The media in the west often portray the political landscape in Russia as turbulent and ruthless. Struggling opposition parties, illegal protest rallies, and much speculation on the increasingly totalitarian nature of the current regime’s policies might make an observer imagine that the population is paralyzed with fear and discontent.
If an observer were to look for activism and a passion for change, wouldn’t they look among the country’s young people? Hasn’t history often shown students to be the locomotives of revolution?
However, polling and observation of the Russian population have shown increased political apathy and detachment over the past decade, especially among the nation’s youth.
In a 2007 poll of1,500 respondents conducted by FOM (The Public Opinion Foundation, a subsidiary of Russia’s largest polling organization, the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center), 58 percent of those 18-35 said they rarely or never vote. The margin of error in the poll did not exceed 3.6 percent.
When the same group was asked whether the 2007 parliamentary elections would have any effect on the lives of ordinary people 57 percent said no. (http://bd.english.fom.ru/report/cat/policy/elections/ed073320)
In another study conducted by FOM that same year, 61 percent of 18-35 year-olds said Russian citizens do not have the opportunity to influence to government’s decisions and yet 67 percent said they would never take part in a protest. (http://bd.english.fom.ru/report/cat/societas/civil_society/ed071722)
Even an informal, personal survey of the country’s twenty-somethings supports these findings and reveals a demographic almost diametrically opposed in values and aspirations to the Obama generation in the U.S. As their American counterparts strive to make Washington work for them, Russian youths neither currently work with the Kremlin nor want to work with the Kremlin.
“I don’t care about politics, because we don’t have much choice in this country. I’m just a person who wants to live in an apartment, have a family, and buy things,” says Vera, 23, who graduated from Saint Petersburg State University’s faculty of journalism this year and is avidly pursuing a career in the field.
The recipe for success is self-reliance and ambition combined with doses of luck and a few connections. The world of government and politics is remote and unappealing.
While individuals during the Soviet era may or may not have taken the ideology of the government seriously, they were nevertheless accustomed to a symbiotic relationship with the state. Citizens worked and kept their dissent to themselves, and the Soviet system provided them with an excellent education, jobs, pensions, healthcare, and a decent standard of living.
Today, the youth no longer expect the government to deliver the aforementioned services and so they turn a deaf ear to the prattle of politicians. Their world and the political world are separate and mutually disinterested.
“In our country, only the strongest survive,” Vera says. “The worst thing here is to be dependent on someone. I rely only on myself. So while I’m young and capable, I try not to think about one day being old and alone and needing some sort of social security or state protection.”
Even as a single mother, without a college degree or employment, Darya, 23, harbors no resentment against the corrupt and inefficient state. She lives with confidence that her life will be as comfortable as she cares to make it.
It makes no difference to her that the welfare checks designed to help support her child total an almost useless 1,800 RUR (roughly $60). She does not see the government as a provider and ultimately finds resources elsewhere. She is surprised when others complain about the lack of a safety net for the old or disadvantaged.
“What are children for then?” asks Darya. “You have to raise your kids in such a way that they couldn’t even think to allow their own mother to go to some social services clinic and stand in line for days, or turn in bottles for money.”
And she is not alone in this mindset. Russian youth invest in themselves and they plan to invest in their children, to live the kinds of lives they want, independently of the repressive or liberal politics du jour. And even if they do not consider Russia’s policies to be doing the country any good, they are skeptical that any other party could do better.
Ruslan, 24, considers Vladimir Putin and the rest of those at the top unpatriotic. “You can tell by their politics, by the pumping of resources, by the oligarchic structure of things, by the criminality,” he says.
Yet, he himself feels no urge to work for any “greater good” for Russia. He is a programmer for Deutsche Telekom, with job security and a decent salary, and generally contents himself to armchair criticism. “I don’t want to be the one to go to the barricades,” he admits.
While thousands of people their parents’ age left Russia for the opportunities of the west in the 1990s, dreams of immigration have become passé and uninteresting for this generation.
When asked “is anything wrong in Russia?” young people often respond “yes,” and blame politicians or more frequently the “Russian Mentality.” But seldom do they cite personal difficulties or obstructions to self-realization.
Mostly they are fine with their lives and simply not in the mood for revolutions or voting, or even staying informed. They are interested in making money, traveling, learning, and rearing children. Political discussions are better left to angry old ladies, state-sponsored TV stations, and the blogosphere.
Maya also writes a blog about life in society in Russia