Russia’s “Generation X”: Where Are They Headed?

In the July issue of this newsletter, we noted that Russia’s “Generation X” is deeply disillusioned about their country’s future and profoundly skeptical of political revolution and economic experimentation. They are a twentysomething generation that knows what it doesn’t want — the old days of the Communist Party’s repression — but is unsure with what to replace it.

A Case Study at Kuban State University

Professor Taylor E. Dark, from the University of California at Irvine, spent the 1994-95 academic year teaching political science at Kuban State University in Krasnodar, Russia. The university is located in a city of 1 million people in the northern Caucasus, approximately 400 miles northwest of Chechnya. In his essay describing his teaching experience, Professor Dark noted “the profound sense of fatalism and futility” of his Russian students and “their corresponding unwillingness to take political action or to consider politics as anything other than a realm of self-interested corruption.” Most of the students he taught were convinced that Russia’s transition from democracy would take centuries, not decades, and they argued that the immediate future for Russia would be dominated by bad habits learned over centuries from dealing with czarist oppression and Bolshevik tyranny (“No Illusions: Russia’s Student Generation,” The National Interest, Spring 1996, p. 79).

Most Russian students at Kuban State University were not opposed to democracy, according to Professor Dark, and they generally associated liberal democracy and free markets with economic and political progress, stating that they hoped Russia would move in this direction. However, many also felt that Russia was not “good enough” for democracy and that Slavic people had a cultural disposition which prevented them from wholeheartedly embracing democracy. Although they might believe democracy is the best political system, they feared that “immature Russia” would turn democracy into anarchy, and anarchy was worse than authoritarianism. As a result, many of Dark’s students concluded that a non-ideological form of authoritarianism was their “best bet” (pp. 79-80).

A Second Case Study

My impressions and teaching experiences at Nizhni Novgorod State University in the Spring semester of 1992 were very similar to Professor Dark’s. This state university, located in the third largest city of Russia, Nizhni Novgorod (formerly known as Gorky — the place of Andrei Sakharov’s “exile”), is one of the country’s best educational institutions. The course I was asked to teach by the university’s young Rector (President) was “Democracy and Moral Values.” During this course, I attempted to describe the development of democracy in America and how our Founding Fathers struggled with many of the same issues that Russian politicians were facing at the time in the Supreme Soviet.

Students had to compete on the basis of their English-language competence to gain entrance into my course, in large part because of the excitement over the fact that I was the first Western scholar to ever teach at the university and one of the very first Americans to enter this city, which Stalin had “closed” to foreigners in 1932. My students were very bright and had an appetite to learn that was unmatched by any class I had ever taught in the States. But my greatest surprise was their fatalism and hopelessness, even at this early stage of Perestroika.

At the conclusion of the course, I asked my students to evaluate how the experience of democracy in America might be relevant to the struggles which were underway in their own country. The first obstacle I encountered was dealing with their lack of experience at expressing their personal views in front of the class. Faculty members who attended my class told me afterwards that the students were never asked what they thought. They were hesitant to do so now because all of their previous experience taught them to remain silent and unobtrusive.

When I finally was able to coax them into a discussion, I discovered an overwhelming sense of helplessness and fatalism. Professor Dark said his students lacked “all utopian ambition” (p. 85), a judgment with which I would concur. My students also thought democracy was “good for America,” but probably not applicable in Russia in light of her history. In the opinion of most of my students, a “strong hand” was the best solution. Without the cultural underpinnings of religion and moral values which they recognized in America’s history but thought were absent in their own country’s history, they did not consider democracy as a viable option for Russia.

The Secularization of Russia’s “Generation X”

Prominent Russian intellectuals have called on Russians to return to their roots and to reaffirm the “core values” of Russian society, which are frequently associated with Russian Orthodoxy. Young Russians, however, do not display much attachment to precommunist values, and they are much less likely than their parents or grandparents to even identify themselves with Russian Orthodoxy. According to a June 1992 USIA survey, only 25% of the Russians under thirty professed faith in Russian Orthodoxy, while 60% of those over sixty did so (Richard B. Dobson, “Communism’s Legacy and Russian Youth,” in James R. Millar and Sharon L. Wolchik’s The Social Legacy of Communism, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 251). Decades of Communist Party rule and dramatic social change have created a modern, secular (Westernized) generation with little commitment to Russia’s past traditions and much uncertainty about what the future holds.