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Russian teens see Putin _ and maybe Medvedev _ as guarantor of their hopes and future

Russian teens see Putin _ and maybe Medvedev _ as guarantor of their hopes and future

In her daydreams, Alyona rules a restaurant where she cooks only her favorite foods. Sasha, slightly built but sturdy in his convictions, fantasizes about repairing race cars. Natasha just wants a job that will allow her to move out of her family apartment.
All three, first-year students at a vocational school in the modest Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy, see one man as the guarantor of their dreams: President Vladimir Putin. And they don't want to see him go.
But go he must, handing over the reins of Russia to the winner of Sunday's presidential elections. His successor will almost certainly be Dmitry Medvedev, tapped by Putin himself to take the helm. Most voters expect Putin to keep an eye on things even when Medvedev is formally in charge.
"Pretty intelligent," "loyal," "a puppet," "the only reasonable choice for Russia" _ these 16-year-olds pronounce mixed verdicts on Medvedev, the man anointed to lead them into adulthood.
Medvedev, though likely to get their parents' vote, does not inspire awe or admiration in these teens as his mentor does. Keeping their dreams alive will be among the greatest challenges for the new president of Russia, where cynicism and resignation have often triumphed over hope.
These students' short lifetimes span the life of modern Russia. Their parents' Soviet Union disintegrated before they could walk. They have only vague and largely negative memories of Boris Yeltsin, who led the new Russia through its tumultuous first years. When they were toddlers, inflation soared, war broke out in Chechnya and confidence in newfound democracy plunged. As they entered school, the ruble collapsed and their families' savings shriveled.
Putin, buoyed by meteoric prices for Russia's oil, put an end to such economic uncertainty. He also brought the political opposition and a feisty media to heel, and most of what these teens read, hear and see is increasingly controlled by the state.
"Putin lifted up the country. Not like Yeltsin," said Sasha Baklanov, studying to be an auto mechanic at the Gagarin School. Its students, largely from working class families in Lyubertsy, come here after ninth grade, to gain skills that can transfer quickly into a job.
Sasha, dressed in a button-down plaid shirt and well-polished boots, ticked off Putin's accomplishments. He restored order and national pride, and paid off Russia's foreign debt. "We are not obligated to anyone anymore," he said.
"Things are good for young people now. The government supports the youth," he added, gesturing toward a new sports complex built with government money nearby.
Sasha also looks with pride at the national icon whose image smiles down from plaques and posters throughout the school: Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and symbol of the Soviet Union's emergence as a superpower. The teenage Gagarin trained here to become a foundry worker, and worked briefly in a now-gutted steel plant nearby.
Sasha has no interest in going into space _ "there aren't any prospects in that now" _ but would love to have a garage where he could work on and test out race cars.
Could a Medvedev presidency help him secure that goal? "I don't know what to expect. I can't figure him out," Sasha said.
Neither can fellow student Alyona Proshchina, decked in a white coat and fresh from cooking class.
"Medvedev is Putin's successor, and Putin is strong, solid. That's all I know," she said. "I'll think about it more in four years when I can vote myself."
In the meantime, she wants to finish her courses and get a restaurant job. One day, she says, she'd like run her own place, where she can design the menu to her liking.
Asked whether she would like to train at a culinary school abroad, she furrowed her brow. "Why? I want a restaurant in Moscow, that's where the opportunities are."
In the 1990s, many Russian teens dreamed of getting a job or going to university in Europe or the United States, and viewed their own country as being behind the curve. Today, a new nationalism promoted by Putin has taken root, and Russia's youth no longer see going abroad as crucial to success.
Some young people have taken that nationalism to the streets. The pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi campaigned aggressively for the ruling party ahead of parliamentary elections last year, though it has been quieter ahead of Sunday's presidential vote.
Many teenagers old enough to vote _ a right they win at 18 _ won't bother to cast a ballot Sunday.
"We have the impression it has been decided ahead of time," said Yulia Petropavlovskaya, a first-year journalism student at Moscow State University. Her fellow students, gathered across from the Kremlin, grumbled with frustration at being deprived of a lively election campaign like the one in the United States.
Back at the Gagarin School, Vanya is also resisting the Putin-Medvedev juggernaut. He prefers ultranationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky because he would "keep out all those immigrants."
While his friends teased him for his unconventional views, he bit into a ham sandwich and said with a crumby grin, "I can say what I want. We have freedom of speech here."
Polls show that young voters support Putin more than the general population, and that they are generally enthusiastic about the direction the country is taking.
While Medvedev's youth _ he is 42 _ works in his favor with young voters, they "associate Putin with the relative good fortune of recent years, and worry about what the presidential transition will mean for them," said Denis Volkov of the Levada Center polling organization.
Accounting student Natasha Safronova has been recruited to help out when the Gagarin School turns into polling station No. 1333 on election day. If she were old enough to vote, she would choose ... Putin. "I can't imagine anyone else in power," she said.


Updated : 2021-03-04 07:29 GMT+08:00