Alexander Khazbiyev was just five years old when Vladimir Putin was first sworn in as Russia’s president. The private ceremony at the start of the new ­millennium signalled the rise of the former spy from nervous newcomer to global prominence.

In May 2018, Alexander — then 24 — was in the ­audience at the president’s most recent inauguration, a glitzy, televised ceremony in the Grand Kremlin Palace to mark the beginning of Putin’s fourth term in office.

In the two decades between, Putin has gone from anonymous apparatchik to one of the world’s most powerful men, and Russia’s economy has grown to more than six times its 2000 size, following ­massive oil-fuelled booms and sharp recessions.

The country has joined the World Trade Organization, been kicked out of the G8, invaded two neighbours and hosted a World Cup and a Winter Olympics. Putin, now 67, has sparred with four US presidents and five British prime ministers.

“In my mind, there is no such period of time when Putin was not there, when he did not exist,” says Alexander, a university teacher who lives in St Petersburg and gained his ticket to the inauguration through Network, a pro-Putin youth group.

“I have never really stopped to think about this country without him as president. I’m convinced that Putin as a politician is one thing . . . but the system he has created will always be here,” he says. “Well, that is what I hope.”

Alexander is not alone. A generation of Russians — about 40 million people — have been born or spent their entire education in a political system that revolves around one man.

This Putin generation, who have grown up under his regime, are now coming of age. Over the past few months, the FT interviewed almost 50 of them, all aged between 18 and 25 and hailing from Moscow, St Petersburg, Siberia and beyond.

Putin’s Kremlin has sought to create a generation largely numb to politics, through the repression of opposition movements, a propaganda-heavy media machine and a cult of personality.

For tens of millions, the only change of leadership in their lifetime has been a cosmetic one — a job swap engineered by Putin that saw him rule the country as prime minister between 2008 and 2012 before returning as president.

His time in charge of the country is second only to Joseph Stalin’s 31-year rule over the Soviet Union, while his party, United Russia, has never held fewer than 238 seats in the 450-strong national parliament.

Almost all of the young Russians who talked to the FT recognise the unspoken contract forced on them by Putin’s regime: social stability and economic progress in exchange for colourless, restricted democracy.

Many expressed support and admiration for the only leader they have ever known. But others railed against a man who has ruled for longer than they have been alive, and created a system in which they feel increasingly powerless.

Putin’s pitch to voters of all generations is simple: he is the man who ended the chaos of the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and replaced lawlessness and instability with a solid state and economic growth.

Or as Vitya, a 24-year-old from central Siberia, puts it, repeating a mantra drilled into him by his parents and the Kremlin: “We associate the change of power with hunger and suffering.”

Those who seek change from Putin have found they must compete against not just the might of the Kremlin and the truncheons of the riot police but also the apathy common among the vast majority of their fellow youth — a generation raised on a strict diet of political indifference.

“We were born in this system, and this system is in our brains. So it is very, very difficult to even start to think about the possibility of changing it,” says Maria, 21, from Taganrog on the Black Sea.

By most calculations, Russia’s economy shrank by 60 per cent between 1991 and 1999, a bigger contraction than during the second world war. Under then president Boris Yeltsin, the country fell into a national depression, cast as the loser in the cold war and no longer the powerful global actor it had believed itself to be.

Putin’s propaganda portrays him as the bringer of plenty, boosted by an opportune six-fold surge in global oil prices between 1998 and 2008 that vastly inflated Russia’s income from energy exports.

According to this, out went Yeltsin and his oligarch cronies, economic uncertainty and internal strife; in came a strong, dependable leader, cash in your bank account and shopping centres where a newly minted middle class could buy Zara jeans, try on Nike trainers and lunch at KFC.

“I come from a military family. I grew up in a garrison town. I remember watching the [2000 inauguration] broadcast, and the atmosphere of anticipation, of my family waiting for change,” says Alexander.

“My parents were both officers, they hadn’t been paid their wages for half a year. The entire community had this sense of being betrayed by the country. I remember when Vladimir Putin came, both my mother and father had such high expectations that something would change. And it did. It all turned out for the best.

“Today, in Russia, if you want to achieve something, you can make it. This freedom has been guaranteed, for the first time in the history of our country,” he says. “We are the luckiest generation in the whole of Russian history.”

Until 2014, few would have disagreed. Russia’s economy soared in the first decade of Putin’s rule, driving up living standards. The number of people attending university rose 50 per cent between 2000 and 2010, and unemployment among the under-25s fell by a quarter.

Coffee shops and bars began to multiply, and European and American brands flooded the country to cater to the first generation with easy access to western culture and international travel.

“The current generation of young Russians are the happiest since 1991,” says Eduard Ponarin, professor of sociology at Russia’s Higher School of Economics. “Happy, apolitical and nationalist, to generalise . . . and that is why politics is nothing to worry about, for most . . . it would take something dramatic or very, very bad to politicise them,” he says.

Yet a new, more sober economic reality has marked Putin’s second stint in the Kremlin. In 2014, Russia was hit by twin shocks: an oil-price collapse that sparked a short recession and a 50 per cent fall in the value of the rouble, and the imposition of western sanctions in response to Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.

In the years since, Russia’s economy has flatlined. Real incomes have fallen for five of the past six years. Youth unemployment in Russia is more than three times the rate of the total population, according to 2018 data, compared with just twice the rate in 2000.

A study conducted in October by the Levada Center, Russia’s sole independent pollster, showed 53 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds wanted to leave the country, the highest level since 2009. For these members of the Putin generation, the president’s social ­contract is bust.

From the architecture museum in Moscow where he works, Vasily can see the ­towering walls of the Kremlin. It’s just a few hundred metres away but it might as well be hundreds of miles.

“There are two different worlds, the one in which I live, and the one with a cortège and flashing lights,” says Vasily, 23, who was raised in St Petersburg.

Like many we spoke to, he was not comfortable having his surname published, for fear of reprisals. “In theory, I understand that this [political] world concerns me,” he says. “But on the other hand, it seems to me like some sort of game.”

Vasily has voted once in his life, in a small city council election, and then only because a friend of his was running. “I don’t really discuss politics, only because I don’t understand much, it doesn’t interest me much, and it reinforces this feeling of alienation,” he says.

“I know that hypothetically speaking there are problems, and that in some respects we are moving in the wrong direction, but while you’re sitting comfortably, you do not feel like doing anything,” he explains. “I have lots of friends that would kill me for saying these things — [they say] we need to create and work towards a civil society . . . [But] as long as my life does not drive me to the edge, I do not want to act, because it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

Among her friends in Tomsk, a midsized city in central Siberia, Irina, 19, uses a common phrase for people who like to complain about Putin but are afraid of taking action: divannye kritiki, or “sofa critics”. “A lot of people criticise but no one does anything…” she says. “The mentality is that all owe something, but as an individual you don’t want to do anything. They think: ‘What can I do alone? What can I change by myself?’ So they give up.

“If you are at a party, it is considered strange if you try to discuss politics. It’s really weird, so we don’t even try,” she explains. “I’m too young to solve problems. I have my own problems.”

Vasily and Irina speak for many. Two-thirds of Russian schoolchildren say they have no interest in politics, according to a national survey released in October.

Life spent under one president has made young people “not pro-Putin or anti-Putin, but rather disengaged”, according to a senior official who has worked in the Kremlin. “It is obvious that the more competitive a situation you have in politics, the more attractive it is for everyone, but especially young people. When you have a lack of political competition, between either parties or individuals, it makes politics less attractive to young people.

“If you are thinking strategically, then absolutely it makes [young people] less dangerous to those in power,” he added. “A lack of competition in any space makes people more stupid, less intelligent — in business, and in politics. If you are the monopoly, then it is a great pleasure to be a monopolist.”

Putin certainly enjoys his monopoly. Of the parliamentary seats not held by United Russia, almost all are taken by MPs from the “systemic opposition”, a network of ostensibly separate parties that take funding or orders from the Kremlin. These parties provide an outlet for public anger at controversial decisions. More crudely, they mop up disgruntled voters who might otherwise have gone to real opposition movements.

The man at the heart of attempts to fan opposition into some form of action is Alexei Navalny. The 43-year-old lawyer, who rose to prominence after winning 27 per cent of the vote to become mayor of Moscow in 2013, has used a series of investigations exposing corruption by senior politicians to tap into rising anger at the regime.

He has also sought to mobilise the Putin generation in street demonstrations and at the ballot box. Young people in search of anti-Putin media are largely limited to his broadcasts, along with social media channels run by a handful of other opposition figures, including rappers. Navalny’s YouTube channels boast more than 4.4 million subscribers, most of whom are young, urban Russians.

One student from Kemerovo, in the heart of Siberia’s coal country, recalls officers from the FSB, Russia’s internal intelligence agency, coming to his school and ordering the headteacher to ban pupils from subscribing to Navalny’s social media pages.

“I didn’t even look up information on [Navalny], because I was aware of the risk of being put in jail,” he says. “People don’t talk about these stories . . . And everybody accepts such a situation.”

Many of those who spoke to the FT said they did not necessarily support Navalny’s actions, and felt that the marches and protests, which often end in police aggression and mass arrests, are futile and unproductive.

“I went to Navalny’s meetings, along with my brother and some friends,” says Vasily. “I don’t like their methods, they are unpleasant . . . He and his people’s approach is too aggressive.

“It’s funny because you’re taken to the police station, and the police are thinking, ‘Again these schoolchildren, we’ve been brought schoolchildren again,’” he says. “These meetings, you’ve gone once, then twice, shouted around a bit, and then what? . . . We do not have any real alternative.”

Last summer’s events, which saw as many as 60,000 people take part in weekly rallies in Moscow, were the largest sustained demonstrations in Russia since the Bolotnaya Square protests that began in 2011. But the young Russians who braved extreme cold and brutal police crackdowns to take part back then watched their movement peter out as the government held firm.

That experience has jaded many, and was cited by several twentysomethings who told the FT they skipped last summer’s actions as a result.

Even Ksenia Sobchak, 38, a TV personality who was a key youth figure in the Bolotnaya protests and who ran against Putin in 2018, admits that it can be smarter to “stay in the shadows”. “People get bored, they can’t keep coming out [to protest] time after time,” she told the FT last year. “They want to stay in, to spend an evening with their girlfriend, go to the cinema . . . You can’t always expect thousands to be standing with you.”

“I think protesting is good, this is democracy,” says Irina. “But when troops suppress these protests it’s also good. If there isn’t suppression, then there will be chaos. So, two sides of one coin.”

Since 2011, Navalny and other activists have organised semi-regular protests against Putin and his regime, sometimes spurred by fresh revelations of corruption — a few thousand people with banners, a march under heavy police guard through the centre of Moscow. None had major impact.

But something changed last summer, as a wave of protests targeting very specific actions by the authorities rolled across Russia, often led by politically engaged young people.

Last June in Moscow, officers stopped Ivan Golunov, a 36-year-old investigative journalist working on an exposé of police corruption. He was arrested. After a search of his home, he was charged with drug possession, then beaten in detention and initially denied a lawyer.

His arrest sparked an immediate backlash. Russia’s three biggest quality newspapers ran identical front pages in protest. Leading media figures and opposition activists condemned the police. And outside Moscow’s police headquarters, people began holding one-man protests.

For Dasha Kurova, 22, a film student from Volgograd, it was the first time she had been moved to take a stand. “I am not a protest person. I am really calm, and when things like demonstrations are happening, I prefer to sit at home and watch a live stream: a divannyi kritik,” she says. “But this summer, I saw a lot of things I didn’t understand. I was shocked . . . I had this feeling that I really had to do something. So I stood there, under the sun.”

Dasha was outside the police building on the day that Golunov was released and the senior officials behind the trumped-up charges were placed under investigation. Soon after, she was back on the picket line, this time outside the presidential administration, after police arrested Pavel Ustinov, a 23-year-old actor, as part of a crackdown on protests against moves to ban opposition candidates from running in local elections in Moscow.

The arrest of Ustinov, who was not participating in the demonstrations, by a group of masked, baton-wielding riot officers, became a rallying point against a summer of police brutality. “They arrested an actor. I make movies. Maybe something could happen to me,” says Dasha. “I realised that maybe it was not right for me to disengage with everything.”

Many young Russians told the FT that examples of the state impinging on their lives had been the trigger for them to take a stand against Putin’s administration. They seemed willing to tolerate elite corruption or autocracy but raged at transgressions whose victims they could empathise with, or which directly affected their own lives.

“The young generation in Russia are largely disinterested in politics and bored by the system and what it represents,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a Russia-focused political analysis firm. “But they are also sensitive to any moves the state makes towards their personal space. If you try to, say, censor their social media experience, then they will get upset and engage.”

Richard Burakov, 25, a masters student, was also moved by last summer’s protests. “For the first time in a very long while, I went to protest. It felt like it wasn’t a political thing for Navalny or his allies. We were not supporting a particular person, but instead an idea of freedom,” he says. “A lot of people from different backgrounds came together. There is a lot of solidarity between people that wasn’t there before . . . a lot of people who before, even if they were anti-Putin, didn’t want to engage with protesting or consider why it should bother them.”

Born in Italy to Russian parents and raised in Siberia, Richard bemoans the lack of alternative role models for young, liberal Russians. “This is reality: we are the Putin generation. I completely understand that he has shaped me as a person, even though that is not something I like to acknowledge. It is a fact,” he admits with a laugh.

“But there are so many things wrong about this country that are about the people at the top, in the hierarchy who control things,” he says, referring to corruption, oligarchs and vested interests. “They will be there even when Putin leaves. That’s the problem: there is a system. The youngsters now are more fearless and more principled . . . People that are going to the streets know that they could be arrested but they still do. This young generation, they literally have nothing to lose. My elder brother’s generation, my parents . . . they have a lot to lose. Stuff they earned or gained in the 2000s, during the huge economic boom.”

Young people arrested during the Moscow protests last summer told the FT they tossed their mobile phones out of police-station windows to stop officers confiscating and searching the devices. In many cases, their parents arrived to fish them out of the bushes as the teens shrugged their way through interrogations that led to warnings and small fines.

“Maybe Putin’s people don’t tell him things. Maybe he thinks he lives in a perfect country. Maybe he doesn’t know what is going on,” says Dasha. “But how can you ignore these things? Is he living in some magic bubble? I love my country. I want to stay here. I want to make movies here. But why? Why is Russia like this?”

Many western politicians and pro-democracy activists have long hoped that a young, liberal uprising could unsettle the Putin regime and change the future of Russia. But that may underestimate the likes of Diana Alumyats, who was 13 (officially a year too young) when she illicitly joined the youth wing of Putin’s ruling United Russia party.

Now 21, she is an active organiser at Molodaya Gvardiya, or Young Guard. The group is the Kremlin’s effort to engage with young people disillusioned with a political elite in which many of the senior roles have been held by the same figures since 2012. The average age of Putin’s senior Kremlin team and Russia’s top ministers is 62.

“Typically, you hear this [complaining] from people who do nothing. Who sit around watching television, complaining that nothing is getting done and nothing is getting better. Typically, young people who complain on the internet are doing nothing themselves,” says Diana, from Serpukhov, 100km south of Moscow. “When Putin leaves, the people, the system he created will still be there. Things will not be totally different, I hope.”

Molodaya Gvardiya’s iMac-filled offices in a converted textile factory next to Russia’s government headquarters encapsulate the sense of progress its members associate with Putin. About 170,000 Russians aged 14-35 are now members; 2,000 of them were elected local councillors last summer.

“We were born into this situation, these circumstances,” says Diana, now a university student. “My parents don’t tend to talk too much about the political situation of the 1990s. They talk about social problems, things like shortages of food. And then how they started to improve. There were memories of a tough period of life they had to live through. Putin is the thing that changed.

“We try to change the minds of young people by giving them the sense that politics can be about something else, about creating opportunities,” she adds. “We aren’t going to schools and telling people to vote for United Russia.”

Analysts say that efforts such as Molodaya Gvardiya are both a response to Navalny’s success on social media and a recognition that, while the Kremlin’s efforts to make politics boring have helped it shore up power, it has failed to adjust to changing social trends.

Putin’s strategists have encouraged him to engage online through live video platforms such as Periscope and Instagram, according to a Kremlin official.

Just 23 per cent of young Russians surveyed in October said they watched television daily, and 78 per cent said they never got their news from newspapers or radio. More than 83 per cent said they used the internet each day “as a communication channel”.

“I am not embarrassed by this,” says Diana. “I have an Instagram account where I share my activities in Molodaya Gvardiya. Of course, some friends are like, ‘Oh my god, United Russia again? What is this rubbish?’ And I say ‘No, look at what we are achieving.’ When I put out photos showing what we can do, friends come and see and say, ‘OK, maybe you are right,’” she says. “You lead by example.”

Putin’s fourth term as president ends in 2024. As it stands, the constitution would ban him from running again until 2030, when he would be 77. He has voiced support for an idea to strengthen the role of the parliament and weaken the presidency, which some take as a hint he could return to being prime minister.

The challenge for young Russians who do not want to see his regime continue is stark: find the means to unite and build a sustainable movement that could provide an alternative, and convince their apathetic compatriots that change would not mean chaos.

“We have a perspective that our parents don’t,” says Dasha. “But there are millions of people who live in the countryside, who live in small cities, thinking: ‘I am fine now. I don’t want to change anything because anything different could be worse than this.’ I used to be like this too,” she admits. “[But] after this summer I realised . . . we have some things that need to change.”

“I see there are lots of young people now who are not necessarily protesting but not agreeing with what is happening in this country,” adds Richard, who has rebuffed his parents’ suggestion that he emigrate.

“For the first time in a long while, people are thinking, ‘What can I do to make things change?’ And they might become a critical mass that could affect everything in this country once Putin leaves.” He pauses. “And hopefully he does.”

Henry Foy is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief

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