Young Russians have only known life under Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Columnist Trudy Rubin asks some of them about their future.
MOSCOW — One sign of how long Vladimir Putin has held power is that Russians in their late teens and early twenties have known no other political leader.
As the Russian president begins his fourth term Monday, many of the best and brightest of the Putin generation are growing nervous about their futures.
Young adults who study at good universities and live in Moscow or St. Petersburg — cities bursting with cafes, restaurants, Western goods and foreign visitors — have grown up feeling linked to the world. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and cyber meddling, U.S. and European sanctions and Putin’s countermoves threaten to isolate Russia from the West.
Nothing better symbolizes this internal conflict than the Russian government’s attempt on April 13 to shut down Telegram, one of the country’s most popular messaging apps, after its founder, Pavel Durov, refused to turn over encryption keys to the FSB intelligence service.
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The shutdown was an embarrassing failure, briefly knocking out other popular Russian websites and failing to halt Telegram’s users. But it could be the prelude to Kremlin efforts to take full control of the internet in the manner of China.
I sat down at the Café Tchaikovsky, in the heart of Moscow’s theater and classical music district, with students and recent graduates of the Higher School of Economics, one of Russia’s top universities. I asked how they viewed their future and possibility of Russia’s isolation.
Nikita Sokolov, a 23-year-old now writing for the independent online news outlet Republic, was disdainful of government efforts to control the internet. “Turning off all Western social networks, Google, is impossible,” he insisted. “They don’t have the hardware or the human resources. Everyone is laughing at them. Maybe all this nonsense will go away.”
Indeed, government ministers — whose staffs used Telegram — complained, parliament members kept using the app, and businesspeople were outraged. Young people hastened to download virtual private networks. Thousands demonstrated in Moscow Monday against Kremlin restrictions.
But 19-year-old student Maria was still worried about the Telegram blockage. “Four years ago, no one could imagine such a thing. We are just getting used to this,” she said, sipping a cappuccino.
Sonya Groysman, 24, another HSE grad who works for Russia’s only opposition TV channel, Rain, chimed in: “So many great Russian (internet) companies have sprung up. But when the government realized that content was new power, they tried to grab them.”
Groysman’s point speaks to the worry of many young Russians in hi-tech that innovation will be punished rather than welcomed. When Pavel Durov previously founded the Russian equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte, it was taken over by Putin allies, leading Durov to sell and flee the country in 2014.
Yet she remains an optimist. “I believe in young guys who look for ways to evade the government,” she says. “They are more clever than the government.”
This young journalist works for a handful of opposition news outlets that still manage to operate, most of them online, and maintain a certain amount of freedom to do investigative journalism. But no one knows how long that will last.
Sokolov worries that members of Generation Putin will be less and less willing to take risks. “Kids born in 2000, we are beginning to lose them,” he says. “Propaganda works. They have access (to independent news) but have restrictions in their head.”
Many of Generation Putin have no knowledge of Russia’s harsh past. “Many students have never heard of the gulag,” said Maria. “They can’t imagine how bad it can be in a parallel universe.”
Maria learned about history from her great grandmother, who was repressed under Stalin.
“We know about World War II,” says Sokolov,” but what Stalin did is still a hidden trauma. It is terrible that we don’t remember what happened. Nineteen thirty seven (a year of Stalin repressions) is not coming again, but who knows. We should not be too calm.”
But Anya Shinkaretskaya, is less worried. “We are not as frightened as our parents. My mom says, ‘it’s possible.’ We are skeptical.”
Just in case repression worsens, however, all are trying to imagine a Plan B.