Abstract. This article focuses on the more notable differences between the attitudes of young Russians and representatives of older generations in such areas as digitalization, television viewing, attitudes toward the West, tolerance of LGBT people, attitudes toward independence and willingness to do business, involvement in civic and protest activities. On closer examination, not all differences between young people and representatives of older age groups are unconditional and irreversible—many of them will most likely change as today’s young people grow up, as well as under the pressure of the economic and political situation in the country. The article draws on the materials of regular public opinion polls by the Levada Center, as well as three dozen focus groups that the author and his colleagues conducted in 2018-2019 in Moscow and several other Russian cities.
The attitudes of the youth have often been the subject of research interest, including in the pages of The Russian Public Opinion Herald [4; 16; 15; 6; 14; 2; 3; 5; 9]. The aim of this article is to trace the more notable differences of the attitudes between young Russians and the views of older people on such matters as the use of the Internet and the social media, TV viewing, attitudes toward the West, tolerance, and involvement in civic, political and protest activities.1 The work draws on the materials of the regular Levada Center polls carried out in 2017-2020 (the period when this writer regularly monitored the corresponding age differences in the surveys) and on the findings of nearly forty focus groups the author and his colleagues conducted in 2018-2020 in Moscow and other Russian cities. Many of the topics touched upon in the article had been addressed in my earlier publications and are here presented as generalizations of research experience [30; 31; 32; 33; 34; 35; 38].
Levada Center’s regular surveys are monthly representative all-Russia household opinion polls covering 1,600 persons aged 18 and above.2 Beginning from 2017 I have regularly studied the results of this monitoring for differences of the opinions of young and older Russians to identify the issues on which the young and older people diverged the most.3
To gain greater insight into the quantitative research I have drawn on my experience of taking part in the Levada Center’s qualitative projects, including, among others, six focus groups of the project “Russian Generation Z: Attitudes and Values” [22; 7]. All in all, during the said period I have taken part in almost forty focus groups as a moderator or analyst of the results obtained.4 About half of the groups were conducted in Moscow and the rest in Abakan, Vladivostok, Vladimir, Volgograd, Vologda, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Ulyanovsk and Khabarovsk. Each group typically included eight persons, mostly young people in the 20-35 age bracket, but also some aged 18-25. The results of qualitative and quantitative research are not juxtaposed but are used in the analysis to complement and verify each other.
News from the Internet
The most obvious important difference between young (18-35) and older Russians has to do with Internet use and news consumption (noted by all youth studies). Opinion polls show that over the past decade the use of television as a source of news dropped by a quarter (from 90% to 70% of the population above 18. On the contrary, reading of news on the Internet and in social media increased fourfold (to 40%). These changes are driven by young people who already get news mainly from the Internet (65% in the group), from Yandex news, social networks and video blogs. They watch TV news half as often as older people and visit social networks four times more often [11, p. 52; 12].
Young respondents in focus groups often admit that they hardly watch television at all, and some of them do not even have a television set. Respondents under 25 seldom refer to TV programs or TV personalities, the latter having been replaced in the last three or four years by YouTube and Instagram characters (the Internet resources with a rapidly growing audience). Young respondents explain that television is inconvenient: on the Internet one can get everything at any time. As for television, it is often suspected of providing one-sided coverage and presenting pro-establishment views. For young people television is “not cool,” “television is for the old folks.” On the whole, young Russians trust the news on the Internet and on social media more than the older generation which is only beginning to use the Internet and is treating it with mistrust.
The upshot is that the Russian youth is less exposed to government television propaganda. Young people have more opportunities to get a broader and more detailed picture of events, but on condition that a piece of news interests them. However, young people are much less interested in what is happening in the country and the world than older people. Although young Russians have far more instruments for critical perception of reality, most of these instruments are seldom used; interest in politics usually awakens later, by the age of 30-35 (more on this in the corresponding section). Prior to that age youngsters tend to adopt the political attitudes of elders.
The rapid spread of the social media in Russia over the past two or three years has brought forth a new phenomenon, video blogs and video blog influencers. As of today, about a third of Russian citizens watch video blogs. Predictably, the majority of those who use these resources are young people who use them five or six times more often than older people.
YouTube has become an Internet platform that enables new politicians, activists and journalists to gain nationwide recognition of millions of young people. The new public figures address their audiences directly without the filter of state-controlled TV channels. This leads to the emergence of two parallel “universes” with their own audiences and heroes, thus widening the generation gap.
While the older generation continues to watch television with Vladimir Putin, Sergey Shoigu, Sergey Sobyanin, Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselyov, the young have their own heroes: the journalist Yury Dud’ who has 7.5 million subscribers on YouTube, or the opposition politician Aleksey Navalny who has 4 million subscribers. Among the young politicians who came into prominence in the last year and a half or two years are Ilya Yashin, Yegor Zhukov, Lyubov Sobol’ and Nikolay Bondarenko, a communist activist from Saratov. All of them are active in the social media attracting mainly the young audience (Bondarenko, for example, has more than one million subscribers on YouTube).
Having said that, the majority of young Russians are far more interested in non-political stories and non-political heroes. An indicator of their crowd appeal is the number of subscribers to their Instagram accounts. The undisputed leaders are Olga Buzova with one million subscribers on YouTube and more than 21 million on Instagram, Habib Nurmagomedov (20 million on Instagram), Nastya Ivleyeva (17 million), Timaty (15 million), Yegor Krid (12 million), Ksenia Borodina (more than 14 million) and others. This speaks volumes about young people’s interests: music, films, sport and entertainment.
Not surprisingly, these names are frequently mentioned by young participants in focus groups in various cities and in answers to the questions “who is interesting,” “who is interesting to watch,” and “whose example can be followed.” The respondents attribute their interest in these personalities not so much to their work or their scandalous behavior as to the fact that they are glamorous, wealthy and successful.
Independence and the Entrepreneurial Spirit
Another sign of the value of independence among young people is their greater willingness to engage in entrepreneurial activities, to work for themselves, to start their own business and in general work in the market sector. We know from recent studies that young people on the whole have a more positive opinion of the actions of entrepreneurs than older generations, and more often think that some of the most intelligent, talented and capable citizens work in business. Young people have said they wanted to start their own business twice as often as the average respondent in the sample. Older people are more inclined to work as employees in government organizations which guarantee a stable, if not a very high income [23; 37].
Both focus groups with young people and the results of polls show that what attracts people to starting their own businesses is not the chance to make money, but the chance to fulfill their potential, to be independent from parents, the state and circumstances. Further proof of the entrepreneurship attractiveness for young people is the fact that they frequently mention as their role models people like the American business magnate Elon Musk, and several years ago, Steve Jobs and Pavel Durov (who, however, remain heroes for those who today are 30-35).
The current situation in the country, though, is not propitious for starting one’s own business and there is a widespread feeling that the business environment has worsened in recent years. The mood was summed up in a sentence heard at a focus group with young Muscovites: “My wife and I wanted to start our own business, but we changed our minds after considering all the pros and cons.” Thus, under present conditions, independence and working for oneself is a coveted but not very realistic goal. To be sure, some may succeed, but what will happen to the dreams of the young people if they never come true? What sentiments will be generated if they fail to realize their dreams: cynicism, bitterness, a sense of impotence, a readiness to do with little, adaptation to the economic and political realities, settling for work in the public sector and in the civil service?
The Lure of the West
Another distinctive feature of young Russians that emerges from quantitative and qualitative studies carried out by the Levada Center is a positive attitude to the West and especially the European countries. These sentiments are in sharp contrast with the views of the older generations among whom negative opinions prevail. Thus, about 60% of young Russians have a positive view of the European Union and the USA compared with 30% of people over 65. There is a gap on this question between urban and rural dwellers: urban youth have a better opinion about the West than young people from small rural communities.
Polls show that sanctions and differences with the West have had little impact on the attractiveness of the West for Russia’s youth. Such countries as Germany and the USA are still regarded as the main models of a country’s development. It is to Europe and the USA that our young respondents would like to go to work and live.
However, diving a little deeper into the subject in our conversations in the focus groups reveals very superficial and stereotyped ideas of young Russians about life in the West, about the social and political structure and culture of Western countries. The main thing about these countries, it turns out, is that people in the West live well and are affluent. When young people in the focus groups say they would like “to live like in the West,” “like in Europe” they mainly mean material prosperity. Another factor that is mentioned, though much less often, is legal protection of ordinary people in the West, and greater respect for human rights on the part of the authorities. The topic cropped up particularly often at the focus groups in August-September of 2019 when young people from big Russian cities compared the official reaction to protests in Paris and Moscow and the comparison was not in Moscow’s favor.
In the eyes of young people, the West conjures up the image of a secure and comfortable life in spite of the efforts of the Russian TV propaganda (perhaps because young people do not watch television). The image of a prosperous West also reflects what young Russians miss in their own country. Young respondents believe that in most areas referred to (material well-being, legal protection as well as technological development) Russia lags behind the West. Only the capital meets Western standards, but not the rest of the country.
Young people see the West as the trend-setter in clothes, music and cinema. For many of them Western mass culture has become part of their daily experience. From birth, they are familiar with Hollywood and more recently with the North American cable and satellite network HBO. About a third of Russians under 35 enjoy Western pop music, hip-hop and techno while the older generation prefers Soviet-era variety shows and Russian folk songs [25; 19]. Western culture has truly become an inalienable part of the identity of the young generation of Russians. All this also distinguishes young Russians from members of the older generations. However, the interest in Western culture and way of life does not automatically translate itself into support of the West’s policy vis-à-vis Russia. Suspicion of the motives of European and US governments is often evident in the words of young members of focus groups, especially away from big cities. Each time international relations are discussed there are some young people who say that “we should be tougher on America,” because “they don’t understand any other language.” Indeed, during the Russo-Georgian War and in 2014-2015, at the peak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the stand-off between Russia and the West, the majority of young Russians expressed anti-Western sentiments as strongly as the older generations. In other words, young Russians were as inclined toward patriotic mobilization as the rest of the population (however, the effect of mobilization wore off rather quickly).
Even now that the attitude of young Russians toward the West has changed for the better, their own country’s aggressive policy does not meet with much disapproval on their part. Most young people still agree that Russia should position itself as “a great power” and do not mind Russia’s takeover of the Crimea. Many young people would welcome improved relations between Russia and the West but do not think Russia should apologize for its actions or seek a compromise with the Western countries. While they call for cooperation with Europe and America the participants in the focus groups often say that Russia should be
“a separate territory” independent from international structures. This isolationist attitude cannot be attributed entirely to government propaganda and is at least partly rooted in the view current among the Russian youth that the “West is not waiting to greet us with open arms” and that “they do not like us.” Young people are of the view that the backwardness and weakness of their own country is impeding a rapprochement between Russia and the West. The respondents believe that if relations are impossible on an equal basis it is better to keep away altogether.
Openness to the World
And yet many young Russians are on the whole more open to the world than the older generations. About a third of young people would like to live abroad (in large cities the indicator is even higher, about 45%, compared with less than 10% among the older citizens). The main motives for departure are “better living conditions abroad,” “economic instability in Russia” and “the wish to secure a decent future for the children.” Only a fraction of young people, mainly in the biggest cities, think about emigration on political grounds (though they agree with this suggestion more often than older people).
The polls of young people reveal that France, Germany, Switzerland and the USA are the most attractive destinations for emigration and temporary work notwithstanding the clashes between Russia and the West, mutual recrimination and sanctions. However, they prefer to vacation in Turkey, Egypt or Thailand .
Regular surveys show that for many years only 1% of the population have been actually considering emigration. Young people think about it as an option that will not necessarily be pursued. However, unlike the older generation, young Russians do not reject the option out of hand.
Young people’s wish to leave and live abroad should be seen as an indication of the overall openness of the young generation to the world. Today’s young Russians are indeed better equipped for that. A third of them know a foreign language (usually English) (three times more than among the older generation). Many have already been abroad: almost two thirds of young people in big cities (compared with one third among the country’s population as a whole).
However, the attitude toward the West and the world in general may change as young people grow older. This is particularly true of those Russians whose dreams of studying and working abroad do not come true, who fail to learn a foreign language, and for whom a trip to Paris, London or New York will remain a pipedream owing to financial constraints. In this milieu, euphoria may give way to disappointment, envy and suspicion which can easily be used for propaganda purposes.
Tolerance, Gender Equality, Volunteers
In some ways, young Russians are like their Western peers. On many issues young Russians have more modern (even Westernized) attitudes: they are more tolerant of homosexuals, less tolerant of domestic violence and more often engage in volunteer activities. But on closer inspection things turn out to be more complex than that.
It is true that according to polls young Russians are more tolerant of LGBT people (about 60% of young people have a “neutral or positive attitude” compared with about 30% among people over 60. Judging from discussions in the focus groups people under 25 seem to be shy of discussing these topics and try to turn it into a joke, but respondents closer to 30-35 are more serious and often come out for equal rights for members of the LGBT community. Sometimes respondents chose the occasion to “come out” before members of their group, but more often they proceed from their experience of communication and friendship with LGBT people .
However, there are still many young people with homophobic views, especially outside big cities. It also has to be noted that young people are not as tolerant of other population groups. For example, young people show as much dislike of labor migrants as respondents of other ages, and the attitude of young people to the “Russia for the Russians” slogan is no different from the all-Russian indicators.
The views of young Russians on the problem of violence toward women is also not much different from the average statistical data. Rather, we are looking at a change in the behavior of young women. They do not only see this problem as significant (incidentally, as women do as a whole), but they do not hesitate to speak about it publicly. At least this is the impression from the discussions in focus groups: young women do not so much demonstrate a different attitude to the problem than older women as they are more outspoken on the subject.
The #iamnotafraidtosay campaign in the social media (in some ways the Russian answer to the Western #MeToo) and the public reaction to it attest, not to a different attitude to the problem of domestic violence among young Russians, but to the greater boldness and independence of the young women who have decided to speak about their experience of being victims of sexual violence. It has to be noted that I am referring rather not to the youngest Russian women, but to those who are 30-35 and older.
As for the volunteer movement, young Russians are involved in it 4-5 times more often than older people (even so, they account for no more than 15% even in the youngest age group). However, in the older age groups non-participation in the volunteer movement is compensated for by involvement in other civic and socially useful activities such as donation of money, clothes and things to the needy, etc. In other words, it would hardly be correct to say that young Russians are more socially active and responsible .
Low Level of Competence on Issues of Politics and History
Only a minority of young people are interested in politics. Compared with the older generation the young follow political news half as often and discuss politics with friends and acquaintances three times less often. Interest in politics usually awakens after 30 when young people start living on their own and discover that they have to solve their daily problems themselves. The youngest Russians are only beginning to form their political views and ideas of what is happening and many uncritically adopt assessments of Russian internal and external policy from their elders, i.e., relatives or teachers who are much more exposed to the influence of television. Thus young people are exposed to television propaganda, if only indirectly. Moreover, they take these interpretations and attitudes for granted in shaping their picture of the world. By no means all of them bother to take a critical look at these notions.
On the whole, young Russians are content with life. Until recently, most of them supported the existing scheme of things and the political regime. This was evidenced by opinion polls and the profiles of protesters (considering all the events recently held in the country). Many young people took part in actions in 2017 and in Moscow protests in 2019 . However, young people were a visible but not the main group of protesters against the war in Ukraine, marches in memory of Boris Nemtsov and the rally against renovation of housing in Moscow. There were hardly any young people in the actions of defrauded investors, and the strikes of doctors, teachers and truckers.
The impact of the Internet and the social media on the political views of youngsters is limited by their lack of interest in politics. In Russia, like everywhere else, young people mainly use the Internet for recreation and communicating with friends. On everything connected with politics, the Internet is an instrument deferred until the time when today’s youngsters grow older and show more interest in social and political events.
Opinion polls reveal that young people are ill-informed about all issues of Russian history, be it the Bolshevik revolution, Stalin purges, Gorbachev’s perestroika, the Second World War or the Afghan and Chechen wars. The number of “don’t know” answers to historical questions in the youngest age group may be as high as half of all the respondents (the highest indicator among all other age groups) (see, for example, [24; 29; 9]). Discussion of historical questions in focus groups also is also tough going, and not so much due to ignorance of specific facts and dates as due to lack of understanding of the essence of historical events. The youngest Russians, who only recently were supposed to study 20th century history, are the least knowledgeable and the least interested in filling the gaps in their knowledge. Interest in historical events awakens later, if at all.
Alienation from Power
Up until the summer of 2018, the majority of young Russians were highly supportive of the country’s political system. However, the changes in public opinion caused by a prolonged downward trend of living standards and the raising of the retirement age affected the young generation as well. The changes were particularly noticeable in the 25 to 35 age bracket. Asked about their grievances toward the authorities, young respondents in the focus groups, like older people, voice concern about economic problems and the country’s future, and criticize the pension reform which they say has hit their parents. The pension reform probably triggered the overall slump of support for and the authority of the government among the Russian population. Once the process started, it spread faster among the youth.
Some of the claims are peculiar to young people. They are more likely to complain about Internet restrictions such as blocking of Telegram, prosecution for reposts in the social media, blocking of sites—all these things affect them directly. Young people consider these bans to be both harmful and hypocritical because they can be bypassed. Censorship of films and criticism of rap, which is popular among the youth do not add to the popularity of power with young Russians. In the eyes of young people, the members of the aging ruling class look increasingly insipid and old-fashioned.
The breakup of the demonstrations and detention of protesters in Moscow in 2019 also influenced the opinions of the young people who followed the events on the social media. In the focus groups in major Russian cities in late summer of 2019 young people repeatedly mentioned the case of Darya Sosnovskaya who was deliberately hit in the belly by a policeman; one of several videos of the incident got more than 700,000 views on YouTube. Many members of the young generation saw the crackdown on protests in Moscow as proof that the authorities “don’t want to allow anyone” to run the country, that “they think only about themselves” and regard ordinary people as second-class citizens. This contrasted with the opinion of elderly Russians many of whom watched TV coverage of the Moscow events and disapproved of the protesters. The story of the summer protests and their breakup was a watershed in further alienation of the authorities from the Russian society, especially its active younger part.
The deteriorating economic situation compounded by the drop of oil prices and prolonged quarantine, may further increase the alienation of the young generation from power. When resources are scarce, the leadership has to decide on priorities. The loyalty of the older generation, which is more numerous and politically active, is sure to be more important for the Russian authorities than the approval of young people most of whom stay out of politics. In this situation, the interests of the contemporary youth and power will diverge more and more and young people will feel more and more alienated from power and from politics.
The results of polls in the recent months suggest that the process has accelerated. Thus, the amendments to the Constitution and the fact of the “zeroing” of Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms were unacceptable above all for the youngest generation of Russians (see ). In the spring of 2020, for the first time in several years of sociological measurements (at least since 2016), the youngest age group registered the highest level of protest sentiments (up to 40% in the 18-24 groups, with the overall indicator at 28%). It is still unclear how sustained the process of alienation and how sharp its forms will be. The youth is not a serious political force, the older generation being usually far more active politically. Besides, in the aging Russian society people in the 18-25 age bracket account for less than 7% of the population  (about 10% of the electorate), such that the authorities can afford to neglect their opinion.
New Trends Should Be Viewed with Caution
Many of the above described differences between young Russians and older people are not so straightforward. One can hardly ascribe the attitudes and views of young people in Moscow and other big cities to all young Russians, especially those who were born, reared and still live in the provinces. The views and habits of the better educated, more active and Westernized part of the young generation are captured well by qualitative research a lot of which is confined to the same big cities. However, even the participants in the focus groups themselves sometimes admit that they differ dramatically from the majority of their peers. Polls spread to the mass level show that the opinions of young people are much closer those of the average statistical Russian than is generally believed.
At the mass level, irreversible changes in the youth milieu have to do only with the rapid spread of the Internet and partial loss of interest in television (although young people in small towns still watch television). And yet, even these changes will influence the political views of young people as they grow older and develop an interest in this sphere of life. From the socio-political point of view, the Internet is still a “deferred” instrument which far from everyone will use to challenge the current clichés. Interest in social and political problems and the country’s history awakens closer to 25-30 years of age, and then not with everyone (with only a third of the respondents). Until that time, young people display an extremely low level of interest in and knowledge of these matters.
In a society, in which young people account for a small part of the population the political and protest potential of the youth should not be exaggerated. On many issues, from youth involvement in civic activities to violence toward women, young Russians are not much different from the other age groups.
As young people mature, their views may also draw closer to those of the older generations. One may wonder what will happen to the sentiments and views of the young people once they strike out on their own and have to earn their living and support themselves and their families, and take out a mortgage and consumer loans. By no means all the young people will be able, in a state-run economy, to start their own business, let alone achieve success and independence. Only a fraction will be able to go to study or work in the West. It remains to be seen what strategy today’s youth will chose when confronted by the police, law courts and electoral commissions and public institutions: avoidance, passive adaptation or active struggle for their rights?
Under such conditions, the initial attitudes—the wish to be independent, open to the world and positive toward the West—may be diluted and changed. Unrealized ideals of youth may give way to disenchantment and cynicism of middle age. In the focus groups, especially in medium-sized and small cities, one often encounters such people with lackluster eyes. They say that they have no political preferences or interests outside their family, they mistrust the authorities but see no alternative to them and are not looking for an alternative. They have failed to change life and have to adapt to the current situation, give up their former beliefs, fret and cynically question everything.
In other words, the current sentiments and convictions of young Russians must pass the test of time. It is only 15 or 20 years from now that we will be able to see to what extent the new generation can change the country or perhaps they will find it easier to betray themselves and their convictions.
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36. Volkov D. A. Values, Orientations and Political Participation of the Russian Young Generation European Dialog. June 12, 2020. Available at: http://wm.eedialog.org/ru/2020/06/12/cennosti-orientacii-i-uchastie-v-politicheskoj-zhizni-rossijskogo-molodogo-pokolenija/. (In Russian.)
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1. The bulk of this work has been prepared as part of the Millennials project of the European Dialog Expert Group (see ) and completed by the author for publication in the Russian Public Opinion Herald.
2. The results of regular polls of the Levada Center are published on the www.levada.ru site in the Press Release section as well as in the annual Obshchestvennoye mneniye collections of the year’s more interesting studies and the results of the main longitudinal studies; and a run of annual collections (https://www.levada.ru/sbornik-obshhestvennoe-mnenie/).
3. Among the monitoring studies on the topic based on mass population surveys mention should be made of the work of Vadim Radayev based on the Russian monitoring of the Economic Position and Health of the Population carried out by NRU HSE, surveys of the Samara Social Research Fund and regular polls of young people conducted by major sociological services. See [10; 13].
4. Of the recent projects based on the focus group with the youth method mention should be made of the five-year project of the research team led by E. Omelchenko, Sberbank’s youth studies carried out by Validata company, the series of studies led by Valeria Kasamara and qualitative studies by VCIOM, and others. See [26; 8; 27; 39].