Young Russians: A Lost Generation

March 15, 1992|By LIZ ATWOOD | LIZ ATWOOD,Liz Atwood is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

MOSCOW — Moscow. -- They were supposed to inherit a superpower, but they were left with a broken and bankrupt country.

In many ways, the Russians in their early 20s are the lost generation, reaching adulthood only to discover that almost everything they learned as children was either wrong or ineffective.

They have come of age in a world where university diplomas aren't as important as personal contacts, and where black marketeers drive Mercedes sedans while government workers stand in lines to buy bread. The changes in their country have left many of them cynical about government, distrustful of their leaders and uninterested in reforms.

"There are lots of opportunities to make huge money. It's really possible to be a rich person in this country," says Iliyav Bezougliy, 23, a journalism student at Moscow State University. He plans to be one of the rich people himself.

When he graduates this spring, he plans to get a job in advertising with a foreign company or joint venture. He regrets having studied journalism and wishes he had studied business instead.

A handsome youth with dark eyes, he sports a Northeastern University sweatshirt that he acquired on a recent trip to Boston.

He acknowledges that he and his classmates have little interest in participating in the political and economic reforms of the country: "I don't want to waste my time correcting the mistakes of a previous generation."

"After 70 years of oppression, something is wrong with our mentality," he says. "We are too pessimistic to change things."

In some cases, the cynicism is born from the hypocrisy the generation has witnessed. When they were children they proudly wore the little red ties of the Young Pioneers organization. At 14, they were initiated into the Communist Youth League, or Komsomol, and vowed to defend communism and champion its worldwide victory.

Many of the young Russians grew up hearing the muted grumblings and quickly-hushed criticisms of the government, but their parents told them that if they pretended to believe in the system, they would get ahead.

Denis Maligin knew that no matter how poorly he did in school, he still would pass because of his parents' positions with the KGB. He saw other students getting good grades because their parents gave the teacher theater tickets or paid for her vacations.

Now 22, he spends his days sleeping and reading and his nights cleaning subway platforms in Moscow. He is contemptuous of the Communists and uninterested in the democrats.

He took only a brief interest in the political events surrounding the August coup attempt. He says he heard about the coup after a night of drinking and smoking marijuana. When he turned on the radio and heard the news, he says, "It put me in a really bad mood."

A few days later, when it became clear that the putschists would fail, he turned off the TV and went back to bed.

His curly brown hair tumbles below his shoulders and a scant goatee grows on his chin. In some ways, the old government was better, he muses, while sipping wine in his kitchen. "It was pretty boring during the old government, but the new life has begun to irritate me more," he says.

At the Surikov Art Institute, Natasha Pavlova, 24, and Sergi Mikhailov, 26, are in their sixth and last year and are preparing their final works before graduation. They come to work each day in an studio with 20-feet high ceiling and paint-splattered windows.

He is painting a picture of Russian Duke Alexander Nevsky preparing for battle. She is painting an elaborate mural with church domes and hovering angels.

They are the children of artists, and both say their parents inspired them to be artists as well, but their views differ greatly from their parents on the current political situation.

Mr. Mikhailov says the new openness makes it possible for them to earn 1,500 rubles a a week selling paintings to foreigners in Izmailovo Park. He says his parents, who sold their paintings to the Soviet artists union, disapprove of the changes, believing Russians are selling their country's treasures abroad.

Mr. Mikhailov and Miss Pavolova agree that they have more opportunities now than they would have had under Communism, but he believes their success depends upon connections, while she thinks it depends upon hard work.

Neither one is very interested in political events. She says the political changes don't matter to her because she lives in the old world of Russian artists. He keeps politics out of his paintings, too. "Political stuff is a painting for customers, but it's not a painting for the soul," he says.

Although the young people acknowledge some debt to Mikhail Gorbachev for initiating reforms, the economic decay has rendered many of these freedoms meaningless. What good is it, they say, to be able to speak against the government, when no amount of demonstrating will put food in the stores? What good to have the freedom to travel abroad when the cost of air and train tickets is so high that only the wealthy can afford them?

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