What Makes Older Russians’ Perceptions So Different From Their Younger Peers
September 6, 2023
  • Alexei Makarkin

    First vice-president, Center for Political Technologies 
Alexei Makarkin explains how the Soviet experience continues to define older Russians’ perception of the Great Patriotic War, the Russian state, the West and education, and what it tells us about the nuances of the generational gap in today’s Russia.
The original text in Russian was published as a series of Telegram posts. A shortened version is republished here with the author’s permission.

There is a generational divergence in any society at any time. Yet in relation to modern Russia, it is not the usual grumbling of old people (often laced with hidden pride in the younger generation), but a more serious process, caused by both the collapse of the USSR and Russia’s integration into global processes.

Disintegration cannot be forever

For the older generation of Russians (unlike young people), the collapse of the USSR is a trauma that only intensified over time, as at first it was not considered fatal or irreversible. Some pinned their hopes on a centuries-old joint history, some on technological chains, and still others generally believed that the party mafia, fused with the shadow economy, was to blame for interethnic conflicts, and that intellectuals and democrats, for example, Armenian President Ter-Petrosyan and Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey, would be able to understand each other.

All these arguments were sooner or later proven wrong (the most naive one, the “democratic” one, collapsed first). Therefore, the idea of a serious revanche became more and more acceptable not only for adamant supporters of the USSR (they were always a minority), but also for people far beyond this group. Including those who, for various reasons, welcomed the collapse of the USSR either because they considered the Soviet state unviable or because of believed infringement of the rights of Russia (RSFSR) within the USSR.

Among today’s ardent patriots there are many who believed that the Baltic republics could be let go with the rest of the countries remaining part of a certain community that in the foreseeable future would become a state entity. The Union of Independent States seemed to be such an entity. Its very existence (underpinned by a large number of agreements) was a strong argument in disputes with skeptics who did not believe in the restoration of a single state.

Another argument was the EU: since the European countries are integrating, then even in the medium term, a similar (and perhaps even more advanced) process could take place in the post-Soviet space. Moreover, the beginning of the 1990s was a time of European optimism, with the Maastricht Treaty signed in early 1992. The fundamental difference – that there is no one major player in the EU that outweighs all the others in terms of its power – was not taken into account. Neither was the fact that the seceding countries, by definition, were getting away from the major player and building their identity by, among other ways, not recognizing its supremacy (this was clearly manifested, for example, during the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

In any case, deepening frustration led to a hunt for culprits.
Conspiracy theories were becoming popular that the collapse was the result of a conspiracy of several individuals – Mikhail Gorbachev and his liberal advisers, and Boris Yeltsin with the presidents of Ukraine and Belarus, who signed the Belovezha Accords dissolving the Soviet Union,
Rally on March 10, 1991 against Gorbachev on Manezhnaya Square. Source: Twitter
while “ordinary people,” of course, were against it. Conspiracy theories spread to books and the internet. The popularity of popadantsy literature (see Russia.Post stories on this genre here and here) – where a modern man goes back to the past to correct historical mistakes by force, crushes conspiracies, and expands the territory of the country – is also connected with the longing for a single powerful state.

Attitude toward the Great Patriotic War

At first glance, the results of polls about the Great Patriotic War demonstrate the unity of generations, but upon closer examination, cracks are visible.

A VTsIOM poll conducted in 2020 showed that the vast majority (95%) agreed with the statement that victory in the Great Patriotic War is the main event of the 20th century for Russia. The 45+ generation more often expressed absolute agreement with this statement (45-59 years old: 86%; 60+: 94%). Young people aged 18 to 34 agreed somewhat less: 71-72%.

But sociologists asked an additional question – whether the Victory was the most important event in Russian history or an important event among others (the options “minor” or “ordinary” event were obvious outsiders). For 69%, the most important event was the Victory; for 27%, an important event among others. Meanwhile, in the 18-24 age group, the opinion that it was an important event among others won out: 49% to 44%.

In a 2021 VTsIOM poll, when asked if Russians knew details about their relatives’ participation in the war, 43% said they knew a lot about it from the stories of relatives and family archives (the question was adjusted to take into account that many young people already did not have relatives who had been soldiers alive). Among respondents aged 18-34 this option was chosen by 24-26%. In other age groups, the figure was significantly higher at 42-56%.

The war, of course, is not forgotten and will not be forgotten. There is another process going on:
“The theme of war and victory becomes less personalized for new generations, perceived more distantly.
A group of Russian students, 2023. Older Russians often believe that education today is inferior in quality to that in the Soviet Union. Source: VK
Not as the main event of not only Russian, but also world history, unique in its scale and tragedy, but as one of the significant events of the past, the details of which many have a rather vague idea.

Ten years ago, a survey of students from different regions of the country conducted by the Moscow University for the Humanities showed that more than a third of them (37%) could not remember a single military leader from the war and almost half (47%) could not remember war heroes among the soldiers and officers.

This is attributable not only to the passing away of the generation of veterans who could talk about their years at the front, but also to the decline in the role of television in society. In previous years, the whole family watched the most popular films, among which there were many dedicated to the war. Now the audience for war films is mainly members of Soviet generations who watch old films over and over and are extremely critical of modern versions.

The Great Patriotic War is gradually ceasing to be an absolute measure for assessing the events of our time.

Attitude toward the West

For many Soviet people, the West was an ideal of material prosperity and a source of cultural models, from Shakespeare to Lennon. The soft power of the West was seriously felt already in the last decades of the USSR. Soviet official authors strenuously fought against “petty-bourgeois-ism” and “adulation” [of the West], but this struggle was not very effective, not least because for them a trip to Paris was the matter of their dreams.

But the war and the Victory gave a sense of moral superiority over the West – primarily because of the incomparable number of victims. At the same time, a stable idea formed in Soviet society that for almost the entire war the USSR confronted the enemy alone, with its Western allies joining only at the final stage.

The contrast between life in the USSR and in the West was perceived as the result of a terrible injustice – why are “they” comfortable when we endured so much?

The contribution to the Victory by what became the Warsaw Pact countries was also not highly valued in society. The Hungarian Revolution, the Prague Spring and Solidarity in Poland were perceived by many Soviet people as ingratitude by peoples liberated by the Red Army.
“In the 2000s, from below, the idea began to be actively promoted that the whole of Europe (the “future EU”) opposed us during the war.”
The younger generations have significantly fewer such ideas, so it is not surprising that in modern Russia a law has been passed prohibiting denying the decisive role of the USSR in the victory over Nazism. This is not only a response to the 2019 European Parliament resolution on Nazism and Communism, but also a desire to shield young people from Western interpretations of history. In the USSR, such a law would have made no sense, as then the absolute majority in all age groups, despite differences of opinion on a number of other issues, considered the Soviet approach absolutely correct.

The criterion of “usefulness”

One of the main concepts for the Soviet people is “usefulness.” Even in the Stalinist Soviet Union there was a remarkable phrase for dismissal [from work] – “impossibility of further use.” This, by the way, was not necessarily followed by arrest – the state simply believed that there was no longer any benefit from this person in his professional field.

The attitude toward Stalinist repressions, even during the Khrushchev thaw, was decided precisely in the context of “usefulness.” The main argument in the Soviet criticism of Stalin was not the death of innocent people, but the harm of the repressions for the country. The problem was that Stalin destroyed managers, military leaders and specialists who were useful for the country, not that he killed people.

When de-Stalinization began to give way to revanchism (this began to happen “from below” already in the 1990s), the discussion began to unfold to a large extent precisely in the logic of “usefulness.”
Since the 1990s, people, disillusioned (in democracy, the market, and increasingly in the collapse of the USSR), began to give see the usefulness of Stalin’s rule in the Victory and industrialization.
The principle of “usefulness” is connected not only with one’s view on history but also life choices. In the USSR, it was understood that being a mechanic, engineer or officer was the norm for a man, while a service-industry worker (bartender, waiter, or salesman) was a deviation. There are women for that, and in this capacity a man is not “useful” for the country.

For older generations, the professions of an industrial society remain unquestionably “useful.” Even computer scientists lose out to metallurgists or miners in terms of their “usefulness.” Meanwhile, choosing a career that corresponds to self-realization and provides an acceptable income is completely normal for new generations. About “usefulness” in the Soviet sense – meaning “useful for the country” – they think little or not at all.
Boris Yeltsin, chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR (center), during the All-Union referendum on the future of the USSR surrounded by journalists near a polling station. Russia, Moscow March 17, 1991. Source: Wiki Commons
Sacred attitude toward the state

For most people of the older generations, the perception of the USSR as an empire and the use of colonial discourse to describe the relationship between the center and the regions is psychologically unacceptable.

Even in Stalin’s times, it was believed that the annexation of territories (Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, etc.) to Russia was mostly voluntary and for each people, in the specific historical situation, was the best option available.

In post-Stalin times, comparison of Russia with other continental empires (Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman) was rejected not only because of the historical understanding of countries choosing to be part of Russia. Importantly, after the Great Patriotic War, the perception of the state as a sacred entity sharply increased, as the land of the European part of the country was literally soaked with blood. In addition, there was the idea that the “periphery” lives at the expense of the center, which prioritizes investing in the social sphere of the former to the detriment of the medium-sized and small cities of the RSFSR and the villages of the non-Black Earth region.

These two arguments – sacredness and the economy – initially contradicted each other. And this contradiction sharply escalated in the late 1980s, when after the end of the “oil miracle” the economy began to fall apart, the store shelves were empty and residents of the RSFSR often viewed the need to maintain the republics as a burden.

Voting in the RSFSR in the spring and summer of 1991 provided clear evidence of such a contradiction. The same people voted in the union referendum for the preservation of the “sacred” USSR and in the Russian referendum on the same day for the introduction of the post of RSFSR president (furthering the erosion of the Union), and in the presidential elections for Boris Yeltsin, who supported the movement for independence in the Baltics.
The desire to dump obligations on the republics turned out to be stronger in practice, but after the collapse of the USSR, the sacred argument began to come back – of course, among the Soviet generations.
For post-Soviet people, both the concept of sacredness and regret about the loss of the USSR are much less relevant.

Attitude toward education

For Soviet people, the collapse of the USSR was marked by the departure of an understandable world based on familiar values, dealing a major blow to a familiar sense of self-importance. It is precisely a generational problem, as frustration even affected a considerable number of those who were able to adapt to market realities or even succeeded in the 90s.

One of the losses associated with the disappearance of the Soviet way of life was Soviet education. There was a real cult of education among the Soviet generations. Whereas Soviet health care is remembered with nostalgia for being free, Soviet education is remembered for its quality.

As many new higher education institutions emerged in post-Soviet Russia and paid education appeared, the number of students increased dramatically – parents in every way encouraged their children to get higher education and were ready to pay for it, even significantly cutting family spending.

The other side of the idea about the high quality of Soviet education is the perception of today’s youth not only as unpatriotic, but also uneducated. Older generations do not value the competence of the young, with attempts to deploy education toward needs of a modern market economy perceived as degradation.

Hence the strong rejection of the Unified State Exam and the “Bologna system” (long before the official rejection of it) along with the desire to return the Soviet system of entrance exams and universal five-year “specialization.”

This divergence has another important consequence. In today’s Russia, the older generations are openly afraid to leave the country to the youth, believing that they are not only not patriotic enough, but also do not know Russian history, and are generally poorly educated.

Religion, nationality, and the question of peace

Soviet experience shows that propaganda is far from always being effective, official “scientific atheism” and internationalism being examples.
Scientific atheism was discredited long before the collapse of the USSR, partly because it was promoted by poorly educated lecturers, but more importantly because atheism could not optimistically answer the question of what happens after death.
For obvious reasons, the older a person is, the more concerned he is with this question – and the explanation that one must live one’s life “usefully” to remain in the memory of posterity is not satisfactory. Thus, before Khrushchev could promise to show the “last Soviet priest” on TV, former Komsomol members in the interwar period had flocked to the churches.

With internationalism it was even harder. The national question was connected with the natural repulsion of people from “strangers” and numerous negative stereotypes. The Soviet official “friendship of peoples” came into conflict with private life, in which there was both everyday xenophobia and the corresponding anecdotes and rumors.

Meanwhile, radical nationalism in the Russian tradition was not welcomed – people kept their distance from the radicals, as they were considered dangerous and unpredictable.

What about young people? The rapid growth of interest in Orthodoxy in the early post-Soviet period has been replaced in recent years by a decline in religiosity, including because of the view that the Russian Orthodox Church as too pro-state. If three decades ago it was fashionable to call oneself a believer, now young people willingly declare atheism.

Xenophobia persists, with labor migrants from Central Asia as the new “strangers.” “National” jokes are told, it seems, much less. Radical nationalism is still unpopular and exists only as a niche phenomenon.

Public opinion polls show that young people are less inclined to justify violence – they are generally more tolerant.

Today’s young people grew up in an environment where the state did not interfere too much in their personal lives and the formation of their tastes and habits.
Comparatively, today’s schoolchildren are being subjected to intentional ideological influence from the state, and only time will tell whether the state will succeed and how their gap from the older Russians may look.
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