In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Protests for Navalny Jan. 23, 2021

Young Russians Express Growing Disapproval of Putin

February 09, 2021
Thomas Schaffner

Nearly half of young Russians expressed dissatisfaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a recent poll by the Levada Center, marking a significant decrease in approval from previous years and a generational divide.

Only 51 percent of Russians aged 18 to 24 expressed approval for Putin, while 57 percent of those 25 to 39 years old, 60 percent of 40- to 54-year-olds and 73 percent of those 55 years and over expressed approval for the president’s decisions.

A similar generational divide is evident in responses to the question “is the country moving in the right direction?”. Forty-three percent of respondents aged 18 to 24 and 44 percent of 25 to 39-year-olds responded that Russia was moving in the right direction. Those numbers again rose among older demographics, as 47 percent of respondents aged 40 to 54 and 57 percent of those 55 and older said they believed the country was going in the right direction.

These results indicate a steep decline in Putin’s popularity among the youth as compared to a year ago. In January 2020, 68 percent of those in the 18 to 24 age group and 62 percent in the 25 to 39 age group had a positive attitude toward the president, according to Levada.

However, such a generational divide may not mean that political transition is imminent. Denis Volkov, a Russian sociologist and deputy director of the Levada Center stated that “in the growing divergence of opinions between the younger and older generations, some see a source of  political changes … However, for a large number of Russians, particularly older ones, the otherness of the youth causes feelings of rejection, discomfort, irritation and fear … which feeds the desire to resolutely reject the youth protest.” Volkov further argues that “the harsh arrests seen in the January demonstrations, where the majority of participants were young people, can be considered the quintessence of the described attitude of the authorities toward young people.” The aggressive approach to demonstrations “will always find the support of a significant number of Russian citizens, most of all people of the older generations … Ultimately, of course, a generation shift will occur, though it seems that it will not be quick or without conflict.”

Simon Saradzhyan, director of Russia Matters, commented that such results are “remarkable,” especially as “nearly half of 18–24-year-olds disapprove of Putin. It is his Russia that the overwhelming majority of this demographic group were born in and have grown up in. In their conscious lives, they have known no Russia other than that ruled by Putin (and his interim caretaker Medvedev) and, therefore, Putin cannot realistically blame their disapproval on the so-called turbulent 90s. Dismissing an entire demographic group as ‘agents of the West’ is not an option either. That nearly half of 18 to 39-year-olds, which represent the future of Russia, disapprove of him is a challenge that Putin needs to take seriously. Suppressing independent pollsters won’t make that discontent disappear.”

Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, noted that these results are a “continuation of a trend that has been developing for the past two years,” but the “pandemic became a catalyst for the accumulation of grievances that had developed earlier.” Gudkov argues that these results are also the product of “the actions of Alexei Navalny, the outrage at his arrest and the success of his film [‘Putin’s Palace’].”

Another recent Levada poll has revealed that 37 percent of the youngest demographic, those 18 to 24 years old, have watched Navalny’s film, “Putin’s Palace,” compared to 28 percent of those aged 25 to 39, 26 percent of those aged 40 to 54, and 23 percent of those 55 or older.

Jeff Hawn, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, argued that Navalny’s appeal to young Russians will “mobilize a new generation … who have only ever known Putin and now are imagining a world without him. Perhaps gradually a new opposition will grow from these seeds.” However, the process of transforming these attitudes into political change “will take years, and there is no imminent color revolution at hand … The current regime is too resilient, protected by layers of security forces and aligned interests.”

The source Russians gave as their primary means of obtaining news also appears to have influenced responses. Fifty-eight percent of those who identified television as their primary news source believed the county was moving in the right direction, compared to 39 percent of those who identified social media as their primary source of information.

Photo by Bestalex shared under a Creative Commons license.