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The future that young Russians want

The Putin generation is often worldly, optimistic, and enthusiastic about democracy – as they define it.

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"We support the political course that Putin started," says Shchitov, an avid reader who draws inspiration from Peter the Great – "a real example of being proud of your country." He also likes Stalin, a ruler who could solve any problem – including the defeat of Hitler – "by strict measures." And he admires Franklin D. Roosevelt for, he says, making the United States a strong nation. And now, Putin.

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Since the former KGB agent became president in 2000, Russia's gross domestic product has quintupled, from $260 billion to $1.25 trillion. Its reserves – nearly $500 billion – are 12 times what they were in 2000. This wealth, fueled by a 10-fold increase in oil prices, has doubled real disposable income. Inflation has fallen from 18 percent to 12 percent.

This prosperity has contributed to a sense of stability after a decade-long experiment with liberal democracy that seared the national psyche. A rich minority gobbled up massive assets amid rapid privatization even as 40 percent of the country languished in poverty. An increasingly weak Boris Yeltsin embarrassed his countrymen with drunken blunders abroad.

By contrast, Putin centralized power, removed oligarchs such as jailed Yukos oil company chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky from the political sphere, and took a tough stance internationally on issues like energy supply.

"Putin should be given credit for improved living standards, reasserting Russia on the world stage, and taking politics under control without antagonizing the public," says Masha Lipman, a liberal political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center.

The Young Guard at work

At the Moscow headquarters of United Russia's Young Guard, Shchitov has headed up public relations and youth relations since April, running meetings with a dozen or so deputies from the head of a glossy wooden table. At the end of one long day, at a favored cafe around the corner from his home, a visibly weary Shchitov articulates his mission: to groom a new generation of leaders who will build on the momentum of Putin's tenure.

Blaming the Soviet Union's collapse on a lack of fresh ideas among graying politicians, Shchitov has helped to establish unofficial youth parliaments in 104 of the 125 districts in the Moscow region since last February. He has gained valuable political experience as a member of the capital's youth parliament, which meets monthly and, in its first year, has gotten 46 of its 75 amendments to youth laws ratified by the city parliament through regular meetings with lawmakers.

He even won the "development of civil society institutions" category in a 2007 contest of youth projects sponsored by Putin's administration – an initiative he realizes some would see as ironic.