Russia’s “Generation X”: Who Are They?

Russia’s twentysomething generation has much in common with America’s: it is a generation searching for an identity, a name, a purpose, and a future. In America, young people born after 1960 have been variously labeled “Generation X,” “13th Gen,” and other less flattering titles, in an attempt to find some way of characterizing the post-Baby Boomers. The same effort to understand young Russians in their 20’s is also underway, and this research has much to say about the future direction of post-Communist Russia after the turn of the century.

Much Different Than Their Parents

A title such as “Generation X” is especially appropriate for Russia’s twenty-year-olds because they are a generation “in between,” a generation caught in the transition between Marxism-Leninism and an unknown future. Opinion surveys clearly indicate that Russian young people have very different attitudes than their parents on most subjects of importance. As early as 1990 — even before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disbanding of the Communist Party — U.S. Information Agency (USIA) surveys demonstrated that Russian young people repudiated the key features of the Communist worldview that their party leaders, schoolteachers and even parents had tried to instill in them.

When asked whether seventy years of Communist rule had been good or bad for the country, 75% of the young Russians interviewed said it had been bad, while only 20% felt it had been good. When they were asked if socialism had a future in the Soviet Union, half of the young people interviewed said “No;” only 20% answered affirmatively (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, pp. 239-240).

We know from the popular media that American films, rock music and other cultural artifacts still hold great appeal to Russian youth. USIA surveys have verified this impression. 67% of Russians under the age of 30 find American popular culture appealing, while only 15% of those over 50 concur. When asked if the United States “offers a political and socioeconomic example for Russia,” businessmen and students were the two groups most attracted by the U. S. model. 64% of the students answered positively to this question while 65% of the businessmen did as well. Most other categories of Russians were evenly divided on this question or answered in the negative (“Russian Public Opinions of the U.S….,” USIA Opinion Analysis, M-22-96, January 31, 1996).

The Context of Russia’s “Generation X”

Understanding the context in which Russia’s twentysomething generation grew up helps explain why their views are so different from their parents. By the 1970’s, when these young people were children, Russia had already experienced a rapid modernization process which resulted in massive urbanization, a shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and dramatic increases in levels of education and media use. Better educated and predominantly urban, young Russians enjoyed a better standard of living and more leisure time than their parents or grandparents. They also had higher expectations for personal success and material well-being.

In the mid-1970’s, while those expectations began to increase, the Soviet economy started to sputter and rates of growth declined. Food shortages became more common, but defense spending continued at high levels. The resulting economic slowdown created disillusionment among the young: all the promises about surpassing the achievements of the West were proving to be false. This growing dissatisfaction was compounded by increased communication and travel, which opened up the outside world to young Russians in ways their parents could have never imagined. Now the young people knew how far behind the Soviet Union actually was!

As they entered their teenage years, Russia’s Generation X witnessed a succession of infirm Communist leaders (Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko) who were not heroes in anyone’s eyes, the bloody and demoralizing war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), and the turbulence of the early Gorbachev reforms. This context was not likely to make young Russians fervent supporters of Communist ideals.

By the late 1980’s, the head of Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth association, admitted that the dialogue between party leaders and Russian youth “often resembled a conversation between the deaf and the mute.” In 1990, a year before it was disbanded, Russian educators acknowledged that the “Pioneer and Komsomol organizations are already lost” (R. Dobson, pp. 237-9).

Views of Russia’s Future

Two years ago, USIA conducted an extensive survey of Russian youth in six cities, a survey which included extensive focus group conversations. When asked to identify their generation, a number of Russian young people used the words “a generation in transition.” Not unlike American youth, Russian young people described a striking contrast between their confidence in their own personal futures and their fatalism about the future of Russia. Most of the young people interviewed talked about their country’s political future as “bleak,” and expressed no interest at all in helping to change this. Russia’s “Generation X” is deeply disillusioned and profoundly skeptical of political revolution and economic experimentation. The surveys reported that Russian youth want to be left alone to “cultivate domestic gardens,” own some land and make a living (“Russia’s Future: Perspectives of Young Russians, 1994-1995,” USIA Research Report, March 1995).