I don’t know what my parents would say about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. My father, a newspaper reporter, had a demonstrated contempt for authority. In 1982, when the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died, he refused to follow his boss’s order and compose fake “letters of grieving workers.” After Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, he founded the first English-language newspaper in St. Petersburg, and in the 2000s, he launched an independent journal that criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies. That man would presumably have been a staunch supporter of the Ukrainian resistance.
But toward the end of his life, my father was also openly nostalgic for what he believed had been the greatness of the Soviet Union. He scolded Gorbachev for those democratic reforms, and he railed against the Americans for “teaching us to live too impudently.” He died in 2014, a month before Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
My mother, who was also a successful journalist and short story writer, became disabled at the age of 47 and lost her short-term memory, as well as the ability to read and work with a computer. For the 20 years until she died, in 2018, television and radio were her main sources of entertainment and information. Today, people of her generation who get their news from Russian television have tended to be die-hard supporters of the war.
My parents and I were close, and I don’t even want to imagine what would be happening in our family now, were we all together, talking about Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Feb. 24 — the day of the Russian invasion — was a turning point for many Russian families, a date after which attitudes toward Putin’s war became a kind of battleground within households. I have heard so many stories from my Russian friends about quarrels with their parents — enough that I decided to do some research of my own to find out more about the generational divide over Putin’s war.
A polling experiment
I launched a Telegram channel soon after the war began, a space I’ve used to inform my Russian-speaking audience about the war and how it’s being seen and received around the world. The channel now has more than 33,000 subscribers.
Recently, I asked my Telegram readers a question: “Do you think there is a generational divide in Russia when it comes to attitudes towards the war?”
More than 7,000 people took part in this informal survey. Nearly 4,000 chose this response: “Yes, most parents are for the war, most children are against.” Roughly 3,000 opted for “No, the divide in society is determined by other criteria.”
The results mirror some recent findings of the Levada Center, Russia’s only major independent polling organization, which had asked similar questions last month. In Levada’s “Conflict with Ukraine: November 2022,″ its authors found that the “highest level of support for the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine” is found among those 55 and older — support that hovers above 75 percent. Among younger Russians, Levada found support at roughly 60 percent.
Telegram is fine for asking a broad survey question. To dive more deeply into the thinking behind the answers, I turned to friends on Facebook.
I posted a request for comments and examples of conversations they might have had about the war with relatives and friends of different ages.
Facebook has been banned in Russia since the war began, but many people still access it through VPNs, and I received plenty of answers to my query. Almost 300 people posted comments, most of them Facebook friends who still live in Russia and do not hide their anti-war feelings. I was actually surprised that so many people shared their views; in today’s Russia, DJs mute the word “peace” in songs played on the radio, and people have been sent to jail for writing anti-war posts on social media. So all these people were taking a risk in posting their replies.
“Of course, there is a generational gap,” Vladimir Mamatov, a 37-year-old from Kirov, told me. “On Feb. 24 my father-in-law came in with a bottle of vodka and raised a toast ‘To the victory of Russian weapons!’ ‘Everything on your internet is fake!’ he repeats when I try to point to sources of information other than TV.”
The main conclusion I drew from their comments — beyond confirmation of a clear general divide — was that older Russians support the war for a range of reasons. I’ve grouped them in four categories here, according to what I learned from my Telegram and Facebook experiments.
Group 1: “My mother … is a victim of TV”
The majority in this group are older Russians who trust TV more than the internet. (Most of them would not know what a VPN was.)
As my Facebook friend Natalya Zenkovich wrote, “If you don’t watch anything else, if don’t go anywhere, if you’re not distracted from the screen — and you won’t be, because what else can you do if you live on the average Russian pension of 5680 rubles a month [roughly $95]? — then the world the propagandists create seems quite real, and the actions of the authorities are logical.”
As Grid has reported, the world according to Russian television these days is a seemingly endless rant against the “Nazis” in Ukraine, the evil hegemonic West, and the need to fight relentlessly against both. This is what an elderly, homebound Russian is likely consuming, day in and day out.
A 38-year-old automobile magazine editor from Moscow named Sergei Ivanov answered my query with a memory. “After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, my father said that ‘the internet is always lying.’ … For the older generation, the very fact that something is shown on a state television channel is a government guarantee of the veracity of information.”
Ivanov wrote about a gathering at a dacha outside Moscow, where people his age argued with neighbors who were over 60 years old.
“It was the ‘seniors’ who directly answered the universal anti-war arguments of everyone who was younger, saying, ‘Hey, you don’t watch TV and so you don’t understand.’ We almost got into a fight.”
Another Facebook follower, Andrey Zatoka, described how the generation gap plays out in his family.
“My mother who is 89 years old is a victim of TV. I turned the TV set off at home, so now she watches TV programs on the internet. However, there is a caveat: She doesn’t watch what she calls ‘evil political talk shows’ (her nerves can’t stand such negativity), and she has already stopped calling Ukrainians ‘fascists.’”
We’ve come to the point where it feels like good news when an elderly woman refrains from calling the Ukrainian people “fascists.” On the other hand, Zatoka said his mother also told him, “just be careful, don’t say anything critical [of the war] to anyone.” Which to him means that, as he put it, “she understands that we live in completely Stalinist times and we must keep our mouths shut.”
Group 2: Nostalgia for the USSR
Another group of older war supporters includes those who long for the good old days. Wherever they get their information, these people justify the invasion of Ukraine because they believe it’s a way to restore the power of the Soviet Union — because back then their country won World War II, people built great factories, and they remember everyone living happily in one big Soviet family.
“You know what my father says?” Evgenia, a 40-year-old high school teacher from St. Petersburg, asked via Facebook Messenger. “He says: ‘Your generation has nothing but money in your head, you have no principles! In the Soviet Union, we had the best education system that used to bring up decent people! Therefore, it is necessary to act so we could revive what we had in the old days — we have to unite Ukraine, Belarus and all the republics that their corrupt and Western-bought leaders forced to secede!’”
Evgenia said she is firmly against the war. She didn’t say how or whether she tries to change her father’s mind.
My Facebook survey suggests that there are a lot of people like Evgenia and her dad. Here was Tatyana Davydova, a 40-year-old architect from Moscow:
“There is a conflict with our parents, of course. It’s painful at first. They scream and accuse us of dislike for the Motherland. As I understand it, they had a glimmer of hope for the restoration of the Soviet Union. The world of their youth collapsed because of the ‘vile betrayal of Gorbachev and Yeltsin,’ and now Putin is trying to correct that mistake. Yes, at the cost of blood and death, but they believe that there is no other way out.”
Davydova said her parents justify the war on Ukraine “because otherwise we would have been attacked. And you kids, you don’t watch TV and don’t know the truth … if only we could return our youth!”
“It’s just pointless to argue with them,” she complained. “My father is a historian! He’s convinced he knows it all better.”
Group 3: It’s all about geopolitics
This third group of war apologists are those who still hold Soviet-era beliefs about the United States — namely, a conviction that the main dangers to Russia can be traced to the U.S. In this view of the world, Ukraine is an American puppet, a springboard for future attacks on Russia aimed at capturing its natural resources. In order to believe in the American threat, these Russians don’t need to watch TV; they just need to recall Soviet-era arguments made in newspapers and TV shows back then.
The more educated in this group use a more modern argument: that Russia has become a victim of the geopolitical confrontation between the U.S. and China. When asked what Ukraine has to do with this, they answer the same way: It’s just one more instrument of pressure in the hands of the United States.
“It’s as simple as ABC!” said Sergey, 74, a Tai Chi instructor from Moscow and a longtime acquaintance. “The Americans are afraid that Russia will make an alliance with China and their dominance in the world will end altogether. Their plan is to weaken China through Taiwan, and Russia through Ukraine. It was they who provoked us to strike first.”
Sergey has two daughters, both in their 30s, who say they are against the war but prefer not to fight with their father about it.
Ivanov, the young magazine editor, wrote that the older generation believes the “special military operation” against Ukraine is part of an overall effort to restore Russia to its glorious past. (Actually, that’s how Putin often frames things.) “Putin is trying to return that very greatness,” he said.
This point is made often in my survey. Asked if there might be ways to restore “greatness” other than war, my former housemate in Moscow, 64-year-old Victor, replied: “Everyone fights for their greatness, and so does America. Remember how the British fought for the Falkland Islands with Argentina in the ’80s! Or how the Americans arranged the Caribbean crisis because of Cuba! So Putin is not doing anything new.”
Group 4: They don’t trust the internet — the “special project of the CIA”
I didn’t need the Facebook survey to know about this group. Beyond a general preference among the elderly for television, most older Russians I know don’t really understand how information is shared online. And many believe the internet can’t be trusted.
“There is at least some responsibility on television,” Karina, a 74-year-old doctor and friend of my late father, told me recently on the condition of anonymity using a pseudonym. “But on the internet you can write anything, so they are more likely to lie than on TV.”
Suspicion of the internet no doubt owes a lot to what Putin himself has said about the subject. Back in 2014, the Russian leader called the internet an invention of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“The internet originated as a special project of the CIA and continues to develop,” Putin said then. This statement has been repeated many times by Russian propaganda outlets — which of course use the internet regularly to popularize their ideas.
Can the mindset be changed?
How to change the views of the older generation? I’m not sure it’s possible.
For one thing, my colleague, the journalist and former radio host from Moscow Pyotr Kosenko, drew my attention to an interesting fact: Many older Russians who now support the war used to profess liberal views and oppose Putin. Just as my father did.
“A person’s ideological past doesn’t mean anything!” he wrote. “My mother, who since the beginning of the ’90s has not turned off Echo Moskvy [a liberal radio station now operating in exile] and who has voted exclusively against Putin and “United Russia” [the ruling political party] — she now supports the war, as if someone pulled the switch!”
One of my Facebook followers, Alena Borisovna, replied to Pyotr:
“You are right! My mother never voted for Putin. In the USSR she was a staunch anti-Soviet. And since February 24, she seems to have been replaced with another person! She really speaks phrases from the TV. ‘They have Nazis there,’ ‘Zelensky will run away because he is a drug addict,’ ‘We are now freeing them from the fascist junta’ etc.”
And this, from Olga Grosheva, 30, about her parents:
“My mom is in a state of toxic positivity, and my dad, to my great grief, repeats phrases from the TV as if he were a robot. He also claims that I was ‘mentally carried away across the English Channel’ and that I ‘live in hatred.’ He never voted for Putin. I prefer to talk about flowers and the weather so as not to break off relationships. In short, my relations with my family are darkness and pain.”
Beyond the power of nostalgia and Russian TV propaganda, there are also tens of millions of Russians — younger Russians among them — who earn a government salary. These are the so-called budgetniks, state employees who are directly dependent on the government. Despite the damage done to the Russian economy by Western sanctions, one of Putin’s traditionally and universally recognized achievements is the timely payment of salaries. And in a situation where jobs in the private sector, especially after the imposition of sanctions, are unstable, Russians value work for the state and therefore tend to support the government — their employer — in all their undertakings. Even if one of those undertakings is a war.
Perhaps that is why there are also many young professionals who support the war, or who at least remain quiet about it.
“My brother, 27, works for a state corporation, speaks three languages, avoids any talk about the war,” Sophia, a 33-year-old sales manager from Nizhny Novgorod, wrote.
Alex Alexandrov, former anchor at Russia’s most popular radio station, Avtoradio, who now lives in Los Angeles, added:
“For the most part, the newest generation of Russians has grown up in a paradigm where it’s simply dangerous to go to a protest rally (they can beat you up and take you to jail), where it’s better not to tell the truth.”
Exceptions to the rule
There are glimmers of hope.
One surprise from my Facebook polling was the number of older Russians who didn’t hide their anti-war stance. Just as there are young people who toe the Kremlin line, there are older Russians on the other side.
Here for example, is a note from Galina Morozova, who spent much of her life in the town of Chebarkul, in the Ural mountains, and now lives in Moscow:
“I am 75 years old and I am categorically against [the war], and I am not silent, I do not hide my position anywhere. My son is 50, he generally believes wars are evil, but in this case he supports Putin. Many years ago he was the first in the family to begin to criticize Putin, but now he approves of what he’s doing. We live together, we have not had a TV set for 15 years. We don’t try to prove anything to each other now, we just keep silent.”
Here, in other words, is a family dynamic with a reversal of the typical divide: The son supports Putin and his war; the mother does not.
Natalya Feigelson is another woman in her 70s who despises Putin and his war. And she is not afraid to post the Ukrainian flag on her Facebook profile. Her children left Russia in the spring, shortly after the Russian invasion.
“Everyone complains about the older generation,” she wrote, “and it’s unfair! I am 76, my husband is 77. We have never voted for Putin, and we consider special military operation a disaster for Russia. My friends are divided in half. And it depends on whether they watch TV or use the internet.
“How can we support the Putin regime when our children had to leave the country because of him, leaving their home, work, relatives and friends behind?!”
In the end, my experiment has shown two things.
First, there is indeed a profound generational gap when it comes to Putin’s war. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov put it in a conversation with Russia’s most popular Russian YouTube interviewer, Yuri Dud, referring to Russians aged 30 to 50, “You left your older relatives to TV.”
Second, the main criteria that lead to pro- or anti-war sentiments have less to do with age itself but rather the ability to think critically, the desire to seek information about what is happening and the willingness to question the ideological attitudes laid down throughout life. It just so happens that among the older generation of Russians, there are fewer people with such characteristics. Or fewer people with access to the information required to make sound judgments.
And this is perhaps the main reason why Putin continues to hold such a strong grip on public opinion — and why such attitudes are unlikely to disappear even if tomorrow, by some miracle, the war were to end and Putin’s regime disappeared. Most likely, as was the case with Germany after World War II, it will take a passing of generations and a lot of work to change minds.
For now, in homes across Russia, fathers and mothers and their sons and daughters are struggling with an often-damaging divide.
Mamatov, the 37-year-old in Kirov whose father toasted and loudly cheered the invasion on Feb. 24, said that the news from the war — even the doctored, propaganda-filled news — has mellowed his father.
“Now,” Mamatov said, “after the failures of the Russian army, he tries to escape reality by ignoring news and listening to classical music.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.