Putin's Rule Turns 20: Many Russians Find Stability; A New Generation Sees Stagnation
Ruslan Parshutin was just a teenager, but he still remembers New Year's Eve 20 years ago.
Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president, flickered on TV screens, speaking slowly and deliberately. Eight years of political and economic turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union had taken its toll on him. Yeltsin announced his resignation and handed over power to his energetic 47-year-old prime minister, Vladimir Putin.
"We had hopes that there would be changes for the better," says Parshutin, now an engineer. "And those hopes were justified — that's obvious. It's just enough to look at our city and see how much it has changed."
Parshutin, 35, stands in the new riverside park in Tula, an industrial city 100 miles south of Moscow. For Russians like him who lived through the poverty, crime and chaos of the 1990s, Putin represents a return not just to stability but to national greatness. Even after two decades in power, Putin consistently enjoys approval ratings around 70%.
At the same time, younger Russians with no memory of life before Putin are more likely to perceive stagnation where their parents see stability. A recent poll shows that more than half of Russians between 18 and 24 would like to move to another country for good.
Parshutin blames foreign movies and "propaganda" for changing attitudes among young Russians. He calls himself a "Soviet" person, and that's why he values Russia's return to the world stage.
"It's important to us because we remember our roots from Soviet times. Patriotism is in our blood," he says. "We always aimed to be number one in the world, and Putin understands that."
Andrei Makhrin, a political scientist at Tula State University, says his students are more interested in politics than ever before — but he attributes their opposition leanings to the "destructive element" of youth, as well as a lack of socialization.
Makhrin defends Putin's legacy, arguing that he managed to pull Russia back together after centrifugal forces threatened even further disintegration after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.
"There isn't a single unstable element in the management of the country," Makhrin says. "Take a look at the United States. I think that's where there's instability and political chaos."
Makhrin says that Tula, a center of arms production for 300 years, is especially supportive of Putin because of his revival of the defense industry. Some of the dividends are now flowing back to the city in the form of urban renewal.
In 2016, Putin named one of his bodyguards the head of Tula region. Since then, the new governor has renovated the city's 500-year-old kremlin, or fortress, pedestrianized a historic street and built a promenade along the Upa River. Moribund factories in the town center have reopened as cutting-edge cultural centers offering lectures, concerts and exhibits on Tula's past.
Many of the young people who hang out in Tula's converted industrial spaces were born after Putin came to power. For them, nostalgia for Soviet glory or talk of stability is abstract, especially in the face of falling living standards and decreasing economic opportunity.
"We want to move forward. We don't want to stay in one place. We're getting sick of this tunnel vision," says Yekaterina Zaretskaya, a 19-year-old student. "We want something new — and that's why we look at what's going on in other countries and sometimes wonder why we can't have the same thing."
Zaretskaya says she keeps informed via the Internet — not state television.
"If someone turns on the TV at home, I ask that they switch it off," she says. "I think a lot of lies and falsehoods come from television. It's disgusting to listen to."
Zaretskaya prefers to go online to watch the investigations by Russia's most famous anti-corruption activist, Alexei Navalny, 43. He organized a nationwide presidential campaign but was banned from running against Putin in the 2018 election. Navalny mainly uses social media to reach his supporters, who not surprisingly are mostly younger Russians.
But not all young people support the opposition, says Zoya Timofeyeva, a grandmother and great-grandmother walking along Tula's riverbank. When she hears Navalny's name, she shakes her head.
"Heaven forbid, Navalny? Who does he think he is? He's just all talk," she says.
Putin, on the other hand, has restored Russians' sense of pride and confidence in the future, Timofeyeva says. "He's sincere, kind and noble. He's very smart, energetic and combative — everything you need in a leader."
Timofeyeva says she would vote for Putin again if there weren't a constitutional ban on three consecutive presidential terms. Putin is in his fourth term as president and served as prime minister between 2008 and 2012. He has not revealed his plan for what happens in 2024, when the next presidential election is due and he turns 72.
After his reelection in 2018, Putin faced criticism, even protests, for raising Russia's retirement age to 65 for men and 60 for women.
But Timofeyeva, who used to work in one of Tula's weapons factories, says that despite any economic hardship, she's sticking with Putin and not giving up hope for a better future for the next generation.
Dmitry Nikolayev, who headed Navalny's Tula campaign headquarters, rejects the stubborn loyalty to authority prevalent among older Russians. It's a remnant of the Soviet system, which curbed civic activism and punished criticism of the government, he says.
"I wouldn't say that Putin is popular — it's more the passivity of the general population. People aren't very interested in politics or civic life," says Nikolayev. "There is no civil society in Russia. When I tell people at work that I ran Navalny's office, they say, 'Don't you have anything better to do? You're 27 and not even married.' "
Nikolayev, the son of a saleswoman and a factory worker, confesses that he wasn't particularly interested in politics a few years ago — "the fat years," as he puts it, when Russians' incomes were still growing.
But Nikolayev decided that not all was right in Putin's Russia after police called him in for questioning over a social media post about a heavy metal band whose songs had been labeled "extremist." As a result, Nikolayev joined the opposition.
Navalny's Tula headquarters have been shut since 2018, and Nikolayev now works for a local marketing company. His top aide at the campaign office, a student named Filipp Simpkins, fled the country three months after Putin's reelection.
"I was shocked. He just packed his things, told me he doesn't have a life here and left," says Simpkins' mother, Yelena Agayeva. Simpkins flew to Switzerland, where he was granted political asylum.
Agayeva says her son's political activism in Tula caused him to be kicked out of the vocational school where he was studying to be a train engineer. He had already spent a week in jail and was organizing a rally in town to protest Putin's raising of the retirement age.
"They were constantly threatening him with jail if he didn't stop," says Agayeva. "I was really scared they'd try to plant drugs on him. I was afraid they'd do something to put him away for a long time."
All that Simpkins, now 21, has left behind in the family's three-room apartment is his cat, computer, mountain bike and a sign from Navalny's Tula campaign headquarters. Agayeva remembers how he used to pedal through nearby villages distributing leaflets about his candidate.
"He thought that if we all stood up against Putin and corruption, everything would change. But he didn't change Russia; the government changed his life," she says.
Agayeva, who works in a children's sanitarium, says the hopes she had for Putin 20 years ago have since evaporated. She's not even sure it will be safe for her son to return once Putin leaves power.
"I hope that in many, many years he can come back as a visitor — and that he'll at least be a little homesick for Russia," she says.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.