How do educated young Russians see their country? Are they hopeful or fearful? I have just returned from two weeks in Moscow in March 2010 where I gave lectures to university students studying international relations (and English) at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow State University, and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. While their views are not representative of all Russians or even all young Russians (the students themselves readily acknowledged this), they were nonetheless extremely interesting—and in my view, a very hopeful sign in a country where there are too few others.
The students, of course, differed among themselves on several issues. On the whole, however, their views could be described as nationalistic, but critical of the Putin/Medvedev government for being so corrupt, inefficient, and undemocratic. Many noted the popularity in Russia of the viewpoint that it is a country that needs to be guided by “a firm hand,” and is not hospitable to democracy. Those who did so, though, also indicated that they did not understand why Russia needed this “firm hand” or why it could not be democratic like other nations.
Just because they wanted democracy for Russia, though, did not mean that they had a positive view of America. Several were highly critical of American foreign policies such as expanding NATO, bombing Serbia in 1999, supporting Georgia, and making a mess in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While they did not support America intervening in these two Muslim countries, they very much fear that a U.S. withdrawal from them will have a more negative impact on nearby Russia than on faraway America.
Yet while critical of American foreign policy, the young Russians I spoke to very much want Russia to have good relations with America and the West. They not only see this as being in Russia’s national interest, but also in their own personal interest. This is because they highly value their ability to travel to the West—something that neither their parents nor grandparents could do when they were young. Indeed, most of the students I met had traveled abroad—often quite frequently. They all fear that deteriorating Russian relations with the West could someday result in their becoming unable to travel there.
Many expressed the fear that Putin’s unnecessary belligerence was going to lead to this. Several (usually in private, but sometimes in class discussion) declared that they see Putin in particular as very much a man of the past who does not understand what they—and Russia—now need and want.
But how can they get rid of Putin and his corrupt authoritarian system? Nobody saw any hope for this. Further, these students believe that their desire for positive change is a minority view in Russia. Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg (and not very far outside of them), Russia (they told me) is an extremely poor, backward, and uneducated country where people are both unwilling and unable to change.
Some described Moscow and St. Petersburg as a “country within a country.” Many of the students also seemed to see themselves as similar to the relatively small group of enlightened 19th century Russian intellectuals who also wanted to bring positive change to their backward country.
I was especially surprised at how often I heard students (always in private conversation) use the expression “this stupid country” to describe Russia. I took this, however, not as an indication of dislike or disrespect for their motherland, but of disappointment in it for not being the modern democratic country that they want it to be.
The students, by the way, are uniformly proud of the great Russian cultural figures of the 19th—especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. They told me that Dostoevsky in particular—with his amazing descriptions of both the good and the bad in humanity—is especially popular now with them.
During two class discussions, I expressed the opinion that a country that could produce figures as great as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (among many others) not only could, but would become democratic one day. The students liked this idea, but were pessimistic about whether it could be true.
It is the pessimism of these educated young Russians about their country, though, that makes me optimistic about Russia. There cannot be positive change without the desire for it first. And the young Russians I met definitely have that.
Edited, abbreviated version published as “Taking a Jump from Pushkin to Democracy,” The Moscow Times, April 6, 2010.