Russia's 21st-century teens: they may act, think, and look like American teenagers, but they're also deeply patriotic and see the world in a very Russian way.
The tall, blond Dmitry "Dima" for short--may be a typical Russian teenager, but he could easily pass for an American teen. In fact, young people in Russia's capital city of 10 million have embraced many American habits, from rock music to hanging out at shopping malls.
But jeans and CDs do not an instant Westerner make. A closer look at Dima makes that clear: American in many of his tastes, he says he nevertheless dislikes the U.S. He's sorry that Russia is no longer a superpower, which is one reason he belongs to a patriotic youth group.
Dima's generation is the first in a thousand years to come of age in Russia with real choices to make about its future-instead of lives planned by czars or Communist dictators. But it is also a generation profoundly uncertain whether it wants to steer a westward course or stay more Russian.
WARY OF DEMOCRACY
That uncertainty is not surprising considering all that has happened in Dima's short lifetime. The process of Russian reform had begun before Dima was born, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. When Dima was 3 years old, Berliners demolished the wall that divided the Communist controlled east and the free western sides of that German city in 1989. Dima was 5 when the Soviet Union and its Communist system came crashing down. When he was 12, Russia's economy collapsed, wiping out the savings of millions who had staked their futures on capitalism. At 13, Islamic led separatists in the province of Chechnya reopened a war against the Russian government.
Older Russians, who grew up in the Communist Soviet Union, knew nothing but state control of the economy (which performed miserably), the educational system, where they could live and work, and what they could say and think (see "Life in Communist Russia," pg. 16). They risked their livelihoods, and in many cases their lives, by even questioning the totalitarian system and the people who ran it.
Today's Russian teens appreciate the freedom they have, but don't seem that knowledgeable about, or interested in, how difficult life was in the Soviet Union. They are, however, aware of the Soviet Union's superpower status and the much larger role it played on the world stage than Russia is able to play now.
The result, sociologists say, is a schizoid generation: mad about Schwarzenegger movies and Russian-language rap, but also resentful of American influence around the world; believers in democracy, yet skeptical that ordinary people can or even should influence their leaders; deeply patriotic, but often failing to question the uglier parts of Soviet history.
"A generation of people who are not afraid and who are free has grown up," says Irina Anatolyevna Bukrinskaya, a Moscow high school teacher. The flip side, she says, is a determined ignorance about the depths of Soviet oppression and cruelty. When teens are told, for example, how the Soviet Union's secret police limited typewriters to a handful of loyal Communist party members, "They say, 'What? Would they take away my computer?'" according to Bukrinskaya. "They just don't know about these things."
THINGS ARE BETTER NOW
Indeed, Dima's friend, Dmitry Danichkin, 16, sums up Soviet history this way: "It was more difficult for our parents. There was less of everything; they had to save money. But there wasn't that much crime in the city, as there is now."
Dmitry does not mention the Soviet Union's miserable human rights record, and he brushes off the 50-year standoff between the "free world" and the "evil empire," as President Ronald Reagan characterized the Soviet Union in a 1982 speech. "The Cold War was in our educational program, so we did touch on it," says Dima Tagin. "But the teacher would immediately return to the main subject of the lesson."
As a Muscovite, Dinm lives in one of Russia's healthiest and richest regions. Outside big cities, more than a third of Russia's two-child families live in poverty. But talk to young people across a spectrum of Russian income levels and political views, and some themes become clear: This is a generation which covets Western goods and likes to regard itself as democratic, but still misses the order and strength of its past--and is a little wary of democracy's noisy debate.
Take Dima's opposition to Russia's war in Chechnya. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has pursued the war despite international complaints, but Dima has personal reasons for his opposition too: Some of his summer-camp friends have died in Chechen battlefields. "It's an unwanted war and an unnecessary war," Dima says.
OPPOSED TO WAR--AND TO PROTEST
But unlike Americans who often express their political opposition through protests, Dima says he is skeptical of antiwar protests. "It would be considered an unsanctioned rally, and they would be dispersed," he says. "Young people can't put an end to this war unless the government decides to do something about it." Though he opposes the war in Chechnya, Dima plans to vote for Putin in next year's presidential election. And he says he would serve in Chechnya if he is drafted.
VOTE FOR CHANGE?
Meanwhile, 21-year-old Viktor Orlov believes Putin is carrying the country back to a Soviet-style dictatorship, and that he's bungled the war in Chechnya. Orlov's solution is lifted straight from American Civics 101: "The only real help we can provide to our country is to vote," he says. "If every young man comes to the polls and votes for the person or the party he wants to support, then the situation may change."
But Orlov doesn't consider himself an American-style democrat. He believes that monopolies and big industry control American politics. He eats at McDonald's, but only because it's cheap. "I don't like America very much, to tell you the truth. It's a dirty culture," he says. "America thinks it can be everywhere and everything."
Dima agrees: "Not only young people, but people in general have a negative attitude toward the United States." For millions, there is a bitter realization that the United States has filled the power vacuum left by their country's collapse.
Boris Makarenko, of Moscow's Center for Political Technologies, says this generation has a clearer idea of democracy than its predecessors. However, he says politically active young people tend to fall into two very different camps: emerging democrats and ultranationalist patriots who want the strong Russia of old and often reject Western values.
The young "are more liberal, more pro-market than older Russians, but I wouldn't call them pro-Western," Makarenko says. "They resent Russia's weakness, resent its dependence on the West, or what they see as dependence. They say that Russia must be a superpower again. It's a defensive reaction when they criticize the West .... It's a sort of jealousy." Perhaps. But it is also the mark of a generation which knows it is inheriting a Russia unlike any before it, and that it should bear their stamp and not someone else's.
"I love this country, and I like to live here," Dima says. "I love the people around me. Some history has to be corrected. But I love this country the way it is."
New York Times reporter Michael Wines covered Russia for five years. He is now based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
1533-1917 The Czars Ivan the Terrible [1533-1584) is the first Russian leader to call himself a "Czar" [Russian for emperor]. Czars ruled with absolute authority.
1917 Revolution In March, Czar Nicholas II abdicates. A provisional democracy rules until November, when the Bolsheviks--one of two Communistm groups--seize power. Vladimir I. Lenin Leads the new Communist government.
1917-1924 Lenin's Rule Lenin nationalizes banks and factories, and says all. land belongs to the peasants. He centralizes power in the Communist party and uses forced labor and violence against opposition. In 1922, he brings together Russia and its outlying regions to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR). Lenin dies in 1924.
1924-1953 Joesph StaLin succeeds Lenin. He ruthlessly carries out policies of forced labor and executes millions of real and imagined opponents.
1945-1991 The Cold War After World War II, the Soviets impose Communism on Eastern Europe and support revolutions in other countries. The U.S. backs anti-Communist governments and movements around the world. Both countries develop vast nuclear arsenals.
1985-1991 Glasnost A new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduces "glasnost" and "perestroika," a series of sweeping political and economic reforms.
1989 The Berlin Wall
The fall of the Berlin Wall, which had separated Communist East Germany from West Germany, prompts the end of Communism in much of Eastern Europe and then in Russia.
1991-present A New Russia In 1991 Russia and other Soviet Republics declare their independence and the USSR dissolves. In the country's first popular election, Boris Yeltsin is elected President. In 2000, Vladimir V. Putin is elected President. He works to revitalize Russia's economy and to fight corruption and terrorism.
Life in Communist Russia
By the 1980s, the Soviet Union had begun to open up, but for most people, Life was stiLL a struggle
Mohsin Hashim, 38, remembers the frustrations of Communist Russia from his days as a Rangladeshi exchange student at Moscow City University in 1985. "We often went to stores and found nothing there," says Hashim, now a professor at Muhlenberg CoLLege in PennsyLvania. "Or we'd go to another store and find a huge excess of just one item ....It was a pretty miserable existence."
This was typical of the Soviet Union in the early 198Os. Life for the average urban Russian was harsh and impoverished compared with now, but better than it had been a few decades earlier. By the 1780s, Soviet society had already begun to Loosen up. But the Communist Party, which had ruled since 1917, stiLL regulated and censored aLL aspects of life, and freedom was severely restricted. Most Russians endured crowded Living conditions and Long Lines at poorly stocked markets.
Able citizens who finished school were guaranteed state jobs, but Low wages and a perpetual shortage of goods meant that most families had to reLy on a mutual exchange system known as blat [Russian for "favor for favor"]. For example, if a customer needed meat for a party and knew someone at a hard-to-book hair salon, he would ask the hairdresser to squeeze in an ] appointment for the butcher, who would then save a slab of meat for the customer.
This sort of bartering, which was used to procure necessities and Luxuries, "humanized the system, and made Life bearable for many," says Joseph DeBoLt, a sociolgy professor at Central Michigan University.
Cultural imports from the U.S. were considered dangerous. Listening to rock music and wearing blue jeans were Russian teenagers' ways of defying the Communist regime, but doing so could still Land them in trouble.
In their spare time, teens went to the theater and state-sponsored clubs, where they played chess, danced, and Listened to music--but not rock. StiLL, their fun was limited, says Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think tank.
"Young people constantly had to Look around not to cross a certain Line," Shevtsova says. "The Communist party still ruled the country, they still couldn't see Hollywood movies, they couldn't go abroad. But at the same time, there were a Lot of possibilities to read and understand the worLd, to Listen to music, and go to the theater. It was a big step forward from the '70s."
U.S. vs. Russia in 2003 POPULATION RUSSIA 144,526,628 U.S. 290,342,554 LIFE EXPECTANCY RUSSIA 68 years U.S. 77 years % OF POPULATION BELOW POVERTY LINE RUSSIA 25 US 12.7 INTERNET USERS [in millions] RUSSIA 18 U.S. 165.8 SOURCE: CIA WORLD FACTBOOK 2003 Note: Table made from bar graph.
Russia's teens welcome new freedoms, but resent a seemingly all-powerful America
* How can one explain the popularity of American goods and culture in light of the wariness toward the U.S.?
* What words would you choose to describe life in the old Soviet Union?
To help students understand a "schizoid" generation of Russian teens. This is a generation that welcomes new freedom and some aspects of Western culture, but that retains affection for a strong central authority and is wary of democracy's freewheeling nature.
CRITICAL THINKING/DISCUSSION: The article reports that Russians in general have a negative attitude toward the United States. First, poll the class by asking for a show of hands. How many students have any feeling--pro or con--toward Russia and Russians? Whatever their response, ask students what they base their feelings about Russia on. What are their sources? Why do they feel negatively-or positively--toward Russia?
Next, turn the question around. Ask students to describe how they might feel if the U.S. had broken into 15 different countries, lost its superpower status, and felt dependent on a richer, more powerful Russia.
LETTER TO MOSCOW: Ask students to write a brief letter to Viktor Orlov in which they rebut his view that America is a "dirty culture" and his complaint that America "thinks it can be everywhere and everything." How would they respond to his accusation that big business controls American politics?
COMING TO AMERICA: In addition to the letter, or as an alternative exercise, you might ask students to assume that one of the young people profiled in the article is invited to come to their school as an exchange student for a semester. Their job is to draw up a list of activities, classes, or aspects of life in their community that the visitor should be shown to give him a broader perspective of Americans and the United States.
FIELD-TRIP TIME: Assume also that the class can go on a field trip to any one location in the U.S. Where would they take the young Russian to show off the best of the U.S.? Students should explain the rationale behind their choices, both in their community and on the field trip.
WEB WATCH: Go to www.cia.gov for social, economic, and military data on Russia provided by the CIA. Click on "The World Factbook," then find the Country List and scroll to "Russia."
Upfront QUIZ 2
Directions: Circle the letter next to the correct answer
1. Which term most accurately describes how Dmitry Tagin and his friends view the future?
a confidence b despair c uncertainty d guilt
2. During Dmitry's life, turbulence has rocked Russia. Which of the following belongs on a list of such difficulties?
a mass starvation b war with the West c economic collapse in the mid-1990s. d return of Communism
3. What is the reason for the ongoing civil war in Chechnya, in southwest Russia? The war is
a a struggle to control oil wealth, b a mutiny in the Russian military. c a workers' revolt against government authority. d an Islamic-led separatist movement.
4. Why are many of Russia's teens wary of democracy? Democratic freedoms
a provide freedom of choice. b expose people to new and different ideas. c include the freedom to make mistakes. d are seen as having weakened the order and strength of the past.
5. What is Dmitry Tagin's view of the war in Chechnya? He is
a opposed and willing to challenge the government on it. b opposed but skeptical of the value of antiwar protests. c opposed to the rebels and eager for a government win. d neutral.
6. What is the best depiction of the young Russians' attitudes toward politics? They are
a solidly pro-democratic. b eager to emulate the form of Western governments. c split between democrats and ultranationalists. d confused about politics and the role of government.
Upfront Quiz 2
1. (c) uncertainty 2. (c) economic collapse 3. (d) an Islamic-led separatist movement. 4. (d) are seen as having weakened the order and strength of the past. 5. (b) opposed but skeptical of the value of antiwar protests. 6. (c) split between democrats and ultra-nationalists.
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|Publication:||New York Times Upfront|
|Date:||Oct 13, 2003|
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