June 20 - 27, 1 9 9 6

Generation Nyet

Generation Nyet

part 2

by Ellen Barry

Fathers and sons

For Generation Nyet, the opportunity not to participate in politics is something of a relief; their energies have gone elsewhere. In Moscow, young entrepreneurs have reshaped the Communist megalopolis into a cosmopolitan city. Over the last five years, Moscow's club scene has blossomed from a few grimy beer bars into a wealth of glamour spots, including a good half-dozen Tex-Mex joints and a growing number of casinos. Top financial institutions are routinely headed by Russians in their early 20s, who leave middle-aged Western financiers blinking in astonishment. To the young, cosmopolitan, English-speaking Muscovite, perestroika has furnished a playground of new opportunities.

In sharp contrast to the United States, where twentysomethings have learned not to expect the success their parents enjoyed, young Russians now begin to outearn their parents from the time they are 16 years old. Sixty-six percent of Russians under 30 say they have better opportunities than their parents did at their age. According to a recent survey by the Scientific Research Center of the Institute of Youth, 37 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds called themselves the "main breadwinners" in their families. Some never tell their parents how much they make, for fear of humiliating them; some lie outright.

The report, as quoted in the Moscow Times, went on to describe "a new social type" evolving among Russia's youth: "The specific traits of this new type include a readiness to take risks, taking personal responsibility for their actions, the ability to adapt themselves to the new economic situation, and the necessary bearings to form a viable generation in this transitional period."

One branch of the Russian Center for Public Opinion is devoted to compiling a profile of each rising generation in Russia, says Boris Dubin, an expert on youth politics. "For years, it was the same story," he says. "It went like this: `I finished my institute, I worked in a factory, or an institute, for 27 years, and then I went on my pension.' We heard this for years. That was the story of their parents, their grandparents. But then suddenly, after perestroika, the story changed radically."

Meanwhile, a yawning generational gap has opened up between these ground-breakers and their grandparents. No one has suffered more over the past five years than Russia's elderly. According to 1995 estimates by the State Statistics Committee, more than 20 percent of the population lives below the official poverty line of 286,000 rubles ($62.95) in monthly income, and most of these are retired people living on tiny government pensions. The average life expectancy for Russian men has fallen from 62 to 59 over the last four years, owing to a combination of understocked hospitals and a deteriorating diet. There seems little question that this election represents the last gasp of the old-guard Communists, with their longing for the social supports of the Brezhnev era. Where the young see opportunity, the old see a fraying social net and promises unkept.

The old, who learned their political discipline under a lifetime of Communist rule, have been making themselves heard. On Russian Independence Day, four days before Sunday's first round of elections, the Communists march on Lubyanka Square, in front of the old KGB headquarters. Like all Communist gatherings, the rally has a distinct geriatric vibe. Sun-addled and angry, the demonstrators reel off the litany of complaint that loops over and over at all Communist rallies. It amounts to an endless list of groceries: A loaf of white bread used to cost 25 kopeks. A bottle of milk used to cost 30 kopeks. A metro token used to cost 5 kopeks. A movie ticket used to cost 50 kopeks.

The day of the march is blindingly beautiful, and among those demonstrators who are not furiously spewing the details of their new poverty, there is a mild holiday atmosphere. Two old ladies in flowered dresses and ankle socks stroll along under a flowered umbrella, with portraits of Stalin pinned to their lapels. Another woman, who looks no less than 70, carries a large red flag to which she has glued, by hand, an imperfect tinfoil hammer and sickle.

You wouldn't know it to look at them, but these babushki, or grandmothers, are well on their way to recharting the course of Russian history. Underlying their chants is a seething anger at how difficult their lives have become, and how the last years of their lives will be spent in abject poverty. At some distance stands Alexei Zharkov, who is 16 years old and a supporter of loose-cannon nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. I ask him what he thinks of these Communists. "I'm not worried," he says, with a shrug of dismissal. "They'll all die in a couple of years."

As the world waits for the decisive second round of votes, young Muscovites and their grandparents are staring at each other over a generation gap that is more like a black hole. Recent Yeltsin advertisements targeting older voters urge them to "listen to their children, who are the future of Russia." Lately, as rule by the older generation becomes a bigger possibility, tension between the two age groups has become more focused, says Bratersky.

"I was talking to a girl at a party," he says, "and she seemed like a nice girl, and she started saying, `All those old people should be taken out and hung.' I said, "Let's start with your father,' and she looked at me like I was crazy. I told her, `Listen, we're talking about our parents here.' "

Rocking the vote

Among young voters in Moscow these days, this election has produced an unprecedented sense of urgency. Statistics show a major increase in support just in the course of four weeks between April and May, as the number of young voters actively supporting Yeltsin rose from 23 percent to 34 percent; among that group, those who were willing to drum up support on his behalf rose from 34 percent to 60 percent.

Most shocking is the sudden emergence of peer pressure among the young voters who sat out the elections in 1993 and 1995.

"Everyone is trying to persuade each other to vote. There is a synergy aspect to it," says Stasia Ustenko, 23, who works for a Swedish gas company. Ustenko worries that a Communist victory would transform every aspect of her life, from her expatriate Frisbee league to her work with Western companies; it is this that roused Ustenko, who freely describes herself as a "completely apolitical person," from passivity.

At a recent birthday party, she recalls, a young man got up and said, "I want to take this opportunity to encourage you all to vote," and asked for explanations from anyone who was not planning to. "People really feel that if they don't [vote] now, they will lose the chance."

Part of the credit goes to the politicians. Well aware that the young make up 12 percent of the electorate, political parties have tried almost anything to mobilize young voters, from a "For Yeltsin" acne medication to an appearance by MC Hammer, who performed in 1993 on behalf of the not-particularly-funky prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Former Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes, who retains a large following here, said he was "mortified" to discover that his tour last summer was a promotional event, and could not identify the large male face on his posters. It was Chernomyrdin.

This time around is no different. Supporters of Zhirinovsky widely circulate a poster of the jowly ultranationalist standing with hands on hips wearing a Metallica T-shirt, with the slogan ZHIRINOVSKY: I'M JUST LIKE YOU. But the most strenuous youth effort has come from the Yeltsin camp. An alarmist tabloid called God Forbid, which is reportedly linked to the Yeltsin campaign, featured a faked appeal by Stacey Edwards, who plays Holly on the fabulously popular Santa Barbara, to keep Zyuganov out of office.

Newspapers like Moskovsky Komsomolets, a daily popular among young readers, don't just push Yeltsin, they passionately argue that Yeltsin's pop-star endorsements are better than Zyuganov's pop-star endorsements. One recent article in the paper's "Teen-Ager" column took a creative angle, implying that the fans of Communist pop stars are fat. "Beneath them, the school infirmary's scales creak," reads the story. "The unhappy girls run home, where they grieve, watch television, and quietly believe in love."

Whatever one thinks of the "Communist girls are fat" tactic, Yeltsin's relentless campaigning has worked its magic on the young electorate. Although most young Russians dismiss the campaign advertisements as propaganda, they are poised to vote in record numbers. As one student told the Moscow Times, "if you tell someone he is a pig long enough, he will start to grunt."

Shock treatment

Underlying this sea change is a strain of genuine fear. In December, an overwhelming Communist victory in parliamentary elections shocked pro-reform voters, and only over the last few months have they realized what they stand to lose: not only their businesses, or their jobs in the financial world, but a range of freedoms that begins with rock concerts and extends to free speech, freedom of religion, and free movement in and out of the country.

One reason that there has been little youth movement to date is that pro-reform voters were in the bloodless position of supporting the status quo. Among Javeline's conclusions in her thesis on youth apathy is that young people are not roused politically until reform falters, and up until this moment liberalization has bounded forward past anyone's expectations. But this week in Moscow, every aspect of life seems tenuous. At the concert, Punks for Yeltsin are worrying that Communists would ban public gatherings; at the Starlite Diner, which was shipped, in pieces, from North Carolina to Mayakovsky Square last year, employees are worrying that the Communists would crack down on foreign-owned businesses. Everywhere, what they stand to lose is immediate.

"Everyone says they don't like Yeltsin, and I include myself, too. But then the Wrigley's spearmint disappears from the kiosks, you don't have orange juice, they don't have good jeans. I mean, everybody, even a revolutionary, needs good jeans," says Sasha Bratersky. "People are afraid of losing their things."

And then, sometimes, they are afraid of losing everything. Sasha and Kirill, childhood friends in their mid-20s, opened a bar two years ago and are poised to open a second, but have spent the last several weeks in a funk, wondering how they could manage to leave the country if Zyuganov wins. We sit in a café on the Arbat and they debate whether or not they would be willing to drive taxis in America.

There is no sudden rebirth of faith in politicians, says Sasha, there is simply fear. Over the course of a week, a dozen different young Russians tell me they are prepared to leave the country should Zyuganov win; their lives are founded on the free market and a liberalized Russia. "It's not a political question," Sasha says, correcting me. "It's a life question."

These two, like all young Russians, have had five years to join the post-Soviet generation. If they were absent from the public sphere, it's because they were busy finding their place in the market economy, or expanding the underground club culture, or exploring the opportunities made available to them since the Party disintegrated.

In the end, this may turn out to be the most decisive form of political activity, since nothing could jolt young Russians into action like the state seizing what they have built for themselves. Not all of them will leave Russia if Zyuganov wins -- not all of them will be able to -- and they are likely to fight fiercely to protect what they have. On the eve of the July vote, as Russia wavers between the path forward or backward, they stand as a living rejection of the past. Whether they will rise to the occasion is anyone's guess; Tatiana Greshishchina says they will.

"I guess we all suddenly realized that we have a responsibility," says Greshishchina, 23, who is a waitress at the Starlite Diner. "If we don't make a decision, the old people will make it for us."