I have spent the last several days on the West Coast, hanging out with a circle of journalists from around the world -- think Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa, etc.
As you would expect, when journalists get together it's rather common for us to talk about the news and, in particular, stories in major media that have captured our attention. #DUH
One of the stories that came up for discussion this week was a Washington Post feature that ran with this headline: "The Putin Generation -- Young Russians are Vladimir Putin’s biggest fans." The bottom line: That headline clashed with the impressions several of these journalists have had in the recent past while working in Russia or talking with Russia experts.
In particular (here comes the GetReligion "ghost"), several journalists wanted to know more about the role that moral, cultural and religious issues -- think LGBTQ questions, to name one example -- played in this equation.
To be blunt: The story contains no information on moral and religious issues at all. However, there is evidence that it should have.
Hold that thought, while we explore the overture:
KURGAN, Russia -- A young woman, riding a city bus to her journalism class, enjoys using the time to scroll through an independent news site that can be scathing in its reports on Russia’s authoritarian president -- leaving her to wrestle with a paradox, the paradox of her generation.
“What the Russian soul demands,” says Yekaterina Mamay, “is that there be one strong politician in the country who resembles a czar.”
In Russia’s upcoming presidential election, the 20-year-old student, who knows that journalism in her country is not free, will nonetheless vote to reelect Vladimir Putin.
Here, where the forest of the taiga meets the grassy steppe, the “Putin Generation” is no different from anywhere else across Russia’s vastness: coming of age without a rebellious streak. Today’s Russian young adults have no memory of life before Putin, who first took power as their president 18 years ago. Some have taken to the streets in protest, but social scientists say many more have grown to accept him. Polls show that Putin enjoys greater support among youth than among the public at large.
OK, I'll ask: What kinds of issues have driven young Russians into the street in the past? What Putin-era issues have they protested?
Let's keep reading.
To Western eyes, young Russians such as Mamay who espouse some liberal values but back Putin live in a world of contradictions. In fact, their readiness to accept those contradictions helps explain Putin’s grip on power.
“You realize that it’s good to live with him. You don’t complain,” Dmitry Shaburov, an 18-year-old budding entrepreneur, said of Putin. “When I wake up in my apartment, no one takes me to the Gulag.”
Once again, what are the "liberal values" that young Russians embrace, yet are content to ignore because Putin has engineered an era of stability for most Russians? Is this simply a matter of ranking economic realities higher than matters of the conscience?
To be honest, it's rather easy to sense a familiar Western stereotype here -- that Russia is a bleak land full of bleak people whose expectations are so low that they are more than willing to be pushed around for the good of Mother Russia.
I would add this: Think about all the trauma that Russia went through in the 20th Century. The church in Russia and Eastern Europe, for example, went through the worst persecution -- statistically speaking -- in all of Christian history. Might this play a role in the current frame of mind in Russia?
If you are interested in matters of the Russian soul, this Post story is not for you. This piece is about Putin, politics, power and, of course, money. It's a materialistic story, even though it's supposed to be describing matters of the mind and heart.
In terms of journalism, this is your basic anecdotes backed by a poll job. Here is the poll:
According to a December survey by independent polling firm Levada Center, 81 percent of adults approve of Putin as president -- including 86 percent of Russians 18 to 24 years old. Among the age group, 67 percent told Levada they believed the country was going in the right direction, compared to 56 percent of the general public.
The most internationally connected generation in Russian history, with access to more information than any of their predecessors, is now helping Putin solidify his authoritarianism.
In newsy thumbsuckers of this kind, polls are always followed by choirs of experts. That looks like this:
The sense that things used to be much worse -- and could again get much worse -- is a defining characteristic of the Putin Generation, researchers say. In a study of more than 6,000 Russian university students last year, 80 percent of respondents said, like Mamay, that they believed they had more opportunities than their parents. At the same time, a clear majority said they worried about an uncertain future and the threat of a new world war.
That sense of an improved lot and fear of the future, say the authors of the study, conducted by the Laboratory for Politics Studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, enhance the appeal of the status quo -- which in Russia is personified by Putin. More than 47 percent of the students surveyed said they would vote for Putin in the presidential election, compared to 7 percent who chose Navalny, the No. 2 candidate among the responses.
“Putin is the one who has led the country all their conscious lives, and their lives are going well,” said laboratory head Valeria Kasamara, who led the study. “They think, ‘We don’t know how it will be under someone else, but under Putin, things are good.’ ”
You get the picture. Read the whole piece and let me know if you sense the same hole in this piece, the gap where the Russian soul is often discussed.
I know, in particular, that GetReligion has readers in Russia. Care to drop me a note?