Young and restless, Russia's polarized 'Putin generation'

Demonstrations, counter-demonstrations. Russia's young people are arguably more prosperous and more polarized than previous generations, Nahlah Ayed reports. Much of that polarization revolves around the only national leader they have ever known, Vladimir Putin.

Demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, theirs at least is a generation seeking answers

A couple share a kiss during an opposition protest in central Moscow in May 2012. Russia's young people have been protesting, counter-protesting and leaving the country in significant numbers to find work. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters)

Sergei Pospelov's political influences come from around the world: He quotes John F. Kennedy, reads about Winston Churchill, and praises Vladimir Putin.

It doesn't take long after the latter's name comes up before Pospelov displays a picture on his iPad, in which he is standing behind the Russian president, smiling broadly.

At 33, Pospelov's been a card-carrying member of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party for 10 years. Today he runs the Moscow chapter of the Young Guard, the party's youth wing.

He's a successful businessman, a father, and holds a doctorate in economics. He thinks a lot about how Russia has evolved since the Soviet Union collapsed 22 years ago.

"You can look at the statistics," Pospelov says in an interview at the Young Guard headquarters in Moscow. "When Putin came, what were the budgets? What was the GDP?

"The international, and newest, victories of Russia politics in the world also show that Russia is getting stronger. So there is no doubt." No doubt, he means, that Russia has flourished under Putin.

Pospelov's generation came of age at a time when change was the only constant, and when post-Soviet Russia was floundering, economically and politically.

For them, only one man has dominated the political scene: Vladimir Putin — president from 2000-2008, then prime minister for four years, now president again — is for many Russians the only leader they have ever known.

"He's the national leader. The one who unites Russia still," says Pospelov. Many young Russians would agree.

Another take

Vera Kichanova was also inspired by Putin to enter politics. Only she did it to protest against his re-election in 2012.

Putin is authoritarian, she says, his government corrupt and inefficient. If she had her way, he would have been gone years ago.

No Putin fan, Vera Kichanova is trying to change the system from the inside. (Nahlah Ayed / CBC)

Kichanova wears a lot of hats for a 22-year-old: journalist, activist, and elected politician. She beat her closest opponent for a municipal seat in Moscow by 2,500 votes.

Her opposition credentials include membership in Russia's libertarian party, friendship with members of the outspoken Pussy Riot band, and a couple of arrests under her belt.

Like many here, Kichanova was born just as Communism died.

And her life as a fearless writer and critic is also emblematic of those who came of age in the post-Soviet era, and who have been the first group to feel a real taste of prosperity and freedom, including the possibility that they can change the ways things are.

"The government is not serving the people, but serving themselves," Kichanova says.

Glass half-full

For his part, Pospelov agrees that Russia requires a dramatic reset to address the shortfalls in everything from the economy and youth employment opportunities to health care.

But people like Kichanova make him nervous.

Sergei Pospelov, a United Russia supporter who runs the youth wing of the party's Moscow branch, says Russia is incomparably better off under Putin. (Nahlah Ayed / CBC)

"I want the development of my country, and I would never do the revolution here," he says. "We all know that evolution is better than revolution."

He says Russia is more advanced politically than it gets credit for. "I think we're quite democratically and politically developed," he says. "We have 63 parties now….but I don't see any smart or able-to-do-something leaders from the opposition."

In Pospelov's Russia, the glass is half-full, rather than the other way around.

It is the reason, he says, that the Young Guard has long sponsored youth rallies, partly to counter the anti-government ones but also to counter the prevailing negativity.

"The negativity is not coming from the youth, the negative information is coming from television, from news," he says. "We want to balance it. To let people know that we can. That people can."

Exodus of the young

With the spate of anti-government protests that followed Putin's re-election now dormant, Kichanova is taking a different approach to making her voice heard.

When we met her, she was on a mission to uncover local corruption by checking up on community centres that receive public funding without providing any public services.

She says she ran for office because she felt it would be more effective to bring about change by working inside the system rather than the outside.

"According to surveys people are afraid of the police more than criminals," she says.

"There are the things destroying Russia and we are trying to save the country from all of this, so we are demanding fair elections. We are not demanding … hanging those people on Red Square."

As she sees it, Russia's myriad problems are driving many of its youth away.

"Most of them want to immigrate as soon as possible," she says.

So why is she still here? A long pause. "Sometimes I feel things could change for the better, while … the whole situation changes for the worse."

Ambition at least

Pospelov doesn't see a problem with today's huge exodus of young people going off to work abroad (as he did for a time in the U.S.) — as long as they come back.

Russian riot police scuffle with protestors during the "march of the million" opposition protest in central Moscow in May 2012, as Vladimir Putin was being installed as president for the third time. (Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters)

But will they, though, if significant change remains elusive? If corruption continues to rage unabated, if jobs continue to be hard to come by, if politically the country can't advance?

It is hard to see that happening quickly. Just as it is hard to imagine such disparate views agreeing on how change should proceed, and under whose leadership.

The only thing that truly unites activists like Pospelov and Kichanova is ambition.

"If I were president … I wouldn't invent any [state ideology] because every person has the right to have his own values, his own ideas and to live his own life," she says.

Pospelov's response is an often-quoted Russian idiom: "It's a bad soldier who doesn't want to become a general."

Theirs is such a polarized generation, though, that no one can claim to truly speak for all of Russia's youth.

Still, it is a generation buzzing with promise, even if their rush for the future is being held back by their own divisions, and a still reverberating past.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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