No Illusions: Russia's Student Generation

No Illusions: Russia's Student Generation

Mini Teaser: As Russia navigates its current time of troubles, the identity of its youth, especially the elite in higher education, takes on greater importance than at any time since 1917.

by Author(s): Taylor E. Dark

A century ago, the youth of Russia were notorious for their radicalism. By the end of the nineteenth century, their more extreme representatives had pioneered strategies of political terrorism against the Czarist state; attacked and led an ill-fated "crusade to the people" intended to spark insurrection among an allegedly restive peasantry; and embraced versions of Marxism that demanded the total, and if necessary violent, reconstruction of society. In the Bolshevik Revolution, this student generation came to power under the leadership of such figures as Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky, and Stalin, all former student activists who had been expelled from college or otherwise punished for their radicalism.

As Russia navigates its current time of troubles, the identity of its youth, especially the elite in higher education, takes on greater importance than at any time since 1917. If the political attitudes and behavior of today's young people prefigure the political complexion of Russia in the first decades of the next century, we should take a great interest in knowing whether they are likely to form the vanguard of nationalist extremism or a bulwark of liberal democracy and market economics. My guess, based on recent experience living and teaching in Russia, is that the current generation will promote democracy, not through conscious political action, but rather indirectly through their own economic activities, which will establish a solid foundation for an autonomous Russian bourgeoisie--the great missing link in the evolution of political pluralism in the post-Soviet era.

During the 1994-5 academic year, I taught at Kuban State University in Krasnodar, Russia, a city of about one million located in the northern Caucasus, about four hundred miles northwest of Chechnya. My presence in Krasnodar was arranged through the Civic Education Project, a New Haven-based organization that brings Western social scientists to the former Eastern Bloc to teach courses to English-speaking students and assist in academic reform efforts. Funded in large part by the financier George Soros, and now in its fifth year of operation, the project has sent hundreds of scholars on one to three year stints in locations as widely flung as Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals, to Budapest, and from St. Petersburg to Albania.

My assignment included teaching courses presenting the views of Western social scientists about democracy, nationalism, and the collapse of communism. Although my students were distinctive in that they spoke English, they were in most other respects not unrepresentative of Russian students in general, or even of the larger population of young people.

My contact with these students, from the classroom to long nights traveling together on trains, and benefiting from the hospitality of their friends and family (with the usual Russian accompaniments of vodka and champagne), left me with conflicting feelings about Russia's future. On the one hand, the cogency and candor with which these students evaluated their own and their country's predicament, and the sophistication of their critique of the old communist order, was little short of brilliant. Yet, their profound sense of fatalism and futility, and their corresponding unwillingness to take political action or to consider politics as anything other than a realm of self-interested corruption, was dismaying. To the extent that they were convinced of the desirability of liberal democracy, they believed that Russia's transition to such a system would take centuries, not decades, and certainly not just a few short years. The immediate future, they believe, will be dominated by bad habits learned over centuries for dealing with Czarist oppression and Bolshevik tyranny: Keep your head down, grab what you can when you can, and hope for the best. Above all, they themselves share a broad reluctance to do anything that might draw the wrath of the authorities down upon them. Missing from their repertoire of expectation is any sense of normal politics, where incremental reforms may be achieved through moderate and self-limiting forms of political action.

Democracy as the Elusive Ideal

Few, if any, Russian college students are opposed to democracy as such, or are attracted to extremist ideologies of the far left or right. It seems true that many educated Russians have been immunized against totalitarian ideologies by the Soviet experience. The idea of joining any mass party claiming to have the final, exclusive truth about how to organize society attracts few of them. The vast majority of students see leaders such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky as dangerous maniacs, and the old communists fare even worse in their eyes.

Indeed, the students are uncompromising in their criticism of the old regime, and in their judgments about the motivations of its original founders. These views came through clearly in the assignments (written in surprisingly good English prose) that I asked them to complete over the course of the year. "A very tiny group of political swindlers came to power", was a typical characterization of the Bolshevik takeover--a conclusion that, of course, had the additional, salutary effect of relieving the rest of the Russian population of any responsibility for the eventual outcome. These swindlers proceeded to damage the country deeply: "The communist experiment over the country cost rivers of blood, destroying churches, ruining Russian culture to a great extent." Another student concluded: "The youth and middle-aged people don't put any trust in communism. Neither do I. I think communist theory is a kind of departure from the natural course of history." And nearly all would agree with this summation: "The ideas of communism are nonsense. Communists wanted all people to be equal. That's why the time of ruling by the communists was a time of dullness and ignorance."

It is not surprising, then, that most students associate liberal democracy and markets with economic and political progress, and that they want Russia to move in this direction. They know the West has become rich by relying on markets and they are attracted to democracy as a means for protecting individual rights and controlling state power. They tend to view the protection of civil liberties as especially important, since all young people are well aware of the extent to which rights were sacrificed under Soviet power; and the majority seem to have had family members repressed or killed under the old regime.

But these views are tempered by a conviction that although democracy is good, the Russians may not be good enough (yet) for democracy. Most are persuaded that Slavs in general, and Russians in particular, suffer from a cultural disposition that prevents them from wholeheartedly embracing democracy. The students display a peculiar form of self-contempt in this respect, often arguing that Russians have an innate desire to be told what to do by an authoritarian figure, that they lack the maturity and mentality needed for democratic compromise and participation, and that they disintegrate into anarchy when not ruled by an iron hand. To them, a Russian is a big-hearted soul with an expressive and spiritual mentality, but congenitally incapable of practicing "normal" politics and economics on the Western model--at least not for a very long time. One student gloomily concluded with a quintessentially Russian remark: "A country which was governed by one or at most several persons for centuries can't become democratic at once. Democracy must be achieved through much suffering, it must be in the blood of several generations."

My students nodded in agreement in response to Alexis de Tocqueville's famous summary of the differences between Russian and American cultures: "The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude." One student insisted that current government policies still reflected this mentality: "Because of the tax system, businessmen waste their efforts trying to conceal their incomes (very often abroad) instead of investing money into industry. It is so typical of Russia--it is easier to force them to organize in such a way than to attract or encourage." Some students also cited the still mandatory courses in military training required for all college men, as well as the persistence of conscription even as the size of the military plummets, as examples of the standard Russian approach that subordinates individuality and rationality to bureaucratic logic and presumptiveness.

Given such views, the students frequently complained that although democracy is the best political system, immature Russia would turn democracy to anarchy, and anarchy, they reason, is probably worse than authoritarianism. (And the wave of mafia terrorism in Russia, with the resulting steel doors on every apartment, lends some strength to their conviction.) Thus, many students ruefully conclude that a non-ideological, non-totalitarian form of authoritarianism is their best bet--an acceptable second choice. Many are attracted to Chilean or South Korean models of development, which, in their view, show how an authoritarian regime can allow private enterprise and some individual freedom, and promote effective economic development in an orderly fashion. Maybe after several decades of a Russian equivalent of Pinochet (although hopefully a less murderous one), the country could again proceed with political liberalization.

Such conclusions suggest that many Russians, convinced that they are not "ready" for democracy, would be secretly relieved not to have to try anymore. The pernicious effects of self-fulfilling or self-denying prophecy cannot be ruled out. Many Russians, including young ones, seem to be waiting for the moment when they can return to the comfortable traditions of servitude, in which they needn't worry about making their own decisions. Then, the country will again be able to do great and glorious things, but, in keeping with Russian tradition, only as a centrally-organized collective.

A classic example of the peculiarities of Russian democracy, and the confused role of students in the current setting, occurred during elections in November 1994 for city and regional assemblies in the Krasnodar region. Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party did well, in large part because a disproportionate share of the voting population was made up of pensioners who had suffered most from the collapse of the old order. When I asked my students if they had voted, they replied that they had gone to the voting booths, but had defaced their ballots instead of casting a vote. It turned out that this was intended as a protest against an effort by the university to force students to vote, with the attendant threat to cancel the monthly stipends of those who did not. This effort to coerce backfired, and in one sense revealed the students' latent liberalism: They were convinced that they had the right not to vote, and could not accept an effort to coerce them to do so. Yet, their reaction only confirmed their own cynicism. Instead of collectively protesting against the university, they committed individual acts of defiance that undermined one of their few tools for advancing their own political power. And when the election delivered a victory to a rogue alliance of right-wing and left-wing crazies, they all agreed that this showed, once again, that democracy cannot work in Russia.

From Paternalism to Passivity

Even those students who think that democracy is sustainable in Russia over the next few years are unlikely to actively defend it. Most of my students thought that political action, whether by petitioning the local college administration or becoming involved in a national political campaign, would never accomplish anything. Thus, while they overwhelmingly opposed the war in Chechnya, they seemed to regard protesting against it in public to be inconceivable.

Indeed, there has yet to be a single student protest in all of Russia against the war in Chechnya, a war that has cost the lives of thousands of young Russian men as well as those of thousands of Chechens. Of course, American and West European students are similarly cynical and apathetic about politics, but this reflects the fact that they are not going to be drafted to fight in an unpopular war, and that they benefit from freedoms won in earlier struggles. Neither of these conditions applies to my Russian students; indeed, collective political action probably could improve their situation markedly--by, for example, changing laws on conscription and improving their horrid living conditions in the universities. Yet they do nothing.

The mentality of university students in Russia no doubt flows partly from the unremittingly paternalistic manner in which they are treated. If modernity is largely defined by the idea of individuals as autonomous moral agents with the capacity and the right to direct their own lives, then Russian higher education remains thoroughly unmodern. In some senses, the individual Russian student does not even exist. At the beginning of his college career, each student is placed in a group of about ten to fifteen students from his major, with whom he will travel through almost all his classes. Individual students never choose their classes; rather, the group as a whole is assigned to particular courses by university administrators. Locked into an arcane and unfathomable system of scheduling, students are expected to show up docilely. All important decisions about their courses and program of study are made for them, not by them. In practice, this means that students are sent in their little groups to take courses in physical education and military training (or, as in my case, Western political science) whether they like it or not. The idea of "electives" is utterly foreign to all concerned.

The amount of ritualized deference and hierarchy in the university is also extreme. When a professor enters a lecture hall, all students are expected to stand at attention until the professor tells them to be seated. Professors reprimand students for sitting on the tops of their desks, for talking too loudly in the hallway, and for dressing improperly. Once, when the location of my lecture was changed at the last minute, I was instructed by another professor not to go into the hallway to look for any lost students. "Professors must never look for the students; only the students can look for the professors", I was firmly told. The result was that I was abandoned in a large lecture hall, replete with huge stage curtains decorated with hundreds of hammer-and-sickle designs, gamely waiting for my students to finally show up. The lecture was ultimately canceled and rescheduled for the following week.

Given such attitudes, it is hardly surprising that the university lacks anything but the most rudimentary forms of "civil society." While most Western colleges and universities present a buzzing atmosphere of energy and excitement, Russian universities are boring places. There are few public lectures, evening film showings, musical programs or plays, or even sporting events. There is no student government, no student association, little independent student activity at all. There are school newspapers but they are edited and controlled by the school administration, with only a few articles written by students. In short, the student population is an unstructured mass without intermediary associations, and is completely incapable of expressing its interests through collective action. Not surprisingly, students are regularly victimized--through sudden changes in their tuition or the size of their stipends, inane rules and requirements, and both petty and humiliating treatment by the administration--without even the most minuscule student protest. (The contrast with Latin American university students, who toil in similarly underdeveloped countries, is particularly stark.) All this suggests that Russian students are not about to take to the streets in defense of Russian democracy.

The Weak Pull of Nationalism

It is often suggested that substantial numbers of Russian youth are gravitating toward nasty forms of nationalism, as the crews of young men at Vladimir Zhirinovsky's rallies seem to imply. But in my experience, the only kind of nationalism that appeals to most students is a fairly inclusive, civic variety, which seeks to preserve Russia's cultural heritage and advance its economy and national security--what in other places might simply be called a form of generalized patriotism. Students have no trouble distinguishing between "negative nationalists", who "try to unleash wars and deepen conflicts", and "positive nationalists" who just want "to keep and develop their language, traditions, culture, and history." Relatedly, my students showed no interest in reincorporating the Ukraine or the other former Soviet republics into Russian control, or in launching campaigns to rescue Russian minorities in the newly independent states. Revanchist nationalism is simply not an option; as one student put it: "It's a great problem for our country that nationalism has taken a cruel form and very often degenerates into real fascism. We should get rid of this kind of nationalism."

Skepticism toward nationalism may be a benign legacy of a communist upbringing, but it also exposes the confused nature of students' sense of national identity. "Now Russia doesn't have any national idea at all. After the crash of the Soviet regime, there are not any clear goals for the Russian nation", one student lamented. Growing up in the Soviet Union meant joining the Young Pioneers and learning about the heroic leaders of the October Revolution, whose sublime qualities they were expected to emulate. The Russian state today cannot draw from this reservoir of loyalties and emotions, and the result is a vacuum of evocative symbols; there are no heroic leaders, images, songs, or literature available. Students are wont to be jealous of American patriotism. Americans love to wave their flag, they note, but in Russia, the flag is only a few years old and no one really knows what it means. The paucity of heroes was well-illustrated by the reaction to the recent murder of television personality Vladislav Listev--the closest thing to a hero that many students had.

For all their fatalism and political passivity, student's criticism of Russian culture has its limits. If they sometimes feel like doomed members of a dying race (some even compare their fate to that of the American Indians, a comparison that recent demographics suggest might not be entirely absurd), they can still be defiantly proud, filled with the conviction that Russia will return to greatness. Thus, they alternate between harsh criticism of Russian inadequacy and the glorification of distinctive Russian virtues. At times, they fall back on the traditional Russian distinctions between West and East, long seared into the national mythology. The temptation is to argue that despite poverty and backwardness, the Russian soul is not only different, but superior. The shallow and individualistic West, oriented only around material consumption, lacks depth compared to Russia. One only needs to see the awful American movies, the noxious stew of violence and meaningless sex, to understand that the Americans have no authentic deep culture--and it doesn't help that Chuck Norris films and similar "action" movies are the main foreign fare shown in Russian theaters and on television.

Some students argued further that the greatest mistake Russia could make would be to try to mix American and Russian cultures. These are separate, incommensurable paradigms, and to mix them would only give rise to a diabolical mix of problems, with organized crime foremost among them. "I am afraid we are getting the worst possible mix of the Russian and American way of thinking", said one student. "More people nowadays consider that to be rich is the most important thing, no matter how you managed to get rich. Even a crime is all right as a means to get money. And the worst thing is that most of our high-ranking officials, our ministers, [and] deputies possess the same way of thinking." Another student commented: "Now we live somewhere in between communism and capitalism, but the situation around us seems more like anarchy." Perhaps the most common refrain of all is this: "Nowadays the criminal economy has embraced all spheres of activity, as organized crime and shadow businesses reign in the country. This is the legacy which was left by communism. There is crime almost everywhere. . . ."

Few students really buy the full nationalist line about what ails Russia. When I asked one student to write an essay assessing the extent of democracy in contemporary Russia, he responded that I might as well ask how Americanized the country had become. For many, talk about democratization was really just an effort to force Russia to be more like America, or more dangerously, to saddle Russia with an inappropriate form of government that would keep it weak forever. Russia was, to him, a much older, more Christian society with nothing to learn from an upstart America. The main goal of the Americans, in his view, was not to reform Russia but to transform it into a supine colony providing precious and irreplaceable raw materials in return for junk food and junk tv. The most confident of the young nationalists argued that America actually wanted to keep Russia down because it was afraid that Russia would soon become a major economic competitor, as had Japan and Germany after their respective defeats a half century ago.

But, to repeat, Russian nationalism didn't seem to have very deep roots among my students, a fact that clearly reflects its history as a predominantly illiterate peasant-populated multinational empire with a diverse mix of identities. When I told one student about my discomfort with handing out applications for a nato-sponsored student conference, which included a free trip to Brussels and a tour of nato headquarters, she agreed that such activities might appear compromising for an academic organization working in Russia, and were probably propagandistic in character. But her very next question was: "How can I get to go?" The West was far more likely to be viewed as an almost magical source of great treasures and entertainment than as a threat to any unique Russian identity.

For many it is religion rather than nationalism that provides a new source of psychic gratification. For some it is a rekindling of interest in Russian Orthodoxy, but many students are fans of the lively Protestant churches, which, they think, speak more to their needs than the traditional hierarchy of Russian Orthodoxy (and which are just plain more fun). More disturbing to tradition-minded Russians is the popularity of the late L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology and the ever persistent "Unification" Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. At times, it almost seemed as if the old Russian penchant for skipping stages of social development was at work once again; just as Russia had tried to skip directly from absolutist monarchy to socialism, so now many Russians seem intent on skipping from communist tyranny to a New Age California metaphysics, bypassing liberal Enlightenment rationality altogether.

Toward a New Bourgeoisie?

Despite their Russian pride, most students do believe that the West, and America in particular, offers new beliefs and practices that would make Russia a richer and freer nation. Whatever their views of democracy, there is no question about their attitudes toward a market economy. They couch their critique of communism in terms that would warm the hearts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher--two much admired figures. "First of all we should change this attitude toward wealth inside people's brains. We are depraved by seventy years of a communist regime when wealth was somehow the synonym of crime, and when you could live in rather good conditions and get a rather good salary without doing much work." Because of communism, another student concluded, "We forgot how to be responsible for our job, village, city, country. Too long everything in the country used to be the 'people's'--everybody's, which meant nobody's." Due to skewed incentives, people had forgotten how to work:

Up to the present day, some people are inclined to believe that all they are supposed to do is to come to their office in order to chat for a while with a friend, then to drink a cup of tea, then to smoke a cigarette, then to run through nearby stores to buy something for dinner, then to play a computer game if the office is computerized, and in short breaks between all those things to look through some papers absent-mindedly, only to put them off until tomorrow. And they think it only fair that they should be paid for it.

Moreover, students recognize that those who do work hard must face the inevitable resentment of their peers:

It is hard for our people to understand that when somebody works for himself, tries to grow rich, he makes his country rich this way. For example, our people are very fond of discussing how much this or that big guy has got, meaning stolen. 'Where did he get that money for such an expensive car (or house)?', they ask, hinting at some criminal sources. And the same people won't even hesitate about pilfering a bag of cement from the factory they work at or selling gas out of their employer's car.

Such comments reflect the wisdom of a generation that has traveled far from the allure of nineteenth-century nihilism and revolution. They are deeply disillusioned and profoundly skeptical of total political revolution and grand economic experimentation. Their concerns now are far more prosaic; they do not want to be avant-garde intellectuals or budding social scientists, but businessmen and professionals. Even while at the university, the more adventuresome students miss class because they go on business trips to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, where they purchase toiletries, candies, or consumer electronics in bulk to sell on the streets of Krasnodar. Such activity reflects the trading, and more broadly entrepreneurial, spirit that has been unleashed among the young, many of whom are now opening their own kiosks and forging their own distribution links and, inevitably, reaching their own terms with the local mafia.

One effect of this re-routing of energies away from the political realm is that the Russian political system today is far from "overloaded" with demands from a highly activated society, as has often seemed the case in the West or in Latin America. Students are not protesting, rioting, burning busses or draft cards, or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. Not that they respect the government or believe that it serves their interests. But they are finding their own way, keeping their heads low, selling Snickers bars down on the corner, and making plans to get ahead.

They lack all utopian ambition, my Russian students, but, given past history, it is hard to conclude that this is such a bad thing. And while Russian student life provides little reassurance about the health or even existence of an autonomous civil society in Russia, the prodigious entrepreneurial energies afoot constitute the central political legacy of the current student generation. It is in the consolidation of a new property-owning class of young people that there may well be laid a more solid and lasting basis for an autonomous Russian civil society than has ever existed before. And, in comparison to the legacy left by their nineteenth-century forebears, this one would be far from a shameful one, especially for a confused but realistic generation, cast adrift from all stable moorings.

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