MOSCOW — One sign of how long Vladimir Putin has held power is that Russians in their late teens (or even early 20s) have known no other political leader.
As the Russian president begins his fourth term Monday – amid much speculation about whether he'll ever relinquish power – many of the best and brightest of the Putin generation are growing nervous about their futures.
Young adults who study at good universities and live in Moscow or St. Petersburg — cities bursting with cafes, restaurants, Western goods, and foreign visitors — have grown up feeling linked to Europe and the world. But in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and cyber meddling, and U.S. and European sanctions, Putin's countermoves threaten to isolate Russia from the West.
Nothing better symbolizes this internal conflict than the Russian government's attempt on April 13 to shut down Telegram, one of the country's most popular messaging apps, after its founder, Pavel Durov, refused to turn over encryption keys to the FSB intelligence service.
The shutdown effort was an embarrassing failure, briefly knocking out other popular Russian websites and failing to halt Telegram's users. But it could be the prelude to Kremlin efforts to take full control of the internet in the manner of Xi Jinping's China.
To find out how educated young people feel about all this, I sat down at the Café Tchaikovsky, in the heart of Moscow's theater and classical music district, with some students and recent graduates of the Higher School of Economics (HSE), one of Russia's top universities. I asked them how they viewed their future in Putin's Russia and the possibility of Russia's isolation – and whether they wanted to stay or leave.
Nikita Sokolov, a 23-year-old recent graduate now writing for the independent online news outlet Republic, was disdainful of government efforts to control the internet. "Turning off all Western social networks, Google, is impossible," he insisted. "They don't have the hardware or the human resources. Everyone is laughing at them. Maybe all this nonsense will go away."
And indeed, government ministers – whose staffs used Telegram – complained, parliament members kept using the app, and business people were outraged. Young people hastened to download VPNs, or virtual private networks. Thousands demonstrated Monday in Moscow against Kremlin restrictions.
But 19-year-old philology major Maria (who only gave me her first name) was still worried about the Telegram blockage. "Four years ago, no one could imagine such a thing. We are just getting used to this," she said as we sipped cappuccinos – a sharp contrast to the subject at hand.
Sokolov added: "They could try to ban VPNs."
Sonya Groysman, 24, a Moscow State Univ. grad who works for the independent online television channel, TV Rain, chimed in: "So many great Russian [internet] companies have sprung up. But when the government realized that content was new power, they tried to grab them."
Groysman's point speaks to the worry of many young Russians in tech that innovation will be punished rather than welcomed. Indeed, when Pavel Durov previously founded the Russian equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte, it was taken over by Putin allies, leading Durov to sell out and flee the country in 2014.
Nastya Iakunina, 22, who is working in IT while she studies, described herself as "independent from politics." But she worries that shutting down Western social network sites would undercut Russian sites. "There would be no competition and the quality of the product will fall," she says.
Yet, the ebullient Groysman remains an optimist. "I believe in young guys who look for ways to evade the government," she says. "They are more clever than the government."
This young journalist works for one of a handful of independent news outlets that still manage to operate, most of them online, and maintain a certain amount of freedom to do investigative journalism, perhaps because their big-city, middle-class audience is limited in numbers. But no one knows how long that freedom will last.
Sokolov worries that the upcoming members of Generation Putin will be less willing to take risks. "Kids born in 2000, we are beginning to lose them," he says. "Propaganda works. They have access [to independent news] but have restrictions in their head."
Many of Generation Putin have no knowledge of Russia's harsh past. "Many students have never heard of the gulag," said Maria. "They can't imagine how bad it can be in a parallel universe." After the arrest of a popular theater director, she fears, "The government can do anything. In five years anything can happen."
Maria learned about history from her great-grandmother, who was repressed under Stalin.
"We know about World War II," says Sokolov,"but what Stalin did is still a hidden trauma. It is terrible that we don't remember what happened. Nineteen-thirty-seven [a year of Stalinist purges] is not coming again, but who knows. We should not be too calm."
But Anya Shinkaretskaya, a recent grad, is less worried. "We are not as frightened as our parents,"she says. "My mom says, 'It's possible.' We are skeptical."
None of these young people want to leave Russia, which they love — or at least, they don't want to leave forever. "I see myself only here," said Groysman, echoing the others.