Russian President Vladimir Putin, following his expected victory in the 2018 presidential elections, will be due to overtake dictator Joseph Stalin as Russia’s longest-serving leader. Throughout his two decades as Russia’s plain-speaking, macho leader, the world has witnessed severe democratic backsliding and increases in state repression. And today the sense of distrust and hostility towards government institutions in Russia is waning by the day; yet despite the lack of popularity of religious institutions, local officials and the military Putin has enjoyed a stable bed of support from the majority of Russian citizens. But in the wake of the 2019 Moscow protests, in which many Muscovites took to the streets to curb blatant election fraud on account of the ruling ‘United Russia’ regime, many faces in the crowd were the young of the so-called ‘Putin Generation’ – people born and raised under the Putin regime who are now of voting age. What many want to know is do the next generation of Russian gravitate towards Putin like previous generations have, and if so, how stable are the foundations of Putin’s youth support.
When asking the question as to why Putin has such a stable base of support, it is enlightening to look back 20 years into the conditions in which paved the way for a Putin presidency. The 1990s proved to be a traumatic time for Russian life. After the prolonged death of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, Russia found itself stumbling into its new destiny as a western-style capitalist democracy. Certainly, initially, there was a surge of enthusiasm and excitement as foreign businesses began exporting the west to Russia, but no sooner had the novelty of eating American fast-food turned to ashes in the mouths of many Russians as the economic situation took a turn for the worst. Under the Presidency of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, the government implemented economic reforms which had catastrophic effects on the living standards of many Russians. Between 1991 to 1998, Russia lost nearly 30% of its GDP in a decade in which security and social services, a staple part of the Soviet experience, withered away from a lack of funding. And in a wave of privatisation, the Yeltsin administration sold upwards of 45,000 formerly nationalised businesses, with many being bought up by a small number of extremely wealthy men known as the oligarchs. The economic disparity combined with widespread corruption and the ineffectiveness of Boris Yeltsin’s government (with the president being held disdain as an alcoholic embarrassment) really soured the democratic experience in the eyes of many Russians. But out of this period of decline for the Russian people came the resignation of Yeltsin in 1999 and the introduction of a new face onto the political scene.
When Putin was announced as Yeltsin’s successor, he was initially received coldly on account of how unknown he was. But it would not take long for the former KGB man to begin crafting his image as that of a firm, no-nonsense law-bringer, which come the turn of the millennium was exactly what many Russians desperately wanted. Throughout the course of Putin’s leadership, there has, undoubtedly, been a resurgence of Russian national prestige as well as an economic comeback. Despite grand nationalistic ambitions and the western media’s habit of trumping up Russophobia, Russia is not a comparable power to the Soviet Union. Russia is only a regional power; at best it could be considered a weak great power. Yet, Putin has, through a carefully crafted image and tact, managed to convince his people (and much of the world) of a grander purpose for his nation. Previous generations of young supporters had fallen under the ‘Putin’ spell. During the leaders first two terms as President, many youth supporters banded together to share their support and enthusiasm for their leader, one of the larger organisations, Nashi (ours), numbered upwards of 120,000. But perhaps one factor that key is that organisations like Nashi were not established as pro-government or even pro-United Russia (Putin’s political party), it was pro-Putin, the regime has always rested upon one man.
But, as Putin’s tenure entered its second decade, there was a marked departure from the subtlety that existed in the 2000s. This authoritarian shift has seen Russia drop to 149th on the World Press Index as well as shining a light on his willingness to play dirty. However, the opposition has, for the most part, remained on the fringes. Russia, for all its misgivings, has maintained a degree of economic stability throughout Putin’s years. As of March 2020, the country’s adult unemployment rate stands at a remarkably low 4.7%. Though despite this, attitudes toward the government, media and religious institutions are not positive, especially among the ‘Putin Generation’. In a survey conducted by the ‘The Conversation’, it was found that between 50% and 60% either “do not trust at all” or “rather do not trust” their local church, media and government. However, the same cannot be said towards attitudes of Vladimir Putin. Conversely, in 2018, only 31% said that they “do not trust at all” or “rather do not trust” their President. However, there is a sign that this sense of trust and support for Putin is beginning to slip, as in 2019 the same survey showed that this percentage had risen to 45%.
Whilst the latter statistic may suggest that Putin’s otherwise stable popularity is slipping, this change of heart is more reactionary. For example, in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Institute, there was an interesting contrast between Russian youths (aged 18 – 29-year olds) and American youths. When asked if they believed that they are better off financially than their parents, only 37% believed that this was so. Contrast that with the Russian response which came back as 52%. When analysing these kinds of data, one can’t help but draw the conclusion that, although conditions in Russia are far from favourable for the ‘Putin Generation’, there remains a sense of humility and gratification which is, for right or wrong, directed towards Putin, who after two decades still continues to portray himself as an underdog fighting for the average Russian.
Though, this stability and rock of support are also one that rests on the stability of the Russian economy. Many analysts and foreign observers are now predicting a period of strain on Putin’s regime in light of the recent Coronavirus outbreak, with the virus expected to cause untold job losses and economic difficulties. In addition, the outbreak has since led to trouble regarding Russia’s fossil fuels exports. The regime has gained an overt reliance on this industry, with large corporations like Gazprom, and should a catastrophic occurrence towards this industry then there would be no doubt serious consequences to the greater Russian economy. So, whilst Putin enjoys a sense of support and content from the ‘Putin Generation’ for now, it is likely that this sense of support rests only on economic stability, which itself is a naturally unstable force.