MOSCOW -- Fifty-six-year-old Aleksandr Avanesov says he will vote for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin because Russians have never had it so good.
Eighteen-year-old Tatyana Kim says she will spoil her ballot because she sees Russian politics as a sham.
Avanesov says the younger generation just doesn't understand how bad the chaos and deprivation was in the 1990s before Putin came to power. Kim says she can’t abide by Putin's authoritarian system, adding that his so-called opponents on the March 4 ballot are little more than Kremlin puppets.
This intergenerational sparring between Avanesov, the director of a French choir in Moscow, and Kim, who is a member of that choir, illustrates a key fault line among Russians ahead of the March 4 presidential election.
Many among Avanesov's generation, fearful of the turmoil of the pre-Putin years, are willing to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt. Kim's generation, on the other hand, takes the stability and prosperity Putin ushered in for granted and wants his system modernized and democratized.
'That Time Is Now'
Avanesov says ideally he would have preferred for President Dmitry Medvedev to serve a second term rather than Putin returning to the Kremlin. But he adds that Kim's generation just doesn't know how lucky it is to have benefited from the stability Putin fostered.
"Some people forget they have rights, and others forget they have responsibilities."
"They want something new because they're sick of Putin's paternalistic tone," Avanesov says. "We used to dream of a time when we could just forget about politics and wouldn’t have to fear every party congress. We wanted to get to a time when we could make enough money, take care of our families, dress fine, eat fine, and go abroad. Well, that time is now."
Speaking to RFE/RL at a Moscow cafe after a recent choir practice, Kim and her friends say they know they have it much better than their parents did, but that doesn't mean they should blindly tolerate what they see as an autocratic political system.
They worry that life in Russia is stagnating under the current government and, although none of them attended the opposition protests that rocked Moscow recently, they say they find the authorities' efforts to smear the demonstrators as tools of foreign powers puzzling.
Russia's Potemkin Politics
Kim and fellow choir member Kamila Gracheva, a 17-year-old student at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, say what is happening is no more nefarious than ordinary citizens exercising their right to free expression.
"Why does everyone forget? People have rights," Gracheva says. "If they want to change something, then why shouldn't they have the right to come out and say it?"
"Some people forget they have rights," Kim says, "and others forget they have responsibilities."
And as Gracheva explains, they are also offended by the Potemkin nature of Russia's political system, in which elections are not elections and the opposition is not really in opposition.
“What we had before [the December State Duma elections] was awful because effectively the elections didn't present a choice," Gracheva says. "There was only a pseudo opposition, which makes it practically a purely authoritarian regime.”
Further highlighting the generational rift, a middle-aged woman in the cafe overhears the conversation and snaps at the students to be quiet.
"We've been hearing these slogans since the 1980s," the woman says. "It's nonsense."
Splits In The Electorate
Sociologists say the generational divide is just one of several splits in the Russian electorate today.
That cruelty and that political crudeness that there was at the beginning of [Putin's] rule...has served its purpose.
"According to the polls we conducted [among opposition protesters] on Sakharov Avenue, Yakimanka Street, and Bolotnaya Square, the dominant age group wasn't the youngest -- it was people up to 40 years old," says Boris Dubin, a sociologist at the independent Levada polling center. "The 40- to 55-year-olds were also very well represented.
"So this rift can be observed along several divides: People who live in the center and those in the periphery, the well-off and the poor, those who are young -- but not necessarily in the youngest age group -- and the elderly."
For his part, Avanesov says that although he has never attended a pro-Putin demonstration, he is considering doing so because he sees the unruly opposition movement as a threat to Russia's hard-won stability.
He adds that Putin's opponents have never substantiated their allegations that he has enriched himself while in office.
“I haven’t seen anything to prove that Putin loves himself more than his country,” he says.
Hope For Change
Kim and Gracheva say they are resigned to the fact that Putin will most likely be around for at least six more years -- the presidential term was extended from four to six years under Medvedev's rule -- but hope he will use his latest stint in the Kremlin to enact meaningful political and economic reforms.
That is one thing Avanesov says he and his younger proteges can agree on.
"I also hope that he is going to change," Avanesov says. "That cruelty and that political crudeness that there was at the beginning of his rule when he had to deal with Chechnya and had to be tough -- perhaps a bit like Stalin once had to against Hitler in his time -- that has served its purpose. Now we probably need more civilized and intellectual politics and position."
RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg and Aleksandr Kulygin of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report