June 20 - 27, 1 9 9 6

Generation Nyet

Generation Nyet

Communists could win Russia's upcoming Presidential Election, sending reform efforts into a tailspin. Now the outcome hinges on a defiant generation of young voters.

Ellen Barry reports from Moscow

RED SQUARE - The summer solstice is approaching, and this particular night is hot, hot, hot. Some of the girls climb onto their boyfriends' shoulders, where they wave thin arms over their heads to the pounding bass of Malchishknik, Russia's answer to the Beastie Boys. They are massed -- some 100,000 Russian twentysomethings -- from Saint Basil's Cathedral across the Kamenny Bridge to the other side of the Moscow River, and there are girls waving their arms for as far as the eye can see.

This season in Moscow, the girls are wearing mesh shirts, or half-shirts, or mesh half-shirts, or shirts that they tie up around their ribs. At any rate, there is a lot of midriff in Red Square. Their boyfriends aren't wearing any shirts at all.

Eighteen-year-old Lyolya dances near the stage with moves that are half hip-hop, half Cossack. Just then someone charges through the crowd with a large portrait of Boris Yeltsin. Lyolya and his friends, who are drinking out of bottles swathed in newspaper, erupt into a boisterous chant: Borya, Borya, Borya.

It's the sound of an electorate waking up.

Three weeks from now, Russia will select its new president in a runoff election that has the world spellbound. Last Sunday's election left Russia with two candidates separated by a slim three percentage points in the polls, but who stand on opposite ends of the political spectrum. On the one hand, there is the reform-minded Yeltsin, who has led Russia through five years of painful transition. On the other is Gennady Zyuganov, an old-guard Communist who has promised to bring back the glory days of the Soviet Union, rolling back the privatization of property and perhaps even refueling the Cold War.

The Communists have been on the march for some time, and they won a sweeping victory in last December's parliamentary election. But even as they gained ground, there was a strange silence among those who had the most to win -- or lose -- in the election: the young. They played in Moscow's burgeoning rave clubs and Tex-Mex bars, rose to prominence in top banking houses and newborn importing firms, and watched politics from an ironic distance -- or ignored it altogether. In the world of Russian politics, they were a kind of Generation Nyet: apathetic and irrelevant.

But over the last few months, Generation Nyet has taken center stage. Key to Yeltsin's strategy has been a keen focus on urban 18- to 25-year-olds. As a solidly pro-reform voting bloc, they are a crucial part of Yeltsin's calculus, and his victory in the runoff elections depends, in large part, on whether they turn out. According to estimates by the All Russian Center for Public Opinion, a full 30 percent of Yeltsin voters sat out the last round of elections, in December 1995. If Boris Yeltsin had the resources to get every 18-year-old in Moscow laid, he would; that's how important they are to him this summer.

Which is why Yeltsin organized this free concert only a few nights before the first round of voting. With endless Raves for Yeltsin, Rappers for Yeltsin, and Rock Stars for Yeltsin, the president is trying to reinject Muscovites -- and, he hopes, young Russians everywhere -- with the optimism they felt in 1991, when Communism seemed vanquished and Yeltsin was a hero.

He's doing pretty well as it is: shoulder-to-shoulder across Red Square, Russia's youngest voters have for a moment forgotten the dark parts. Gone are memories of the bomb that ripped through the Tulskaya subway station last night, killing four. Faded are the thoughts of Chechnya, where 35,000 Russians and Chechens have lost their lives in an unpopular, and, many would say, pointless, war. And out of mind for the moment are Yeltsin's alcoholism, the deprivations that have come with economic "shock therapy," the rampant crime, and, of course, the political cynicism that has become reflexive in a country struggling to leave totalitarianism behind.

Instead, they are in a state of blissed-out euphoria, thanks as much to the sun and unaccustomed optimism as to alcohol, although in large part to alcohol. ("We are for Yeltsin," says Lyolya, "but if Yeltsin would give us all 100 grams of vodka, we'd really be for Yeltsin.") When the crowd finally clears out of Red Square at midnight, to the sound of several thwacking nightsticks, the square is covered with inches of broken glass. But until then, all you see is the dancing, and there is a rare sense of wild joy about the last five years of reform -- and the willingness of a silent generation to put itself on the line.

Gorbachev babies

Despite the images burned into the Western mind of teenagers clambering into tanks in 1991, young people haven't been a major political force in Russia for the better part of a century, since the shirt-sleeved Bolsheviks in 1917. Unlike Poland or the Baltic states, where popular uprisings toppled a regime, the downfall of Communism in Russia was a case of the state tearing itself to pieces, without the active involvement of a militant populace. Those dissidents who achieved real political change during the first years of glasnost -- the Andrei Sakharovs, the Yelena Bonners, the Sergei Kovalayevs -- were generally over 30, and since then direct youth involvement in politics has been, in the words of Russia expert Michael McFaul, "noticeably absent."

Widespread protests against the war in Chechnya -- which many consider to be Russia's Vietnam -- are organized by the powerful Union of Soldiers' Mothers, not by soldiers' classmates or soldiers' girlfriends. In fact, students in Russia are reluctant even to turn up at elections. In the 1993 parliamentary elections, only a third of voters under 25 showed up; in last December's parliamentary elections, that number crept up to about 49 percent. Turnout among voters over 60, meanwhile, is a steady 75 percent.

This passivity is particularly jarring because Russia is undergoing a period of revolutionary change, which generally tends to bring young people to the fore. By way of contrast, take the Vietnam War protests or the civil-rights movement, when hundreds of thousands of young Americans defied laws in an attempt to affect US policy. Or South Korea, where student radicals have lodged a decades-long battle with troops armed with tear gas and Molotov cocktails. And then, always, there are the images of Tiananmen Square, where in 1989 Chinese government troops opened fire on a mass of peaceful student-led demonstrators.

When she began to study student activism in Russia, Harvard doctoral student Deborah Javeline was so disturbed by the silence that she is writing her thesis, "The Apathetic Democrat," on the reaction of young people to the last two elections. Her interest, she says, "began around the time of Tiananmen Square. I would ask myself, `Why China and not here?' 

"What they would say at the time is, `We're sick of it,' " Javeline says. "My sense was, they don't even talk about these issues, they're so apathetic."

The root of the passivity among young Russians is exactly this: a thorough exhaustion with all things political. Russian twentysomethings grew up in a world where every aspect of life -- from living quarters to professional status, from the art that hung in museums to the poetry published in literary journals -- was controlled by the Communist Party. Political involvement was as meaningless as it was mandatory. Their last experience with party politics was during the death throes of the Communist Youth League, a farm team for future party leaders whose main activity was sending students out to the hinterlands en masse to help with potato harvests. Particularly during its last years, the Komosomol was "desperately unpopular, or would have been if anyone paid attention to it," says Columbia professor Steven Solnick, who chronicled the group's dissolution.

No corner of life was immune. Across 11 time zones, churches were converted into planetariums by the Atheistic Science unit of the Knowledge Society. Marriages, like funerals, were held under Lenin's portrait. Elections, Communist-style, boasted a consistent 98 percent turnout, since voters were required by their factory, or their youth group, or by the Party itself, to turn out to write an X next to the name of the single candidate for office. Frequently, voting booths would distribute hard-to-get food items, and even vodka, as an extra incentive. No choice was entirely personal; politics -- if you can call it that -- saturated all.

The upshot was a deep, ingrained cynicism -- the sense that the proper attitude toward the state was one of outward pretense and general avoidance. Russians would learn at the kitchen table that allowing one's public life and one's private thoughts to overlap only invited disaster. Newspapers reported in code, to stymie censors. Neighbors informed on one another; under Stalin, people were apt to disappear for telling the wrong kind of joke.

Still, for voters coming of age now, this overall attitude toward politics was only a backdrop. The seminal political experience for Russian twentysomethings was the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev, who set in motion the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev may have won Time magazine's Man of the Year award during that period, but it was a confusing, unhappy time to grow up.

"What perestroika meant to them was that Mom, Dad, and often Grandma and Grandpa were glued in front of the TV endlessly, and then lots of arguments," says Sarah Lindemann, who works with university students in Siberia. "None of it was interesting or pleasant. [The kids] tuned out."

And no one could have been more of a disappointment than Yeltsin himself, who arose as the white knight of liberalization in 1991. Since then, his fall from grace has been almost complete, owing to his alcoholism, the country's teetering economy, and the lingering war in Chechnya. There is no question that, as a whole, Russia is both poorer and more demoralized than it was before he took power. "We look at him now and we think, what did he really give us, except for Snickers?" says Sasha Bratersky, 21, a journalism student and sometime punk who has flirted with various extremist parties but will, in the end, vote for Yeltsin.

But it's hard for Generation Nyet to vote for anybody, so accustomed are they to disillusionment.

"The last time I really believed in a politician it was Lenin, and I was in the third grade," says Pavel Fomenko, 20, bodyguard by day and club regular by night. He's at the opening of the Water Club, a stylish disco on the outskirts of Moscow. "I remember when they started telling me Lenin was not so good, and it was absolutely impossible for me to believe. I really loved him."

He adds, "After that, I wasn't very interested in politics. None of us were. We were sleeping. We were smoking cigarettes. I don't know what we were doing."

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