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Russia: Nation's Youth Are Apolitical And Materialistic

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russia, it is clear, will need many years to emerge from its economic troubles and end-of-empire crisis. Many hopes are being placed in the nation's youth. Unfettered by ideology and quick to respond to new conditions, Russia's 18- to 30-year-olds now form Russia's richest demographic group, but unlike their counterparts in the West, most are resolutely apolitical.

Moscow, 7 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today marks the 84th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Russia is taking the day off, but few will be celebrating any victory of communism, especially in Moscow.

The Russian capital has undergone a metamorphosis in the past few years. In the city center, neon flashes from every facade, fancy cars clog the boulevards day and night, and all-night restaurants lure customers with enticing offers: "A lot of food! A sea of food! You eat, eat, and eat! The more you eat, the happier we are! All for just $9, nine, just nine."

At the center of this capitalist revolution are young people, who have thrown themselves into the new consumer culture with abandon. RFE/RL asked Yuri Levada, director of the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTSIOM) -- Russia's foremost sociological and polling institute -- what makes the new generation tick?

Levada notes that on the one hand, young people are the most dynamic segment of the population: "Out of all social groups, young people are the richest, the most well-off. They have bigger salaries and they don't have families yet or responsibilities. They know how to earn money and their salaries are the largest."

Levada says this is normal. But he adds that the upheavals of the past decade mean many young people lack much of an internal moral compass or higher goals beyond making money: "This would be completely natural if it weren't for a total absence of any larger ideas or values which you usually find in this segment of the population. They have no concept about any long-lasting values in life."

Russia, over the past 10 years, has been shorn of ideology and has yet to recover a larger sense of identity. Some young people, for whom the communist past is but a dim memory, have drifted to religion -- others to extremist movements. But the overwhelming majority are focused on personal goals involving career success, friends, and making money.

And significantly, unlike their counterparts in other European countries, including the postcommunist states of Central Europe, young people in Russia have not played any political role in shaping their country's present, Levada says: "We never had politicized youth. All our political upheavals of the past 10-15 years took place without the participation of young people. The active people were those aged 40 and above."

Russia's youth are resolutely apolitical and appear content to support President Vladimir Putin, who enjoys a 75 percent overall approval rating -- and an even higher one among the young. Levada says this has to do with Putin's image. After years of political and economic crisis, uncertainty, and embarrassment at their political leadership, young Russians are relieved to have a leader who looks competent, is respected in the West, and appears capable of pushing through reforms and bringing stability: "It's linked to his character, which appeals to many people -- he's young and active. It's linked to the fact that he has no program of his own and everyone thinks he will fulfill their own personal program. It's linked to the fact that he has practically no competition in the country. There is no significant opposition."

But even if they have entrusted Putin with the future, young people are not interested in following his day-to-day moves. Seventeen-year-old Veronika works for a foreign insurance company by day and attends law school at night. She tells RFE/RL she follows the news but can't get interested by politics: "I watch the [TV] news fairly often, I read the papers, but I don't have any special opinion about the president for the moment. Politics is not my hobby. For the moment, it doesn't interest me."

Twenty-four-year-old Irina, advertising page manager for a Moscow leisure magazine, says for her, Putin's appearance is his strong suit: "As a person he appeals to me, as a man he appeals to me. You know, he looks like a trustworthy person. He's always well-groomed, he looks great. And as regards politics, I'm not interested in politics in general."

Pushing a stroller with her infant child on Moscow's pedestrian Arbat street, 23-year-old Gulnara is equally phlegmatic when asked about her opinion on Putin: "I'm going to say: normal -- neither good nor bad. I feel indifferent toward him. I don't hate him but I don't adore him."

What no one in Moscow seems to feel indifferent about these days is the television reality show "Behind the Glass." Modeled on similar programs in the United States and Europe, "Behind the Glass" allows viewers to follows the lives of six twenty-something contestants inside a specially-built apartment over the course of a month. Each week, viewers eliminate one or more of the contestants. The one who remains at the end of the month wins a new apartment.

For the sake of that apartment, viewers can see the contestants as they lie and connive or feign new romantic attachments -- with single-minded purpose -- all in a bid to emerge victorious.

So, has Russia degenerated over the past 10 years or become more like the "normal" West? Some would say a diminished interest in politics is a healthy sign. But others wonder how a young generation interested primarily in money and personal gain, with scant interest in moral or social issues, will shape the nation's future.

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