SARAH E. MENDELSON is Director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2010 to 2014, she served as Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Follow her on Twitter @SarahMendelson.
No Illusions: The Voices of Russia’s Future Leaders. BY ELLEN MICKIEWICZ. Oxford University Press, 2014, 264 pp. $29.95.
Twenty years ago, while working for the National Democratic Institute in Russia, I found myself observing a focus group in the town of Khimki, not far from Moscow. In a drab apartment, my colleagues and I strained to understand what local residents thought about candidates running in a by-election for the Russian parliament. It was a disorienting time, that early post-Soviet period, before the wars in Chechnya, the collapse of the ruble, and President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. But for some, it held a tantalizing hope: that Russia would ultimately transition to democracy. I, too, felt optimistic watching the men and women in that first group discussion. They seemed eager to debate the candidates’ relative merits and clearly relished their newfound political voice.
In the decade and a half afterward, I observed dozens of Russian focus groups, in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a handful of other cities and towns. Each time, eight to ten randomly selected participants discussed critical players and moments in their country’s development. My colleagues and I then drew on their responses to conduct a series of nationally representative public opinion surveys. The results dimmed my initial optimism. For example, most respondents thought that Stalin had done more good than harm and were oblivious to the true scale of the purges that had occurred in the 1930s. Most expressed concern about the economic costs and the military casualties of the second war in Chechnya but were untroubled by the human rights abuses that took place. On the whole, the respondents felt ambivalent about democracy as an alternative to autocracy and often questioned whether Western-style liberalism was the best political system for Russia.
In 2005 and 2007, we probed the views and aspirations of young men and women in their late teens and 20s—the Russian millennials. In Russian, they are best described as pokolenie Putina: “the Putin generation.” My colleagues and
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