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Russias young people are Putins biggest fans

Issued: 2018-03-10

Anton Troianovski, The Washington Post



KURGAN, Russia - A young woman, riding a city bus to her journalism class, enjoys using the time to scroll through an independent news site that can be scathing in its reports on Russia's authoritarian president - leaving her to wrestle with a paradox, the paradox of her generation.

"What the Russian soul demands," says Yekaterina Mamay, "is that there be one strong politician in the country who resembles a czar."

In Russia's upcoming presidential election, the 20-year-old student, who knows that journalism in her country is not free, will nonetheless vote to reelect Vladimir Putin.

Here, where the forest of the taiga meets the grassy steppe, the "Putin Generation" is no different from anywhere else across Russia's vastness: coming of age without a rebellious streak. Today's Russian young adults have no memory of life before Putin, who first took power as their president 18 years ago. Some have taken to the streets in protest, but social scientists say many more have grown to accept him. Polls show that Putin enjoys greater support among youth than among the public at large.

Vladimir Putin has submitted his application to Russia's Central Election Commission. He's hoping to register as a candidate for the presidential ballot in March. Putin has been in power for 18 years and is expected to easily win another six-year term. Two of Russia's main parties say they won't field candidates in the election. Instead, A Just Russia and Civic Platform will back Putin. That means he has the support of four out of six parties in the Duma, the lower house of Russia's Federal Assembly. Ksenia Sobchak's liberal Civic Initiative party isn't represented in the Duma - and she wants people dissatisfied with the other candidates to vote for her. Then there are other veterans of past elections - including liberal Grigory Yavlinsky and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been deemed ineligible to stand due to a criminal conviction. He says the charge is bogus and is calling for a series of nationwide rallies in January. He wants voters to boycott the presidential election. "The question is not in the fact that they didn't let me run in the election," Navalny says in a campaign video. "But because of that it is important to take part in our boycott of voters. Not to defend Navalny, but to defend your own right to influence the regime". Navalny has already organized some of the biggest anti-government protests in years. He says Putin's support is artificially maintained by an unfair system which excludes genuine opponents.

To Western eyes, young Russians such as Mamay who espouse some liberal values but back Putin live in a world of contradictions. In fact, their readiness to accept those contradictions helps explain Putin's grip on power.

"You realize that it's good to live with him. You don't complain," Dmitry Shaburov, an 18-year-old budding entrepreneur, said of Putin. "When I wake up in my apartment, no one takes me to the Gulag."

On March 18, Russians will go to the polls to confirm a fourth presidential term for the 65-year-old former KGB officer who turned this country's young, chaotic democracy into an authoritarian system beholden to his rule. He has batted back the opposition thanks to his control over Russia's main television channels, the security services and the judiciary - but also because, as even many of his opponents acknowledge, most of the country supports him.

According to a December survey by independent polling firm Levada Center, 81 percent of adults approve of Putin as president - including 86 percent of Russians 18 to 24 years old. Among the age group, 67 percent told Levada they believed the country was going in the right direction, compared to 56 percent of the general public.

The most internationally connected generation in Russian history, with access to more information than any of their predecessors, is now helping Putin solidify his authoritarianism.

Rather than dwell on Putin's crackdown on his opponents, young Russians draw a sense of personal liberty from those freedoms they do enjoy - a mostly open Internet, an open job market and open borders. Many of them reject state TV as propaganda but nevertheless repeat its central tenet - that Russia needs Putin to stand up to U.S. aggression. And perhaps most important, these Russians seem shaped by a collective history they never knew - by fear of a return of the crisis-stricken 1990s or the stifling Soviet era.

"We already know everything about him," Pavel Rybin, 20, who is studying event management, said of Putin. "If now the people elect him again, everything will be quiet and calm."

Young Russians made headlines in the past year for forming the backbone of thousands-strong street protests backing opposition leader Alexei Navalny, inspired by the youthful anti-corruption activist's YouTube videos spotlighting apparent wrongdoing. But analysts warn it's wrong to take those protests as a sign of a wave of anti-Putin fury reminiscent of the Arab Spring.

"There is no critical mass of people demanding radical change," political scientists Ivan Krastev and Gleb Pavlovsky write this month for the European Council of Foreign Relations. "Contrary to Western fantasies, Russians under the age of 25 are among the most conservative and pro-Putin groups in society."

- - -

The stories of three young people in Kurgan - a city of about 300,000 on the Trans-Siberian Railway near the Kazakh border - help explain why. All three are voting for Putin out of a mix of hope, resignation and fear.

Their reasoning begins with a visceral sense of a darker, poorer past. In the 1990s - before Putin came to power - lawlessness in Kurgan was such that innocent locals could get killed simply for sitting in the wrong seat on a bus or in a movie theater, Mamay recalls her grandmother telling her when she was little.

Later, her father - a firefighter - told her grandfather, "I live better than you, and I hope that my children will live better than me." Mamay says she now has the same hope for her own future in Putin's Russia.

"These will probably be small, small improvements," Mamay said. "But that's better than if some person comes to power who won't be able to keep everything in balance."

Mamay wants to be a journalist, but she says the press in Russia is not free. She follows the news on Meduza, a Latvian-based Russian-language news outlet frequently critical of Putin. Privately owned news outlets sell their reporting to the highest bidder, while state television amounts to government propaganda, she said.

"That's probably how the media works everywhere," Mamay said. "They're trying to make us think poorly of America. I figure that in America, they are doing the same, trying to make people think poorly of Russians."

It was Putin, when Mamay was little, who forced some of Russia's richest men to yield control of the country's main television networks. But she doesn't fault the president for Russia's stifled media atmosphere. In fact, she recently found a way to practice her chosen craft. She joined the local Vladimir Putin youth fan club as its press secretary.

Shaburov, the 18-year-old entrepreneur, recently moved from the countryside to Kurgan, where he first tried to make ends meet by delivering sushi and pizza and working as a taxi driver. His latest venture is called "crowd investing," and he said he was hoping to move to Moscow to take advantage of the greater opportunities in the capital.

He said he realizes that Russia offers its citizens fewer freedoms than Western countries do - and that Putin may have something to do with this. But he prefers to focus on the freedoms he does have, such as being able to start a business and traveling abroad.


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