Young Russians never knew the Soviet Union, but they hope to recapture days of its empire


Maksim Rudnev, 26, is a top-ranking member of the Young Guard of United Russia, the youth wing of Vladimir Putin’s political party. “The fact that our generation supports the president is because we remember very well how it was before and how it became after him,” he said. (Vladimir Alexandrov/The Washington Post)

— Oksana Chernysheva, a first-year journalism student at the International University in Moscow, shares the view of her president, Vladimir Putin: The collapse of the Soviet Union was a disaster.

The Soviet Union used to command respect on the international stage. It stood toe to toe with the United States. It wielded its influence in the far corners of the globe.

“We used to be huge and strong, and then it collapsed,” she said.

But what for the 61-year-old Putin amounts to an acute sense of lost glory is for Chernysheva, a baby-faced 18-year-old, a dirge based almost entirely on wistful tales handed down by nostalgic parents.

Chernysheva was born five years after the Soviet Union fell apart.

Putin’s moves this year to annex Crimea from Ukraine and to support pro-Russian opposition movements in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics appear to have resonated with a younger generation that has no memory of the Soviet Union but yearns for its historic power.

According to the Levada Center, an independent polling organization in Moscow, Putin’s high approval rating among young people tops even his numbers among an older generation that remembers the days of empire and views Crimea — and even Ukraine — as essentially Russian.

Eighteen-to-24-year-olds — the youngest group among 1,600 people surveyed in late May — backed Putin more than any other age bracket, at 86 percent, said Karina Pipiya, a spokeswoman for the polling center. Eighty-two percent of Russians ages 40 to 54 said they supported Putin, she said.

Like countless other Russian millennials, Chernysheva has listened to her parents, a bakery manager and a factory worker, describe a time when life was more orderly, “the food was tasty and the ice cream was cheap.”

But the image of a vast military power that commanded global respect is particularly appealing to her, she said.

“I believe that the world should be afraid of us,” Chernysheva said, sipping a hot chocolate in a cafe near her university. “To be afraid means to respect.”

Across town, in the sleek headquarters of the Young Guard of United Russia, the youth wing of Putin’s political party, Maksim Rudnev, 26, said he doesn’t remember the collapse of the Soviet Union, either — nor does he know Chernysheva. Rudnev was one of several Russian youths interviewed separately for this article.

But like his peers, Rudnev remembers being a child during the brutal 1990s, when thousands lost their jobs and pensions as the country staggered forward into a strange and unfair capitalism. His father, a former serviceman in the Russian military, had to spend his weekends picking apricots to support the family, Rudnev said.

Now his father owns a small business, and Rudnev has climbed to the upper ranks of Putin’s Young Guard — a status that he says promises opportunities in politics and power.

“The fact that our generation supports the president is because we remember very well how it was before and how it became after him,” he said.

Putin’s approval ratings have soared among all ages in Russia over the past several months, currently topping 83 percent nationwide, according to the Levada Center.

But the president’s critics say he has left little room for alternatives. In recent months, the state has tightened its grip on the Internet and free expression, and the country’s foremost opposition figure languishes under house arrest.

In the main textbook used by high school seniors, “Putin’s name is mentioned 26 times in just six pages,” said Igor Dolutsky, a Putin critic and renowned Moscow history teacher whose own textbook was swiftly banned several years ago for referring to Putin’s government as an “authoritarian dictatorship.”

A new textbook to be introduced next year further reinforces a “falsified” version of Russian history, Dolutsky said.

On campuses, anti-Putin students and faculty members are not only outnumbered, but they face the prospect of being harassed or sidelined for their opposition views, they said.

“It’s so easy to go to jail in Russia,” said Chernysheva’s friend Anton Kusakin, 20, who worked for opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year before his house arrest and who vehemently disagrees with his pro-Putin friends at school.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea “spoiled everything,” he said. But on-campus activism is almost nonexistent in the current climate, he and Chernysheva agreed.

State media outlets consistently peddle the image of a never-ending Cold War against a West bent on keeping Russia down, analysts said.

Meanwhile, Russian millennials are coming of age in an environment of skyrocketing prices and rampant corruption, while abroad they encounter growing hostility to Russia’s foreign policies.

Anna Gasak, 20, a well-to-do international relations student, put it this way: “Now the national idea is a bit vague, and we don’t know what to follow, who to follow or what to do.”

Gasak, who has spent time in Europe and who described Putin’s foreign policy as a positive show of strength, said that in Soviet times, “we used to be more united.”

These days, her peers increasingly seek out “a better life” in Europe or the United States — if they can afford it, she said. But those who travel have also grown fiercely defensive of a Russia that is becoming more isolated on the international stage.

Putin is “a strong leader,” Gasak said, sitting in a Starbucks in Moscow’s fashionable city center. “But I don’t know why he can’t do these things that he does in foreign policy in terms of domestic policy,” she added, expressing her frustration with Russia’s struggling economy and endemic corruption.

Still, the Russian president, who likes sports and animals and appears shirtless on T-shirts and mugs at stores all over Moscow, is a major role model for young people grasping for a leader, college students and teachers said.

In interviews, Moscow youths repeatedly praised Putin’s successful execution of the Olympic Games in Sochi and his “independence” in international politics. He is a man who stands up for Russia, they said.

Chernysheva, whose girly smile, bangs and bookish glasses seemed to suggest a gentler worldview, said she is tired of Russia being a nation that the West looks at “like a third-world country.”

But Putin, she believes, has her country on the right track. “Maybe the world is starting to be afraid again now,” she said.

Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.

Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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