What It Would Take for Russia’s Millennials to Topple Putin

Younger Russians are dissatisfied with the regime but are generally apolitical. Here’s how to change that.

People hold Russian national flags during a celebration ceremony of National Flag Day at Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow on Aug. 22.
People hold Russian national flags during a celebration ceremony of National Flag Day at Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow on Aug. 22. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

From Belarus to Kyrgyzstan to Ukraine, the popular uprisings that have swept the post-Soviet world in the last two decades have had one feature in common: high levels of participation among millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (1997 and 2012).

In some ways, it appears that Russia’s young people may be next. According to polling, in the last couple of years, younger Russians have become the group most dissatisfied with Russia’s political system. But the obstacles that have so far kept the country’s millennials and Gen Zers from reforming the system remain.

For one, there’s the sheer size of the younger generations, which, thanks to decades of low birth rates, constitute a small minority within Russian society. There simply may not be enough young people to successfully push for fundamental change. Second, many younger Russians refrain from actively participating in politics and only grow more politically engaged as they enter their early 30s.

Yet the youth need not despair. Findings from our new study conducted with the Levada Center, an independent survey company, suggest ways in which the United States could help boost higher civic and political engagement in these age cohorts—and, in turn, help them play a similar role as in Russia’s neighboring countries.

Several years ago, it was commonplace for concerned observers to portray younger Russians, who showed no inclination for challenging Vladimir Putin’s rule, as anti-democratic, deeply conservative, and unprepared to fight for a more open future. Yet today, Russians aged 16-34 are the most entrepreneurial, pro-Western, and tolerant cohort in the country. They also hold less paternalistic attitudes than the rest of the population, and the number of Russians below the age of 25 who prioritize human rights is almost twice as high as the number of those who prioritize state interests. The opposite is true among older Russians.

Younger Russians are also among the most opposition-minded groups in Russia. A steady decline in living standards has affected support for the authorities among all Russians, and it isn’t hard to see why. Real incomes in Russia declined every year between 2014 and 2018, when the Russian Federal State Statistic Service changed the methodology for income reporting. In 2020, real incomes experienced the biggest drop they have seen in the last 20 years due to the pandemic-induced economic crisis. That, combined with an unpopular hike in the retirement age in 2018, has diminished Russians’ faith in their country’s political leaders.

The lack of support is most pronounced among younger citizens. In June and July polling, 18- to 24-year-olds were the group most critical of Putin’s rule (49-50 percent disapproved). And in a July study, 62 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds thought that Russia was heading in the wrong direction (as opposed to an average of 40 percent across other ages). According to the study, only 7 percent of young Russians named Putin among politicians they trust (as opposed to 23 percent of the population on average). And in August, only 23 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 31 percent of 25- to 39-year-olds surveyed said they would vote for Putin if the elections were to take place the next Sunday, as compared with 40 percent of the population in general.

Based on focus group discussions, younger and older Russians seem to share many of the same reasons for their dissatisfaction. These include concerns about Russia’s economic problems and the country’s future. However, there are age-specific issues, too, having mostly to do with younger Russians’ different media habits. In particular, younger Russians are more exposed to the internet and social networks. YouTube, for example, has provided a massive podium to new public figures, such as the independent journalist and popular video blogger Yuri Dud, and independent politicians including Alexei Navalny.

Because of their access to outside sources of information, younger Russians appear less vulnerable to Kremlin TV propaganda. Younger Russians are more positive toward the United States, which is constantly bedeviled by Russian state-controlled TV channels. Older, TV-dependent Russians (aged 55 and above) are less so. Younger Russians complain more often about restrictions on the internet and popular communications apps like Telegram. They are opposed to the criminal charges that can be waged for reposts and retweets deemed critical of Putin, and they have criticized the growing brutality of the authorities, such as the crackdown on Moscow protesters in the summer of 2019. In focus groups at the end of last summer, young residents from big cities repeatedly mentioned the case of Daria Sosnovskaya, a young woman who was deliberately punched in the stomach by a police officer at one protest. One of the videos that captured this moment gathered over 700,000 views on YouTube.

Added together, increasing internet penetration and rising opposition to the authorities among younger Russians could chip away at Putin’s power over the long term.

However, several important obstacles remain. First, younger Russians are a minority within the Russian population, and their share keeps declining. According to the 2019 census, Russians aged 15-29 constitute only 16.5 percent of the population due to the relatively small number of children born between 1989 and 2003. As recently as 2010, this age group made up 24 percent of the population. This number, while significantly smaller than in many Asian republics in the post-Soviet space, is comparable to Belarus, where 15- to 29-year-olds constitute 17.7 percent. In Ukraine, the share of 15- to 24-year-olds is only 9.6 percent.

Compounding the challenge of size, young Russians also have low rates of political participation. Surveys show that only about 20 percent of people aged 14-29 are interested in politics, and only 7 percent mention active participation in Russia’s political life as a possibility in the future. Younger Russians follow the news and discuss political topics two times less as often as older ones. They vote in elections of various levels three times less often.

Lower interest in politics may explain the fact that, despite their growing dissatisfaction with the authorities, younger people have not increased as a share of all opposition protesters over the last decade. The figure remained at about 20-30 percent of protest participants. Instead, younger Russians tend stay politically engaged primarily online. For example, while younger Russians, even more than other age groups, disliked the constitutional amendments introduced in 2020, which among other changes granted Putin a right to stay in power for two more consecutive terms, they have also disproportionally abstained from voting during constitutional referenda, including a ballot in July 2020. This is a result of two processes. First, few young Russians thought that their vote would be decisive. Second, continuing disarray within Russia’s opposition prevented it from offering a consolidated strategy for the constitutional amendments voting and mobilizing young Russians to participate.

Still, although Russian millennials and Gen Zers are somewhat apolitical at the moment, in Russia interest in politics and in political participation tends to awaken later in life, closer to the age of 25-30. Data from our surveys shows that various indicators of adulthood, such as having a mortgage and kids and living separately from one’s parents, predict higher political engagement among Russians. Until then, younger people tend to borrow politics from the adults who surround them. However, as these generations become more politically engaged, they may come to represent a real obstacle to Putin’s rule—through protests and at the ballot box. Already by 2024 this age cohort may grow to represent a substantial electoral challenge to the regime.

Meanwhile, our research shows that indicators of civic and political engagement are higher among those Russians between 16 and 34 who speak foreign languages and travel abroad. Other studies have also shown that young respondents who have even a short experience of traveling outside Russia demonstrate higher proclivity for independent thinking. The exposure to different values, norms, and ideas from other countries changes people’s perception of the way things should work domestically. This suggests that fostering educational exchange programs in the United States may be one way to spur political activity among young Russians.

Maria Snegovaya is a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Denis Volkov is a deputy director at the Levada Center in Moscow.

Stepan Goncharov is a senior research fellow for the Levada Center.

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