Long Read: Russian Youth against War
BY BORIS GROZOVSKI
Young Russians strongly oppose the war in Ukraine. It is increasingly clear to them that the war is stealing their future and was started only to keep Vladimir Putin, his friends, and their heirs in power for as long as possible.
Recently Meduza, Corriere della Sera, and (in the fullest form) The Bell published the results of a state-run pollster VCIOM poll about Russian society’s attitudes toward the war. The poll was conducted in June, at the request of the Kremlin; VCIOM itself did not publish the results. The survey shows that the majority of Russia’s youth want the war to stop as soon as possible.
Young Russians are much less susceptible to propaganda than older generations. They do not want to die in a war and understand that enmity with Western countries deprives them of a future. The Kremlin is doubling down on its propaganda effort aimed at school and university students, but the campaign’s effects have been minimal so far.
The Sociology behind the Questions
All current polling results should be taken with a grain of salt. The criminalization of negative attitudes toward the war has forced many Russians to treat pollsters as potential snitches (about a week into the war, Putin enacted a law that threatens fifteen years in prison for spreading “fake news” about the invasion. In Russia, all news that does not coincide with the official position is considered “fake news”).
Respondents are not sure about the anonymity of the surveys and suspect that they may be punished for openly expressing their views. Those who are against the war perceive pollsters as representatives of the authorities. The share of those polled who falsely claim they support the war may be about 15 percent. In addition, among those who say they support the war there may be many who do not actually have a position but only repeat the last thing they have heard in the media.
Many of the questions posed by the state-run pollsters such as VCIOM are worded to prompt socially acceptable answers. For example, in February VCIOM asked respondents whether they approved of Putin’s decision to recognize the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics.” In effect, respondents were asked to say whether they agreed or disagreed with Putin.
In addition, opinion polls have become a political weapon. They not only help reveal public sentiment, they also shape it. Reproduced by the state media, they show how much support there is for the authoritarian regime. People hear that the majority supports the war, and this encourages fence-sitters to take the same stance.
Attitudes toward War
During the spring and summer of 2022, polls by state pollsters showed that approximately 65–71 percent of respondents supported military action. Polls by the independent research group Russian Field gave slightly lower shares of supporters (59 percent) and slightly higher shares of those opposed (23–34 percent). Some 7–13 percent of the difference between these assessments may be due to the wording of the questions (Russian Field does not use the propagandistic clichés).
Young Russians and those who do not watch state-run television expressed the least support for the war. There were more opponents of the war among educated respondents and residents of large cities, but these factors have a weaker effect. According to February VCIOM poll data, which were analyzed by sociologist Mikhail Sokolov, 83 percent of Russians over age 60 support the war, while only 11 percent oppose it. On the contrary, among those under 30, 51 percent are against the war and 38 percent are for it. “Among the Russians under 30 years old who live in large cities, have higher education, and do not watch TV, the proportion of those who are against the war exceeds 80 percent,” Sokolov concludes.
The results of the secret VCIOM poll, which were discussed in the Kremlin at the end of June, can be seen in the table below. To compile it, I used data from The Bell, Corriere della Sera, and Meduza publications, supplemented by data provided by the sociologist Alexandra Prokopenko, who commented on the last two publications.
According to the poll, 30 percent of Russians think that the hostilities should be stopped as soon as possible and 44 percent prefer peace negotiations to military action. Support for the war is highest among older Russians who live in small towns and in rural areas, watch state TV, and have a low level of education. Young people, especially those who live in big cities, have higher education, and do not use state TV as a source of information, are against the war.
Young people are opposed to the war quite actively. Some 79 percent of those aged 18–24 are in favor of immediate negotiations (57 percent of those aged 60 or older are in favor of continuing hostilities), and 56 percent of those aged 18–24 are in favor of stopping hostilities as soon as possible (72 percent of those aged 60 or older would like to continue the war). Militarism gradually increases with the age of the respondent. The group aged 25–34 years is closest in this respect to the group aged 18–24 years. According to VCIOM, an even higher proportion of young people are in favor of peace negotiations than according to Russian Field (either that, or the number of supporters of peace has increased over May–June).
VCIOM poll responses: Young people don't want to fight
Question and % responses by age (years)
Some say that the fighting in Ukraine should be stopped as soon as possible. Others believe that the hostilities should not be stopped now. Which point of view is closer to you, the first or the second?
What is more important for Russia right now, to continue military action in Ukraine or to hold peace talks?
Do you support the "special operation"?
Sources: The Bell, Corriere della Sera, Meduza, Alexandra Prokopenko.
The Preferences of Russian Youth
The older generation represents the core of Putin’s electorate, supporting Putin on all key issues. Many of the elderly are in a vulnerable position, fearing illness and loss of income, and are often lonely. This is the main audience for state TV, which simultaneously scares people with foreign policy threats and promises them protection. “That mass support for Putin and the war is concentrated in the older cohorts, we have long known,” says Alexandra Prokopenko. “But it is impressive that the proportion of young people who do not support the war is so high.”
Significant differences between the sentiments of 18–24-year-olds and 60–70-year-olds can also be seen in other surveys. Russian Field found that 65 percent of the youngest cohort (but only 43 percent of the oldest cohort) think that the government's priority should be domestic, not foreign, policy. The older the respondent, the more positive he or she is about Russia's foreign policy. Life in Russia is very poor and uncomfortable, but young people are much more concerned about this than older people, who are much more preoccupied with Russia's conflict with the West and its role as a world power. The elderly also view domestic politics more positively than the young. According to Russian Field, support for the war among young people is just over 40 percent, while among the elderly it is over 70 percent. The younger the respondent, the more often he or she assesses the path chosen by Russia for development as the wrong one.
Young people are much less likely than those aged 45–59 to say they are personally ready to take part in the war. Most of those who want to go to war live in rural areas and have inadequate opportunities to earn a living.
Most 18–24-year-olds consider this war is not theirs. They do not want to waste their lives and health on it. Many realize that severing ties with the West deprives them of economic prospects, opportunities to travel, and the chance to do what they love. Thus law students are uninspired by the prospect of defending the law in a country where there is no independent court and where lawyers and human rights activists who do their jobs well are persecuted by the security forces. Journalism students are well aware that there will be no independent journalism in Russia in coming years. Student life is also ruined: the siloviki are now killing off the last universities, with academics disagreeing over the war and dictatorship.
Despite the propaganda and repression, antiwar sentiments are very strong in Russia, especially among the young and those who do not watch TV. This stops the authorities from imposing universal conscription of men. According to Prokopenko, resistance to mobilization may result in a mass rejection of the war. The rise of antiwar sentiments is prompting the authorities to tighten control over educational institutions and to consider banning YouTube and other alternative delivery channels.
Russian researchers have been particularly interested in youth since the 2010s, when it became clear that a generational shift had taken place in the Russian protest movement. In recent years, the core of the movement has consisted of people in their twenties and thirties.
Russians of this generation have not only political but also aesthetic differences with the government. As a 2017 study showed, 20-year-olds live online, adults are not an unconditional authority for them, and constant social interactions are a norm. In these and other ways, Generation Z differs greatly from previous generations of Russians, who found themselves severely atomized as a result of the collapse of the USSR. The breakdown of social ties between people was one of the factors that allowed Putin to build an authoritarian system.
Generation Zers strongly express values of self-development, individualism, comfort, and self-expression, the kinds of values that the late sociologist Ronald Inglehart called “post-materialistic.” The main thing for these young people is to “find a path of their own” and to be happy; they care about deriving pleasure from life, hedonism. Obviously, war does not fit into their plans. Since the majority of young people are oriented toward personal happiness rather than a career, civil and military service will not be desirable vehicles of social upward mobility. This is already evident in the large number of refusals to participate in military service in the Russian troops in Ukraine.
Another study showed that Russian Generation Zers have less paternalistic values than their parents, are less dependent on state television, are more open to the world, have a positive attitude toward Europe and the West, and support Putin at a much lower level. All this widens the gap between young people and the generation of Putin’s friends, who are half a century older. Right now, they are depriving young people of economic and life prospects. At the same time, Russian youth are more interested in politics than older generations are and are more strongly oriented toward maintaining a high standard of living.
War strongly contradicts these orientations. Generation Zers are much more ready than older generations to change their country of residence if they cannot fulfill their calling in Russia.
Young people think that the situation in Russia is unfair: too sharp inequality is seen as a result of the seizure of power and property by elite groups. Therefore, social transformations that make society more just will be received by young people with great enthusiasm. At the same time, young people do not have much faith in their ability to change their lives for the better. Youth protest has a strong value aspect: Generation Zers are irritated by hypocrisy and lies, the lack of honest dialogue, the discrepancy between reality and propaganda.
The state became concerned about the education of youth at the turn of 2010-2020s, having seen that the key part of Alexei Navalny's audience is 30 to 40 years (or more) younger than Putin's core electorate. Since the beginning of the war, Russian schools and preschools have been increasing their propaganda efforts. Children are told about the successes of the Russian army in Ukraine; they are forced to wear soldier's clothing and to line up in the shape of the letter Z. Educational institutions actively purchase militaristic and patriotic merchandise.
The state considers educating children a very important task. This is underscored by the fact that Putin headed the supervisory board of the new children's and youth movement on July 20 (its name is to be chosen at a congress in December). A special law was passed to create this movement; it will be like the Pioneer Organization in the USSR.
Despite all these measures, Russia’s 70-year-old rulers are unlikely to win the hearts of 20-year-olds. The discrepancy between propaganda and reality will grow, and the war will become less and less popular.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more