National Geographic : 2016 Dec
the putin generation 85 experience,” wrote Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015. “It’s like they’re from different planets.” The Soviet Union drowned in a surge of opti- mism. Many believed Russia would quickly be- come a flourishing, Western-style democracy. But the optimism of 1991 dissipated in a decade of often depressing contradictions. With the end of the planned economy came untold riches or entry into a new middle class for some; for others it was a sudden plunge into poverty. Previously unavail- able goods flooded store shelves, while the money to buy them periodically lost its value. Crime, especially in commerce, skyrocketed. Pol- itics came out into the open, but many Russians came to see it as a dirty business. Russians struggled to adjust to this foreign reality. It was a time of unprecedented free- dom, but many found it deep- ly disorienting. “When these [Western] values encountered reality and people saw that changes came too slowly, these values receded into the background,” says Natal- ia Zorkaya, a sociologist with the Levada Center, an independent polling organization in Moscow. Instead, she says, the younger generations are adopting “the pillars of Soviet society.” Sasha, Alexander, Stepan, and their cohort do live on a planet different from the one their parents and grandparents live on, yet they are in some ways becoming even more Soviet. It’s a strange thing: These young men and women know little of the privations, habits, and cruelty of Soviet life. The Putin generation doesn’t carry this wound. Their desire for staid normalcy— intact families, reliable, if unsatisfying, jobs—is their response to what they lacked in the Nineties and found in the Putin era. Yet they are profoundly insecure. Sixty-five per- cent of Russians between ages 18 and 24—that is, the first generation born after the Soviet breakup— plan their lives no more than a year or two ahead, according to the Levada Center. “It’s a very egotistical generation,” Zorkaya says, but adds, “It’s a very fragile generation.” They are also po- litically inert: Most don’t know about news events the state doesn’t want them to know about, and 83 percent say they have not participated in any kind of political or civil society activity. liZa meetS me in the glittering white lobby of one of the many glass towers—some blue spirals, some coppery shards—that make up Moscow City, a financial center that looks like a cross between London and Shanghai. I follow her through tunnels linking the towers underground with cafés, shops, and an exhibit with paintings of Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. We order lunch, and Liza, a stylish young woman with long, curled blond hair, dimples, and an ex- pensive watch, tells me her story as she slurps her borscht. She asks me not to use her last name be- cause she doesn’t want to upset her parents. She was born in Blagoveshchensk, in the Rus- sian Far East, in 1992. A year before, her father, a history teacher, had been out in the streets of Moscow, cheering the arrival of democracy. But on returning home after the Soviet Union’s de- mise, he was forced to find other ways to support the family. He began crossing the border into China and carrying back anything from clothes to appliances for resale in Russia. “I remember him coming home with money sewn into his shirt so that he wouldn’t get robbed,” Liza tells me. She’s a corporate lawyer at a large Western firm. It’s fine, but it’s not what she wanted to do. The Putin generation wants intact families and reliable, if unsatisfying, jobs. It associates the Soviet Union with longed-for stability.