The bass died down, the harsh Slavic vocals falling away as the song turned over. Silence ballooned in the room for the first time, and I asked no one in particular, “Is there any chance Putin won’t win the election?” The faces of my Russian friends, drunk students, twisted into frowns — then raucous laughter. Louder than the music that now roared back to life. “Not a chance.”
What stuck with me was not the response but that moment before, the slight pause wherein, I believe, true sentiments came to light. That silence spoke volumes about latent hopes. It said: Maybe he won’t win.
But he did, last week, for the fourth time. No Russian will say they were surprised because it was a victory set into motion six years ago, when Putin won his third non-consecutive term, proving that his administration was not going to be confined by traditional Western notions of presidency.
People like Putin. It’s not hard to see why. Putin has defined Russia’s identity and led the country since the fall of the USSR. He’s the father of the modern nation, a strong leader who falls into favor with many Russians, especially those who lived during the Soviet Union and feel disenfranchised by their history. Dispensing with him would mean establishing a new identity.
In Moscow, my friends joked that during the regional elections, thousands had voted for Harambe, the unfortunate gorilla shot at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016. They thought this was incredibly funny and I did too. Their dark sarcasm contrasted with the fact that they studied at Russia’s top university for students with political aspirations.
When pressed further about Putin and Russia’s future, they were deeply critical. “We have problems.” They didn’t like to talk about six years from now when, according to the constitution, Putin’s second consecutive term would bar him from participating in the next election.
For them — fans of Putin by no means — shouldn’t this be an exciting topic of conversation? Breaking away from a leader who has overstayed his welcome. Don’t they want to look forward to his absence?
It’s far more complex than that. Putin is a capable leader with flaws and allegations of misdeeds to match. But his figure is also innately connected to the modern Russian state. Could we even think of Russia without him? The evil you know is always safer than the one you don’t — and nobody, not a single person, knows what comes after Putin.
This year, children who were born in 2000 will be turning 18 and arriving to adulthood having lived their entire lives under Putin’s rule. I see a seed of hope in this generation — the Moscow Times calls them “generation P.” They’re young and full of hope. Even if they don’t want to talk about it, it’s there, in the silence before the laughter, the fire that feeds on each year of more of the same. They’re critical of this life they’ve lived and this country, Russia, they call home.
Raised on Putin, generation P will end up being the downfall of his era. They will be the ushers of a new age.