How do you measure a country's hope? Quality-of-life indexes offer an overview of how well the population of a given country lives on average, based on factors such as life expectancy, employment rate and per capita gross domestic product. But although this metric gives an idea of how people may feel about their lives and countries today, it doesn't necessarily reflect their desires or expectations for the future. In Russia, parents' dreams for their children, as recorded in polls taken periodically in the 25 years since the Soviet Union's collapse, provide unusual insight into the level of optimism among the country's population. Their varying responses through times of trial and triumph illustrate Russia's post-Soviet transformation and reveal its people's hopes for the future.
Anywhere but Here
When the Soviet Union fell, it took many of its most fundamental institutions down with it. The political system descended into disarray under President Boris Yeltsin. Organized crime and oligarchs ran rampant, inciting power grabs, violence and chaos. Moscow, meanwhile, was losing a brutal war in Chechnya. By 1998, the country's financial and economic structures had imploded, leaving Russia in crisis. Teachers and doctors went months without pay as educational and health care systems struggled to remain functional. And during the bitter winter months, schools, universities and hospitals endured regular electricity and heating shortages.
As the quality of life in Russia declined, emigration from the country soared. Those who hadn't made it out of Russia seemed to be plotting their departure. During my brief time teaching at Siberia's Tomsk Polytechnic University in 2000, I witnessed the phenomenon firsthand. My students were eager to learn English, particularly the American variety, voracious for stories of life back in the United States and awed by the seemingly endless possibilities the West had to offer. Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that some 70 percent of Russian parents hoped their children would go on to study and work abroad, according to a poll released in 1997 by Rossiyskaya Gazeta. The Soviet Union's collapse had shaken Russians' confidence in their country and left them with little hope for the future.
But for President Vladimir Putin, the country's desperation represented a rare opportunity. Putin officially came to power in 2000 as a Moscow outsider who promised to stabilize Russia and restore its prosperity and international esteem. Using a deft but often heavy hand, Putin consolidated the country politically, economically, financially and socially. He rallied the public behind one dominant party, purged dissident political forces from the Kremlin, brought the industrial sector under state control, rooted out oligarchs and criminal organizations alike, and rebuilt the military. To ensure that his sweeping reforms were properly implemented, Putin installed former colleagues from the security services in business, ministerial, regional and even cultural posts. By the mid-2000s, Russians had regained confidence, and Putin's approval ratings were high.
Working From Home
The country's stability gave Russian parents a brighter outlook for their children's prospects. A Levada poll conducted in 2005 found that 57 percent of Russians hoped that their children would make careers in their home country, mostly in business or professional fields. According to the poll, 26 percent of Russian parents wanted their children to enter financial professions, becoming lawyers, economists or bankers. Eighteen percent preferred careers in medicine, while 13 percent wanted their children to work as businesspeople or entrepreneurs. Though the respondents envisioned different careers for their children, they shared the desire to see the next generation succeed as it helped the country prosper. The poll indicated a sense of optimism among Russians about the direction of their country.
A decade later, Russian attitudes have changed once again. A poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center surfaced at the end of 2016, claiming that 53 percent of Russians want their children to find employment in the security services, police or military. This ambition reflects a shift in public opinion unprecedented in Russia's post-Soviet history. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Russians viewed the security services as defunct and avoided conscription by any means available for fear of being deployed to Chechnya. Today, by contrast, the sheer size of the security, police and military forces made them among the most attractive prospective employers for Russians entering the workforce. Russia employs 1 million active armed forces; 907,000 interior forces, including police; 400,000 National Guard members; and 300,000 Federal Security Services (FSB) personnel, along with tens of thousands of others in smaller security agencies. Among the country's other employers, only natural gas behemoth Gazprom can rival these employment figures, though it doesn't offer the same opportunities for power and prestige that the security and armed forces do.
Job availability and upward mobility aren't the only factors inspiring young Russians — or at least their parents — to dream of careers in the security services and military.
The Power of Patriotism
Job availability and upward mobility, however, aren't the only factors inspiring young Russians — or at least their parents — to dream of careers in the security services and military. For more than a decade, the Kremlin has promoted patriotism among the population. Putin's first patriotism campaign in the 2000s centered on civic duty in an effort to rally people behind the Russian state. The subsequent surge of support gave the Kremlin a free hand to crack down on oligarchs, political rivals, Chechen insurgents and oppositional foreign elements.
The Kremlin's latest patriotism drive has tapped deeper into the Russian identity by appealing to the public's sense of moral virtue, its survival instinct and its belief in Russia as a global leader. At the same time, the effort to counter NATO's buildup in Eastern Europe, the military and intelligence campaigns in Syria and the interventions in eastern Ukraine have restored Russian military and security forces to their former prestige. The FSB, which has infiltrated the country's most important industries, has become the most powerful entity in Russia. The military, meanwhile, has come to symbolize the nation's return to global prominence. The change in public perception was evident in March 2016, when people gathered en masse at Voronezh air base to greet Russian pilots returning home from Syria.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of this shift is what it portends for Russia. As the recent poll suggests, most Russians today believe that their country's future lies in its military might, rather than its economic success. And though their conviction is based in part on the belief that Russia has regained its strength as a world power, it also derives from a fear that the entire system could collapse again if not properly secured.