They were born in the New Russia, after the old Soviet Union had collapsed. They’ve grown up in a different country from their parents and known just one real leader all their lives.
I’m talking with students on their way to classes at the prestigious Moscow State University — Russia’s Harvard. This group of friends all are studying geology, preparing to work in the oil and gas business. All of them speak fluent English and almost all are eager to try it out with me.
Yuri is 19, born six years after the end of the Soviet Union. I ask him what he thinks about that collapse.
“Nothing,” he says. “It happened before me so I wasn’t affected by it at all. It’s good the Soviet Union existed. There are certain positive aspects about it. So it’s probably worse that it collapsed, not better.”
17-year-old Daniel, too, has mixed feelings about the Soviet Union.
“My grandfather said it was an awesome time for people and they all were united… But other people — some journalists or writers, famous ones like Solzhenitsyn — have a different view of this situation.”
For Russian teenagers like these, the painful chapters of Soviet repression, midnight arrests and the forced labor camps of the Gulag, depicted by the writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, are like ancient history.
Before their time
Most of the students have a on-the-one-hand… on-the-other-hand approach: a more theoretical, historical viewpoint, and a personal viewpoint, based on their parents’ or grandparents’ experiences.
Alexander, 17, says the end of the Soviet Union “had something good for the whole world,” but also something bad.
“It was good for the world because everybody thought that ‘this big Soviet Union wanted to conquer us,'” he said.
But for people who lived in the USSR, he says, it was bad. “They didn’t know anything about their future, they thought it was the end of the world. Lots of people lost their money because of the change of the ruble from Soviet Union to the ruble of the Russian Federation.”
His own parents, didn’t suffer much, he says, and rarely talk about that time so he doesn’t have any personal memories.
Alexey, who’s 18, recalls what his parents went through. “Every collapse has negative consequences,” he tells me. “The country faced so many problems. My family faced them too.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin has called the end of the Soviet Union the “biggest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And for older Russians, the sudden collapse of their country was traumatic, thrusting them into a world of unemployment, rising prices — even separation for families who now lived in separate countries. Many feel nostalgia for a simpler, more predictable time when they were young.
But, with time, that nostalgia is fading. In a new poll by Russia’s Levada Center 83% of people over 55 said they regret the end of the USSR. For 40 – 54-year-olds, it fell to 63%. And among those under 40, only 40% said they regretted it.
What does ‘New Russia’ look like?
With snow swirling about as we talk outside the university, Vasily, 17, is blunt: “I think it was inevitable and it was right that it fell apart.”
I ask the students what they think their lives will be like in the New Russia. After all, they’re studying at an elite university, can travel anywhere they want. They have computers, and mobile phones, and — like teenagers everywhere — they live on the internet and social media.
Surprisingly, Daniel tells me: “I can’t say like this, that it’s a good future. I think it’s pretty bad, because I actually don’t like the real situation in Russia now. Some things are really disappointing to me, like corruption — it’s terrible — but I hope it will all change.”
Yura tells me Russia is improving. “There are a lot of projects being designed now. A path forward is being created. There’s no stagnation or something. There’s nothing bad.”
When I ask Alexey whether he thinks he’ll have a good life in Russia, he uses a famous Soviet-era phrase in Russian that his grandfather could have used: “a bright future.”
“Well I hope for a bright future but who knows what’s going to happen next. It’s possible things will turn out not the way we wanted them. There might be war or something. There’s a possibility there might be a Third World War.”
His friend Vasily, on the other hand, is “positive” about his future. “Life is ahead of me,” he says, using another old Soviet expression, “Hope and wait, all life is ahead!”
But he doesn’t see himself — or Russia — as part of Europe. The Russian “mentality,” he explains, “is different from the European.”
Russia, he says, will find it’s own way. “Russia is a completely different state with its own mentality and its own moral principles that developed a long time ago. So to copy something and implement it here from the West – Europe or America – it’s absolutely useless – it won’t take root,” Vasily says.
In their eyes: Putin the statesman
That idea sounds very much like the world view of Putin, who has been trying to build national consensus on Russia’s unique history and role in the world.
Most of these students seem satisfied with the man who has been in the Kremlin since before they were born.
Yura says he has a “good” opinion of Putin: “Everything is great. I’m satisfied with everything in my country.”
Alexey agrees: “Of course, thanks to him, we have no problems in our country. Well, we do have them but he softens them. So his policy is right. I support it.”
These young Russians may not remember the old Cold War, but they have their own “new” Cold War, with President Putin challenging America’s leadership.
“What we see now is certainly unpleasant and everyone understands that no one benefits from it,” says Vasily. “I hope he (Donald Trump) will have a dialogue with us, we’ll keep it going and everything will be good. Maybe we won’t be friends but we will have fruitful economic relations.”
Daniel is less sure. “It won’t to be better,” he says. “I think it will be the same.”
In the New Russia, personalities matter and, for many Russians, Putin defines his country.
“Relations are supposed to change because it’s a change of person,” Alexander tells me. “Donald Trump talked about president Putin. He said he was actually a great leader, and I think that president Putin also respects Donald Trump. So I think that relationship will improve between America and Russia.”
Like these students, modern Russia is young — born just 25 years ago. They will grow up along with their country. And what it will become is in their hands.