27 Apr 2018
Putin’s Children?: Russia’s “Putin Generation” and Its Attitudes toward the United States

By Aaron Korenewsky

April 27, 2018

Alternatively labeled Generation P, Generation Putin, the “Putin Generation,” “Putin’s Children,” and even “Puteens,” Russia’s first post-Soviet generation has generated quite the flurry of Western media coverage, particularly in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election. Article after article sought to reveal how this youth bloc would vote, especially those 18- to 19- year-olds who had lived a lifetime under Vladimir Putin. And most, if not all, of this material asserts that the Putin Generation is overwhelmingly for Putin: 82% of 18- to 24- year-olds who claimed they would vote in 2018 stated they would back Putin—higher than the generation above them. Likewise, polls over the last two years found that 86% and 88% of this same demographic approved of Putin’s job performance.

Such shocking statistics and the media narrative of an ardently pro-Putin youth are not new, with roughly ten years of articles and academic research having lamented upon similar findings. Much of that literature insinuates that the Putin Generation not only fervently supports Putin, but also a Putinist worldview—one defined by anti-Americanism, Soviet nostalgia, and irredentism.1 The implications here are clearly worrisome for U.S.-Russia relations, given that these youths represent Russia’s future diplomats, leaders, and rising political constituency. According to the literature, their core understanding of Russia’s role in the international arena could be rooted, for example, in extreme anti-Americanism that not even their parents espouse.

That makes it even more crucial to question this developing narrative and its underlying assumptions regarding Russia’s youth and Russia’s political culture. A new cliché is taking root here, one largely based on a handful of interviews with students or one-off statistics from Russian pollsters. This is not to say that such accounts are inaccurate or that the Levada Center’s numbers are invalid. We should, however, critically evaluate how this material is being interpreted by Western media, the representativeness of the data, and whether the Putin Generation is unique in its views. By delving into the data—in this case Pew’s Global Attitudes Survey – it is possible to inject a new data point into the discussion and test whether there has been a “Putin Generation” effect, i.e. that Russians born after the Soviet collapse really are more likely to express anti-American views than their elders.

Pew’s Global Attitudes Survey

Pew’s datasets are both publicly available and well suited to explore this question. First and foremost, the pollster has conducted annual surveys in Russia designed to produce a sample as representative as possible of Russia’s adult population. Moreover, the surveys include consistently-worded questions on age and whether respondents have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the United States. To be clear, the data has its limitations: the datasets are usually released two years after Pew’s reports are issued, meaning data on 2017 and 2018 is not yet available; and Pew also apparently did not conduct a survey in Russia in 2016.

But through quantitative analysis of Pew’s datasets from 2013 to 2015, I could test for potential associations between age and opinion toward the United States. I downloaded and recoded the data to formulate Pew’s question on a respondent’s age (“How old were you at your last birthday?”) to produce the following generational cohorts based on the literature: (1) “Putin Generation,” made up of respondents born on or after 1990; (2) a cohort identified as either the “Pepsi Generation” or “Gorbachev’s grandchildren,” representing Russians born 1976-1989, who lived through perestroika and the nineties and remember a leader before Putin; and (3) the “Elders,” representing Russians born before 1976. The responses of these generational cohorts could then be cross-tabulated to responses on opinion of the United States (“Please tell me if you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable opinion of the United States.”), with the added caveat that I removed from consideration the small number of respondents who refused to answer this question or provided “don’t know” responses.

Analysis & Conclusions

The results of a cross-tabulation of the two variables is reproduced below as Table 1:

First and foremost, Table 1 reveals the stark shift that occurred between 2013 and 2014 in terms of Russian public opinion toward the United States. This appears entirely consistent with the Levada Center’s data, which also registers a drastic reversal coinciding with the annexation of Crimea. What this result suggests in terms of the generational cohorts, however, is that the Putin Generation is not unique in expressing a dislike for the United States. Public opinion had shifted negatively across the board. Of interest here is how drastic that shift was for Russia’s youth—in 2013, the percentage of Putin Generation respondents with an unfavorable view stood at 26.67%, while in 2015 it was nearly 80%.

Table 1 also provides evidence of a relationship between generational cohort and likelihood to express a favorable opinion of the United States. However, the relationship that the cross-tabulation establishes is not what one would expect based on the literature, particularly when in Spring 2013 73.33% of respondents born before 1990 expressed a favorable view of the United States compared to 52.35% of the Elders. Even in 2014 and 2015, the percentage of Putin Generation respondents expressing a favorable view of the United States is slightly higher than for Elders. Instead of being more anti-American, the Putin Generation appears less likely to hold such views.

I then conducted chi-squared tests to determine whether that difference was statistically significant and therefore evidence of an actual association. These tests revealed that no relationship existed between age groups and opinions of the United States in the 2014 or 2015 surveys. But in 2013 the result of the chi-squared test indicated that there was in fact a significant relationship.2 Comparing this to the cross-tabulation, I infer that the relationship between age and opinion is the following: younger respondents are likelier to hold favorable views than their parents or grandparents, though in the current climate this effect has been muted.

If anything, these results should highlight how volatile Russian public opinion of the United States can be. But they also showcase just how vital a deeper understanding of the Putin Generation demographic is. Becoming mired in a cliché, especially one that may be founded on an analytically-shaky foundation, is one way to ensure that this kind of understanding eludes the West. Without more thorough analysis and data collection, we could miss an opportunity to correct a possibly flawed and sensationalist narrative regarding Russia’s youth. And that could leave U.S. and European policymakers unprepared for the moment when the Putin Generation eventually takes the reins.

Footnotes

[1] For examples from the academic literature, see: ​Sarah Elizabeth Mendelson and Theodore P. Gerber. “Us and Them: Anti-American Views of the Putin Generation.” ​The Washington Quarterly​ 31, no. 2 (2008): 131-150; Valeria Kasamara and Anna Sorokina. “Rebuilt Empire or New Collapse? Geopolitical Visions of Russian Students.” ​Europe-Asia Studies 69, no. 2 (2017): 262-283.

[2] SPSS registered a Pearson Chi-Squared value of 23.569 with no cells having an expected count less than 5 with degrees of freedom equaling six. The asymptotic significance (2-sided) was .001, which some social scientists would claim as evidence of a ‘very significant’ association between the variables.

 


Aaron Korenewsky graduated with a B.A. in political science and Russian and Eastern European Studies from Tufts University in 2011. Aaron also holds two master’s degrees with distinction from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary–the first in nationalism studies and the second in public policy.

 

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions or individuals.

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