Foreign Policy Blogs

Generational Differences in Russian Resistance

Generational Differences in Russian Resistance

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s relentless invasion of Ukraine shocked the international community. Individuals around the world are observing horrors unfold as Russian troops continue their siege on major Ukrainian cities. Information regarding the invasion is nearly impossible to ignore, with coverage flooding in from every major news outlet. In Russia, the story looks different. Russia’s censorship of media prevents citizens from gaining access to accurate information. Independent media is virtually non-existent; the Kremlin indoctrinates Russians with propaganda spread through state-controlled television. Despite the breadth of this disinformation campaign, it has had varied results. Most notably, there’s been a generational gap regarding perceptions of Russia’s behavior. Older generations tend to be more supportive of the Kremlin, whereas younger generations tend to be more resistant to Russian disinformation. A 2022 survey conducted by an independent organization in Russia found that 75% of Russians aged 66 or older support the war in Ukraine. Comparatively, only 29% of those aged 18-24 support the war. The disconnect comes from two sources: Soviet Nostalgia and social media.

Soviet Nostalgia refers to Putin’s desire to bring back the sphere of influence once held by the Soviet Union. In a 2005 State of the Union Address, he declared the collapse of the USSR to be the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”. Putin’s yearning for the days of Soviet power have guided much of his policy – it motivated him annex Crimea in 2014. Putin’s most recent invasion of Ukraine follows this same logic. He believes that because of their shared history, Russia has a right to Ukrainian territory. Older generations of Russians vividly remember the days of the USSR. They can envision a time when Ukraine and Russia existed under one regime. As a result, they are more susceptible to Putin’s Soviet Nostalgia.

Many older Russians pinpoint 1991 as the start of their financial duress. Putin has repeatedly blamed the economic disaster accompanying the downfall of the USSR on western influence. The overnight emergence of a privatized economy created hyperinflation, and increased poverty quickly followed. Putin amassed heavy support in the 2000 elections from older Russians who believed Putin would “lead them out of [the] shame and poverty” brought on by the West. He continues to spin narratives of a return to soviet economic success, despite taking little concrete action to improve the Russian economy. These narratives appeal directly to Russians who suffered financially in the early 1990s. They more easily believe that recreating the Soviet Union’s former prestige will result in economic progress.

Older Russians’ disengagement with social media heightens their vulnerability to Putin’s narratives. Their consumption of information consists almost exclusively of state-controlled media. State media circulates propaganda painting Ukrainian leadership as a neo-Nazi regime. It describes Russian troops as liberators of Ukraine, while censoring any coverage of devastation created by the war. Older generations who don’t utilize sites like Facebook or Twitter don’t have access to alternative information. A Russian in Moscow, interviewed by Aljazeera, told journalists that older Russians are “drowning in propaganda…” and thus support Putin’s actions. Younger generations, on the other hand, frequent social media. Putin’s regime severely restricted sites including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in early March 2022. However, prior to this restriction, younger Russians engaged with outside accounts of Russian behavior. As such, they struggle with conflicting narratives.  Katya, a 20-year-old Russian, told Aljazeera that state television programs “blatantly lie” about the situation in Ukraine. She and her peers rely heavily on social networks and platforms like Telegram, attempting to discern the truth.

Younger Russians’ disconnect from the Soviet era further distances them from Putin’s influence. 18- to 24-year-old Russians were born into a post-Soviet world – they cannot envision a Soviet world the same ways their grandparents can. They have only ever known Ukraine as a sovereign nation. Propaganda promoting a return to former Soviet glory fails to significantly impact these younger generations.

Hopeful images of resistance in Russia have emerged in recent weeks: rallies led by college students on university campuses, a news reporter interrupting a broadcast to counter propaganda, and anti-war protests in major cities across the country. While the war in Ukraine rages on, the intergenerational battle of public opinion within Russia rages alongside it. Older generations continue to engage with Putin’s disinformation campaign, stubborn in their belief that Russia has been mistreated by the West. Younger Russians find creative new ways to access genuine news: through VPNs, alternative platforms like Telegram, and word of mouth. The burden of resistance weighs heavily on younger shoulders, as they fight to see an end to senseless violence.