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Russia: Young Russians Say Cash Is King As Rock Stars, Oligarchs Top Survey Of Heroes

A new Russian public-opinion poll that asked young people to name their heroes has yielded some surprising results. Contrary to expectations, Russian President Vladimir Putin placed a distant fifth. Instead, in first and second place for Russia's 18-to-24-year-olds are rock stars and oligarchs. Most older Russians might hold them in low esteem, but 42 percent of young people surveyed say they admire businessmen who know how to get rich quick.

Prague, 22 July 2004 -- In another sign that the generational divide keeps widening in Russia, young people are turning to role models their parents hold in low esteem.

That might be the norm in most societies, but in Russia it comes with a strange twist. After rock stars, the people young Russians most admire and want to emulate are the country's notorious business oligarchs.

In their latest poll, sociologists at the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTSIOM) interviewed 1,538 people in 100 cities and towns across Russia and asked them: "Who are your heroes?"

Forty-two percent of respondents in the 18-to-24-year-old category identified the oligarchs and other successful businessmen -- second only to rock stars. Sports figures ranked third, and President Vladimir Putin came in fifth.

"Young people aged 18 to 24 are focused on success," said VTSIOM staffer Dmitrii Polikanov. "After all, in Russia, the so-called bourgeois revolution has already happened, and it's normal that people are less interested in general moral values which dominated during Soviet times. Their heroes are becoming people who embody quick success in life. And very often the methods used to achieve that success are ignored."

The findings have raised some eyebrows, especially in the wake of the Yukos scandal. All surveys up to now had shown overwhelming public support for what many see as the government's campaign against one of Russia's richest men -- Mikhail Khodorkovskii. Oligarchs, according to conventional wisdom, had few friends among ordinary Russians.
"Young people aged 18 to 24 are focused on success." -- All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion staffer Dmitrii Polikanov

Was conventional wisdom wrong?

Yes and no, according to Polikanov, who spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from Moscow. Polikanov said that in one respect, the poll results are not surprising. The post-Soviet generation that is now reaching adulthood is unabashedly materialistic. They identify success with money and consumer goods -- a message constantly reinforced by popular media -- so naturally they admire those who have amassed a lot of both.

When it comes to actual personalities, the survey points to one paradox, which is that as individuals, many of the oligarchs continue to be mistrusted by Russians -- including young people:

"When we speak about the oligarchs, their popularity depends on the context. As I mentioned, young people are focused on success. But the oligarchs as individuals -- for all age groups -- are leaders in the 'lack of trust' category," Polikanov said. "We have a regular poll in which we ask people to rank politicians and popular figures according to whom they trust and don't trust. The people who are considered to be in the oligarch camp -- [Anatolii] Chubais, [Roman] Abramovich, [Mikhail] Khodorkovskii or [Boris] Berezovskii -- have consistent high 'lack of trust' ratings and low trustworthiness ratings."

The message, according to Polikanov, is that young Russians admire the oligarch lifestyle and they identify with materialistic values, even if they have trouble pointing to a specific person with whom they identify:

"What is happening is that, on the one hand, young people are impressed by the values of the new capitalist society. But on the other hand, there is no concrete figure -- including any oligarch representative -- to whom they attach deeply positive feelings," Polikanov said.

There are not too many positive feelings toward the older generation, either. An increasing number of young people, according to Polikanov, feel alienated from their parents: "There is a noticeable gulf between the young and older generation. In fact, over the past three years, the divide between fathers and sons has grown. According to our data, in 2001, the number of people who believed that the older and younger generation could reach an understanding was around 40 percent. Now, 40 percent of those we survey believe the experiences of the younger and older generations are so different that it will be very hard for them to ever understand each other."

Some sociologists have welcomed the survey result. One of them is Aleksandr Asmolov, a Moscow State University professor of psychology. Asmolov told the "Vedomosti" newspaper the poll shows young Russians are pragmatic and "ready to take responsibility for their own lives and careers."

Polikanov agreed to a certain extent, noting that having a good job, making money, owning a fancy car and a big house are standard middle-class goals in many Western countries.

But those goals are usually espoused by people in their 40s and 50s, not 18-year-olds, who tend to be more idealistic.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, it is said, put it this way: "If you're not a liberal when you're 20, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative when you're 40, you have no head."

But Russia's youth have little time for idealism. Leftist revolutionary icon Che Guevara and others of his ilk finished last in the VTSIOM survey as role models, being admired by just 1 percent of those polled.