2016, a new generation who had known only Putin as Russia’s leader was reaching adulthood. Politically, even if they did not agree with the direction Putin was taking Russia, most young people were not particularly active. The Kremlin had eliminated any meaningful political competition, making opposition politics a futile occupation with predictable outcomes: failure, irrelevance, and often persecution. As a result, young Russians tended to be more interested in what they did have the power to change: themselves.

Before long, I made investigating this generation one of my main missions. I began calling the young people I met “new Russians”—riffing on the ironic Russian term, Novye Russkiye, for the nouveau riche class that emerged after the fall of communism. “New Russians” were not just a phenomenon of the Moscow bubble; I found them everywhere I went, from central Russia to the Ural Mountains and Siberia.

As a demographic group, this generation was relatively small because of a precipitous drop in Russia’s birth rate during the country’s economic turmoil in the 1990s. But never before had a generation of Russians grown up with so many opportunities to study abroad, travel, or start their own businesses. High-speed internet not only flung open a window to the world but offered a marketplace for budding entrepreneurs. Young Russians seemed self-confident and at home in the globalized world. Unlike their parents, raised amid the stifling conformism of the late Soviet Union, these young people were individualists. They were not plagued by the inferiority complexes of Putin and his cohort, who were obsessed with recovering the respect and status that Russia was supposedly being deprived of. Young Russians also did not appear to share Putin’s hang-up with “non-traditional sexual orientations.”

One of the first features I reported was on American-style barbershops springing up in Russian cities. In Moscow, I met a young couple that had founded a chain of salons equipped with old-school arcade video games and espresso machines, where tattooed barbers gave their customers hipster haircuts. The barbershops revealed a native fluency in Western pop culture—and challenged old notions of Russian masculinity that real men should be tough guys not overly concerned with their hair or skin care.

During the summer of 2017, opposition leader Alexey Navalny barnstormed across Russia in a quixotic campaign to oust Putin in the upcoming presidential election. Even though the Kremlin made clear that Navalny would not be allowed to get his name on the ballot, crowds of all ages came out to see him in provincial towns. The campaign offices Navalny opened were mobbed by enthusiastic young supporters no different from campaigners in democratic countries.

A 22-year-old college student in Kaluga told me he was afraid to tell his parents he was running Navalny’s local campaign office. A teenager at an anti-government rally in Novosibirsk said he had been considering going abroad to study before Navalny gave him hope to stay in Russia. Navalny, 41 at the time, captured the imagination of young people who saw no future in Putin’s seemingly endless rule.

Outside of the hard-core political opposition though, I encountered few Russians of any age who actively supported Navalny. Most people did not believe they had any real choice. A 17-year-old self-described anarchist in Vladivostok told me she had no hope that Navalny—or anyone else—could unseat Putin. In Tula, a 19-year-old student lamented the regime’s “tunnel vision” propagated on state television.

That was all before Navalny was poisoned with a weapons-grade nerve agent in 2020, was medically evacuated to Germany, and returned to Russia in defiance of the Kremlin, which warned he would be arrested on an old, politically motivated conviction for embezzlement. When Navalny was jailed upon his arrival, primarily young people took to the streets. The protests were the scariest I had covered in all my years in Russia. Riot police indiscriminately snatched bystanders off the street and then locked them up for days. Many protesters told me they did not support Navalny as a politician but were appalled by how the authorities were treating him.

Protests broke out in cities large and small across Russia, and police detained more than 11,000 people. The no-holds barred crackdown spelled the end of street demonstrations as a form of protest in Russia.

A little more than a year after locking up Navalny, Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainians have expressed anger that instead of protesting the war and trying to change their government, hundreds of thousands of young Russians have instead chosen exile—making the overthrow of Putin’s regime all the less likely. That frustration is certainly understandable but also reflects how far apart Ukraine and Russia have drifted in 30 years: Ukrainians are now as used to demonstrating for their rights as Germans or French people are, whereas Russians have to fear jail—and possibly worse—if they dare to protest.

Russia has turned into a place straight out of dystopian fiction, where a man is fined for posting an Instagram story about a dream involving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, or a father has his daughter taken away from him after she draws an anti-war picture at school. If Navalny’s bravery inspired Russians while he was still a free man, then his imprisonment has had a chilling effect.

I stayed in touch with one young man I first met at a Navalny campaign office in Kaluga. He seemed happy to hear from me when I recently contacted him via an encrypted messaging app. But the moment I asked about his views on the war, he went silent.

In a dictatorship like Russia, it is difficult to know what people of any age believe. A poll taken by the independent Levada Center in November 2022 showed that 62 percent of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 supported the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine, whereas 25 percent were opposed; these proportions roughly mirrored the 74 percent to 20 percent split among all age groups. Yet when asked what should happen next, only 22 percent of young Russians endorsed a continuation of the war, whereas 68 percent supported peace talks. (Among all ages, 41 percent were for continuing the war and 53 percent for negotiations.)

Putin’s war has become a trap for young Russians who oppose it. Fleeing the country is not a realistic option for most people, and active resistance is futile and dangerous. One activist, Dmitry Ivanov, recently received an eight-and-a-half-year prison sentence for mentioning alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine on social media; Artyom Kamardin, a poet who read an anti-war poem in public, was reportedly raped with a dumbbell during a police raid on his apartment last fall. We no longer hear the voices of war opponents because they have been silenced.

Nobody can say what will come after Putin. Much depends on how he loses power—whether his departure comes as a natural death, a chaotic collapse, or a palace coup behind the Kremlin walls. It is possible, even probable, that another aging former KGB officer will take over at first. But sooner or later, there will be a change of generations.

When Putin goes, there will be no Putinism to outlive him. There is no ideology, like communism, nor a political structure, like the Communist Party, to carry on his life mission of piecing together a broken empire. Putin has exploited lingering nostalgia for the Soviet Union for his lost cause, but he offers no vision of a future that young Russians are supposed to fight and die for.

When a new generation of Russians comes to power, the challenges they face will be monumental, from making peace with Ukrainians to taming the destructive forces Putin unleashed to fight his forever war against the West.

The “new Russians” I discovered in the years before Putin’s invasion have not disappeared. Although they do not make up a majority now, these young people are the world’s best hope that Russia can change for the better.

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