Why Many Young Russians See a Hero in Putin

Twenty-five years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, they crave the stability that the nationalist president represents.

By Julia Ioffe, National Geographic, December 2016

He doesn’t know where to take me when I meet him at the hotel by the train station, so we just start to walk down the dusty summer streets of Nizhniy Tagil, a sputtering industrial city on the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains. His name is Sasha Makarevich, a 24-year-old cement worker, a blond ponytail falling down his back, a Confederate flag stitched onto his cutoff denim vest. “I thought it just meant independence,” he explains when I ask about it.

We walk past a small, one-story cube of a building covered with images of red Soviet stars and the orange-and-black St. George’s ribbon that holds imperial, Soviet, and Russian military medals. “We could go in here,” Sasha shrugs. “But it’s full of people who survived the Nineties.”

Sasha survived the Nineties too. In December 1991, just months before he was born, the Soviet flag came down over the Kremlin and the Russian tricolor went up, ushering in the decade that hangs like a bad omen in the contemporary Russian psyche. The expectation that Russians would start living like their prosperous Western counterparts gave way to a painful reality: It would be a hard slog to turn a command economy into a market one, to make a democracy out of a society that had lived under absolute monarchy and totalitarianism for centuries.

Alexander and Victoria Khlynin escape the everyday through cosplay (costume play) in their suburban Moscow flat. The 28-year-old banker and 25-year-old interior designer own several animal outfits. Many young Russians, shaped by the chaos of the 1990s and conformity of the Vladimir Putin years, seek stable jobs and families.

I never got to see those Nineties. My family left Moscow in April 1990. When I first returned, in 2002, the era of President Vladimir Putin, the antidote to the turbulent Nineties, was in full swing. Since then I’ve been back to Russia many times and lived there for several years as a reporter.

Most of the Russians I know have, to some extent, been shaped by the 74-year Soviet experiment. We know in a deep, personal way our families’ small histories and tragedies within the larger tragedy of that history. But this generation coming up knows only a Russia traumatized by the Nineties and then tightly ruled by Putin. This year—25 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse—I went back again, to meet these young people like Sasha. Who are they? What do they want from their lives? What do they want for Russia?

Inside the windowless bar, all linoleum and fake-wood paneling, Sasha and I get some thin beer in thin plastic cups and find a seat among the heavily tattooed, red-faced men in tracksuits and sandals, blasting reedy Russian pop from their phones.

Nizhniy Tagil, Sasha says, “is all factories and prison camps.” Once famous for manufacturing the Soviet Union’s train cars and tanks, it’s now famous for its idled factories, unemployment, and Vladimir Putin. When Putin announced, in 2011, his inention to return for a third presidential term, protests broke out in Moscow and other large cities. The protesters were largely from the young, educated, urban middle class, and that winter a factory worker from Nizhniy Tagil told Putin on national TV that he and “the boys” were ready to come to Moscow to beat up the protesters. Putin demurred, but the city has come to be seen as the very heart of Putinland.

[Supporters of the Other Russia, an opposition party, rally in Moscow, displaying flags and armbands with their symbol, a grenade. The Other Russia was formed by members of a banned ultranationalist political party in 2010, but it is not recognized by Putin’s government.]

At a sports and military camp, paratroopers teach children as young as 10 how to handle weapons. Putin has restored Russian pride in the country’s military might by defeating rebels in Chechnya, seizing Crimea, invading Ukraine, and intervening in Syria. Young people in particular say they want Russia to be seen as a global power.

Now Nizhniy Tagil has a new mayor, whom Putin sent in to beautify the city, and a local magnate has built a fancy health care clinic, but life is still tough here. Sasha went to school for welding and worked in a factory making good money until crashing oil prices and Western sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine sank the economy. Sasha stopped getting paid. He spent a year looking for work before he landed a job in a Boeing factory two hours away. Now he makes 30,000 rubles, or $450, a month—about the local average.

I meet Sasha after a long workday, and he is tired, his hands dirty. He doesn’t feel totally comfortable—or safe—in this bar with the survivors of the Nineties. The city he describes is a violently conformist place. “People here are very aggressive toward anyone who doesn’t look like them,” he says. It’s a local, working-class uniform: tracksuit, buzz cut with a hint of bangs. His peers, Sasha says, are often children of ex-cons. “They don’t respect the law,” Sasha says. “ ‘A real man is either in the army or in jail.’ My sixth-grade teacher told us that.” So Sasha learned to fight, with fists, with knives. Once he walked home after a fight covered in someone else’s blood, and he is strangely, beatifically cheerful as he tells me all this.

What Sasha really wants to do is escape to cosmopolitan St. Petersburg and open a bar. He’s been there a couple times; it’s where he feels most at home. But his girlfriend won’t move unless he buys an apartment there. Between his salary and hers, his dream will likely remain just that.

Vladimir Putin is widely viewed at home as the man who tamed a tumultuous post-­Soviet Russia and the first leader in decades willing to stand up to the West. His strong personality, combined with near-total control over the Russian media, has helped him keep his standing, especially among the young. If reelected in 2018, he’ll be Russia’s second longest serving leader, trailing only Joseph Stalin’s 30-year reign.

With no powerful opposition, Putin has remained popular despite challenges, including the admission of three former Soviet republics into NATO, terrorist attacks, and a collapsing ruble.

Term limits forced Putin from the presidency for 4 years, but he maintained power as prime minister.

Putin benefited from tough economic reforms adopted by Boris Yeltsin and his predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as from increased oil revenue as prices rose beginning in 2003. Gross domestic product (GDP) per person has grown 70 percent under Putin, compared with 17 percent in the European Union.

It is a common refrain in Nizhniy Tagil: young people with young-people dreams, locked out of them by the reality of Putin’s Russia. They want to travel, but their salaries are in rubles, the value of which has been halved by the economic crisis. Some want to open their own businesses but don’t know how to scale the dangerous slopes of local corruption. So they train their sights lower. They want a house or apartment, a car, and a family. The things they crave are also the things that many of them didn’t have precisely because their families survived the Nineties.

“The Nineties were very hard for us financially,” Alexander Kuznetsov, a 20-year-old from Nizhniy Tagil, tells me. “In 1998 my dad left the family.” Alexander was three. “My mom’s entire salary went to feed me. I didn’t have many toys,” he says. “I’m alone in the family.” That left its mark. “For me the most important thing is family,” Alexander tells me as we sip coffee in a café off the main square. “I don’t want to strive for high professional posts and have an empty home.”

His father fought in the first Chechen war, in 1994. “Don’t join the army, son,” he advised Alexander. That was the sum total of his father’s recollections of the Nineties. But Alexander isn’t bothering to find a way out of the universal draft. “I always wanted to join,” he explains. “Everyone in my family was in the military. My great-grandfather fought in World War II.” Plus, military service opens up some of the more lucrative job prospects for a young man in Russia: work in the police or the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor to the KGB. The army would give him a shot at being a cop like his father. “I really want to have a stable income,” Alexander says.

Students in Nizhniy Tagil celebrate “Last Bell,” the end of classes. Wearing sashes that say “Graduate,” they cavort on Lisya Mountain, an extinct volcano. The day, at the end of May, is a big event for students across Russia.

As Alexander and I talk, his friend Stepan, a strapping, smiling young man with a blond buzz cut, bounces in to join us. “So,” he says, flashing me a mischievous grin, “you’re writing about what it was like in the Soviet Union? People lived a lot better then.”

“What!” exclaims Alexander. “Lived better?! No, we didn’t!”

They argue about what it was like to live in Soviet times, until Stepan, who was born in 1992, realizes he has a question for me: “You Americans are pressuring us, slapping us with sanctions,” he says. “What are you preparing for us? A war?” He explains why it was right for Russia to annex Crimea and for Putin to stand up to the West.

Stepan is reluctant to tell me his last name because I’m an American journalist, but when it’s time for me to go, he offers me a ride. “Really, though,” he says to no one in particular as we wheel through the city, “I want to get out of here.”

Out of where? I ask. Nizhniy Tagil?

“No,” he says. “Russia.”

After his patriotic bluster, this was unexpected. Why? I ask him.

“There’s nothing to do here,” he says without any bitterness. “No opportunities, no way to grow and develop and make something of yourself.”

What’s your backup plan? I ask.

“What’s my backup plan?” he repeats, smiling broadly. “Join the FSB.”

[“Those who were born in the U.S.S.R. and those born after its collapse do not share a common experience,” wrote Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015. “It’s like they’re from different planets.”]

The Soviet Union drowned in a surge of optimism. Many believed Russia would quickly become a flourishing, Western-style democracy. But the optimism of 1991 dissipated in a decade of often depressing contradictions. With the end of the planned economy came untold riches or entry into a new middle class for some; for others it was a sudden plunge into poverty. Previously unavailable goods flooded store shelves, while the money to buy them periodically lost its value. Crime, especially in commerce, skyrocketed. Politics came out into the open, but many Russians came to see it as a dirty business.

Russians struggled to adjust to this foreign reality. It was a time of unprecedented freedom, but many found it deeply disorienting. “When these [Western] values encountered reality and people saw that changes came too slowly, these values receded into the background,” says Natalia Zorkaya, a sociologist with the Levada Center, an independent polling organization in Moscow. Instead, she says, the younger generations are adopting “the pillars of Soviet society.”

Sasha, Alexander, Stepan, and their cohort do live on a planet different from the one their parents and grandparents live on, yet they are in some ways becoming even more Soviet. It’s a strange thing: These young men and women know little of the privations, habits, and cruelty of Soviet life. The Putin generation doesn’t carry this wound. Their desire for staid normalcy—intact families, reliable, if unsatisfying, jobs—is their response to what they lacked in the Nineties and found in the Putin era.

Yet they are profoundly insecure. Sixty-five percent of Russians between ages 18 and 24—that is, the first generation born after the Soviet breakup—plan their lives no more than a year or two ahead, according to the Levada Center. “It’s a very egotistical generation,” Zorkaya says, but adds, “It’s a very fragile generation.” They are also politically inert: Most don’t know about news events the state doesn’t want them to know about, and 83 percent say they have not participated in any kind of political or civil society activity.


Liza meets me in the glittering white lobby of one of the many glass towers—some blue spirals, some coppery shards—that make up Moscow City, a financial center that looks like a cross between London and Shanghai. I follow her through tunnels linking the towers underground with cafés, shops, and an exhibit with paintings of Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. We order lunch, and Liza, a stylish young woman with long, curled blond hair, dimples, and an expensive watch, tells me her story as she slurps her borscht. She asks me not to use her last name because she doesn’t want to upset her parents.

She was born in Blagoveshchensk, in the Russian Far East, in 1992. A year before, her father, a history teacher, had been out in the streets of Moscow, cheering the arrival of democracy. But on returning home after the Soviet Union’s demise, he was forced to find other ways to support the family. He began crossing the border into China and carrying back anything from clothes to appliances for resale in Russia. “I remember him coming home with money sewn into his shirt so that he wouldn’t get robbed,” Liza tells me.

She’s a corporate lawyer at a large Western firm. It’s fine, but it’s not what she wanted to do. “I always wanted to be a journalist; I was always writing,” she says, noting that her grandmother kept all her short stories. “But my parents told me journalism isn’t serious. It’s a venal profession”—a relic of the 1990s, when journalism here was bought and sold like any commodity—“You won’t make a lot of money. You’re the oldest and the smartest; you need to go into a solid profession so you can feed yourself and take care of your sister.” Along the way her parents separated. Her father’s business eventually took off, and Liza was able to spend a year of high school in Oregon and also study abroad in London.

A modern Westernized woman, she tells her mother about her boyfriends and the drug-fueled parties she attends. But in some ways she is very, very Russian. “Putin irritates me,” she begins, sounding like many in the oppositional, educated milieu of Moscow. “But just let a foreigner try to criticize him! I will always defend Russia.” When she was in London, she says, people constantly made fun of Russia and Russian women, mocking them as mail-order brides. “It was offensive to the point of tears, to sit there and hear outsiders making fun of us,” she says.

This is as political as she gets these days. Back in 2011 Liza became interested in liberal politics, which was all the rage in Moscow. She joined Amnesty International and the liberal Yabloko party as an observer for the December parliamentary elections. She was assigned to the polling station at her little sister’s school and was shocked to see teachers stuffing ballot boxes. When Liza tried to say something, they screamed at her and made her sit in a corner while the principal blocked her view. This was happening all over the country. Many election observers caught it on their phones and put the proof online, which sparked a mass protest movement in Moscow and major cities unlike any Russia had seen in 20 years.

Liza, however, lost her nerve. “I was hysterical,” she tells me. “I spent two hours crying.” After that she decided, “No more politics. Ever. This doesn’t concern me, and I’m not strong enough to fight.” It’s a promise that she hasn’t broken, even as the ruble has crashed, cutting into her ability to do the other thing she loves most: travel. “Yes, it’s terrible; there are fewer opportunities,” she says, but she refuses to seek an answer in politics. “It’s a psychological block.”

Kseniya Obidina, Liza’s law school friend, sees things similarly. Also the child of divorce, she says family and stability are of primary importance to her. She wants a secure, well-paying job. She wants to be able to afford travel and to support her mother and sister. This dream has become more remote, though, with the political and economic crisis: Kseniya wants to work at foreign law firms, but they are increasingly packing up and leaving the country. Like Liza, she refuses to think about politics. “I don’t see the point of talking about something you can’t influence. Talk for talk’s sake isn’t interesting,” she says as we sit in a Moscow Starbucks. As we leave, she adds, “It’s better to know and be quiet. It’s better not to speak up. Why spoil your mood?”

How did they come to be this way? Vladimir Putin is a big part of the answer. He came to power in 2000 as an anti-Nineties candidate just as this generation was becoming aware of the world around them. He promised to bring prosperity and security. Coasting on historically high oil prices and economic reforms implemented in the Nineties, Putin was able to fulfill much of that promise but at the expense of democratic freedoms.

Stability and economic well-being became the ideology of the day, peppered with a heavy dose of nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. and a whitewashing of its sins. Putin called the disintegration of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Whoever didn’t feel that, he said, “doesn’t have a heart.” Joseph Stalin became, in the business-friendly lingo of the day, an “effective manager” who went a bit too far. Textbooks and television came to reflect this new, state-sanctioned nostalgia. Today 58 percent of Russians would still like to see a return of the Soviet order, and some 40 percent see Stalin favorably.

The Putin generation wants intact families and reliable, if unsatisfying, jobs. It associates the Soviet Union with longed-for stability.

Much of post-Soviet life has been a hapless search for a uniting idea. At first it was democracy; then consumerism became a stand-in for Westernization. “Modernization came through consumption, but that’s not enough,” says sociologist Zorkaya. Ikea, which came to Russia in 2000, became wildly popular among the new middle class as a way to affordably live in a stylish European—that is, non-Soviet—way. “It became a symbol of how you could civilize your life without a lot of money,” she says, “but the fact that behind this decor is a totally different concept of human beings and values, somehow it doesn’t connect for Russians.”

Since the beginning of his third presidential term, in 2012, Putin has promoted an even more aggressive neo-Soviet ideology, both at home and abroad. He fought to keep former Soviet republics, like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, in Moscow’s sphere of influence and flexed Russia’s military power in distant Syria. A series of laws promoted traditional social values and made dissent even more dangerous. One result is a generation whose dreams are the embodiment of everything Putin desires them to be: conformist, materialist, and highly risk averse.

Much is made of Putin’s stratospheric popularity—at the time I reported this article, Putin had the approval of 80 percent of Russians polled. But Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 approve of him at a higher rate than any other age group: 88 percent. More than any other generation, they are proud of their country and its stature in the world, associate its military prowess with greatness, and believe in its future.

In a dark, narrow courtyard in Novosibirsk, between two 19th-century brick buildings, I find the local bohemians drinking beer and listening to electronic music. It’s here that Filipp Krikunov, born in 1995, opened an art gallery. Ducking away from the gathering, he shows me around. One room is lit with a fluorescent pink light, the wall arrayed with shelves holding mini-busts of Lenin, painted in silly patterns. In the next room young artists have cobbled together mind-bending ways to take selfies: Stick your head into this cardboard box full of shattered mirrors. Stick your head in another to find the remains of a Burger King meal.

One of Filipp’s friends and partners in the gallery bounds up and shakes my hand. “We just found out that they didn’t bury anyone under this space,” he gushes. After Filipp rented the rooms, he and his friends realized that the building next door houses the FSB. In the 1930s it was called the NKVD, and it killed as many as 1.2 million people. Often the NKVD’s victims were shot and buried on-site. But Filipp’s gallery, Space of Modern Art, lucked out. No bones in the basement here. Just hipsters in the mild Siberian summer night.

I had met Filipp earlier that day at a chic Novosibirsk café, surrounded by impossibly fashionable young women with very obvious lip jobs. Novosibirsk is Russia’s third largest city, a center of industry and scientific innovation. There’s a lot of money here. Filipp, though, didn’t see much of it. He grew up without a father. Like many young Russians, he was raised by his mother and grandmother. His great-grandfather fought in World War II and was later purged by Stalin. His grandmother became a renowned chemist, and his mother also worked in science. But the women’s passion was politics. “All the main hashtags at home are politics,” Filipp says.

Russia’s young people have more freedoms than their parents and grandparents could ever have imagined.

Filipp was 16 when the pro-democracy protests broke out in Moscow and spread to cities like Novosibirsk. Tens of thousands poured into the streets to demand free and fair elections, yet the protests felt more like block parties than demonstrations. Filipp too was fed up with Putin. “Messages were being sent to him, messages of discontent, and yet there was no dialogue with those people,” Filipp says. He didn’t recognize the Russia that Kremlin-controlled television showed. “That was a different country,” he says. “I didn’t know a single person like that.”

“I went to the protests. I tried to be politically active,” Filipp tells me. “It was boiling inside me. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. The whole country is rising in protest, and I’m part of it.” But he was soon disappointed. “I looked around, and the people at the rallies weren’t my people. I wasn’t totally comfortable,” he says. “And it didn’t lead to anything.”

That’s not quite true. The protests did change things, just not for the better. In May 2012 the Kremlin cracked down. Since then dozens of people who attended protests have been rounded up, tried, and jailed. The political situation in the country only worsened as Putin—feeling betrayed by the middle class he felt he had created with his policies—pursued an increasingly authoritarian line. He publicly labeled liberals who advocated for freedom and democracy “national traitors” and “a fifth column.”

The harsh response left a deep impression on the Putin generation: It taught them to stay out of politics. “I decided that either I fight this system,” Filipp says, “or I live in a different system”—the world of art. “There’s more good in it,” he says. “Politics are nerve-racking. You’re constantly unhappy; you’re not enjoying your life.”

Putin is up for reelection in 2018. There is little doubt that he will run again and even less that he will win another six-year term. That would mean he would be in power until 2024, if not longer. By then Filipp, who was five when Putin first became president, would be 29. Is he comfortable living with Putin until then? He shrugs. “I’ve lived my whole life with my right hand, and it’s fine.”

In Akademgorodok, a small academic town built around Novosibirsk State University and its many labs, I meet Alexandra Mikhaylova. She’s 20, with cutoff denim shorts and the dyed red hair of a punk rocker. Alexandra came from a family of scientists—her mom is a geologist and her father a physicist—who gravitated to this little town, which was founded in 1957 as an incubator for science and the engine of the Soviet Union’s technological race with the West. Since the Soviet collapse, underfunded Russian scientists have fallen behind their Western colleagues. Both of Alexandra’s parents have gone into business.

Now, as a third-year journalism student, she is working on a documentary about the town and its lively intellectual history, specifically the underground of the 1960s. “They had their own system of government until 1966,” Alexandra tells me as we stand in the gleaming hallway of the university’s new building. Her eyes light up as she tells me about her research into this little corner of freedom and intellectual ferment in a sea of totalitarianism. In 1966 some of these free-spirited young scientists wrote a letter to Moscow, complaining about things they didn’t like. The response, Alexandra says, was swift. Many were fired, and strict political control was put in place. But Alexandra’s documentary picks up again in the 1980s, with the Soviet punk rock underground that spread all over the country.

These days, Alexandra says, “it’s stagnant. Something’s missing. People aren’t politically engaged. When it comes to the government, young people are either neutral or positively disposed. No one stands up for their opinion, and there’s a thin line between indifference and agreement.”

The government is again in the censorship business. A classic rocker from the 1990s had his concert canceled here because he spoke out against the invasion of Ukraine. “Year after year they close another media outlet, the ones that show things more objectively,” Alexandra says. More than anything, though, she is saddened that the Akademgorodok she lives in lacks the creative fervor of the Sixties and Eighties. The society around her, unlike the one her parents experienced, is cautious and stale. She longs for a change, a shake-up. But she knows it won’t be her generation that brings it.

“It’ll be the kids who are 13, 15 now,” Alexandra says wistfully. When they are the age she is now, her generation will have other priorities. “We’ll try to help, but if you’re 30, you’re not going to lead a revolution with a baby in your arms.”