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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Age Factor in Views of Russia: Memories of the Cold War?

Americans’ overall opinion of Russia is quite negative. The current 34% favorable, 60% unfavorable split in views is about as negative as Gallup has recorded over the past two decades, and those data were obtained in early February, before the recent crisis with Russian military involvement in the Crimean region of Ukraine.

What’s interesting is how much of a difference age makes in those perceptions. Those who are old enough to remember the Cold War, ages 50 and older, are much more negative about Russia than those who are younger. In fact, among the 50+ crowd, unfavorable opinions outweigh favorable by over a 2-to-1 ratio. Among those 30-49 years, the negative ratio is somewhat smaller. And, among those aged 18-29 -- the eldest of whom were only about five-years-old when the Soviet Union collapsed -- favorable opinions actually edge out unfavorable opinions by a two-percentage-point margin. 

That’s a pretty large age swing, as these things go. Stop a senior citizen on the street and he or she is highly probable to view Russia in a negative light. Stop a young millennial on the street and he or she is just as likely to be positive as negative.

However, we don’t see this age difference translate over into concern about the military power of Russia as a threat. We included the military power of Russia in a list of possible threats in our February Gallup World Affairs survey and asked Americans to say whether each was a critical threat to the interests of the U.S., an important but not critical threat, or not a threat at all. 

Older Americans are slightly more likely than those who are younger to see the military power of Russia as a threat, but just marginally so. The big 19-point spread in the favorable rating of Russia between those aged 18-29 years and those 65 years and older is reduced to only a six-point spread in terms of viewing the military power of Russia as a threat.

In fact, there are not huge age differences in Americans' perceptions of most of the situations as critical threats to the U.S. There is one major exception. The biggest age difference, by far, in this view of potential critical threats to the U.S. comes in terms of “Islamic fundamentalism,” in which seniors are 42 points more likely to view this as a critical threat than are those aged 18-29. Seniors are also 14 points more likely to view the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians a potential critical threat to the United States. But again, the age spread in views of the military power of Russia as a threat is much smaller.

In our just completed March Gallup Poll Social Series survey, we asked Americans how worried they were that “the current situation in Ukraine will develop into a larger regional conflict that could lead to the U.S. military getting involved.” This question followed an introduction that mentioned “Russia’s involvement in Ukraine,” so respondents were clearly focused on Russia in answering the Ukraine question. The data show that Americans 65 years and older were about eight points more likely to say that they were worried than were those aged 18-29. (We'll have more to say about these results on in the next day or two.)

So, in general, we find some mixed evidence on the legacy of the Cold War for those old enough to remember it. Perhaps because they remember that no direct armed conflict  between the U.S. and Russia ever arose out of the Cold War, older Americans are not more likely to be worried about Russian involvement in Ukraine than those who are younger. But, in terms of the image of Russia as a country, the age differences are quite large. Older Americans’ memories are apparently quite vivid when they think back to the days of Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, et al., and they manifest those memories in a much more negative view of Russia as a country than do those who are younger. 


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