"To Live Well, to Live at Ease": Reflections on Life by Post-Soviet Russian Teenagers

Article excerpt

Russia, once the dominant republic in the 70-year-old Soviet Union, has become an independent nation with a freely elected president and parliament. This transformation, beginning with Mikhail Gorbachev's innovative programs of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) and followed by the post-Soviet leadership of Boris Yeltsin, has not come easily. Efforts during the past ten years to reshape and revitalize Russia's economy have been erratic and not altogether successful.

Russian society continues to struggle with this transformation. Some have lauded the ensuing changes (see Zaslavskaya, 1990; Cohen, 1989), but others have decried them (see Dunlop, 1993), going so far as to question whether the fragmentation of the Soviet Union and its abandonment of Communism was the best course. Further, observers at first greeted the breakup of the Soviet Union with great enthusiasm (see Taubman & Taubman, 1989; Hosking, 1990; White, 1992), but the focus has since shifted to Russia's economic inefficiency and political instability (Goldman, 1991; Lapidus, 1995; Lowenhardt, 1995). No matter how Russia's new pro-democracy course is perceived, the country has unquestionably experienced sweeping political change, economic upheaval, liberalization of the media, and dramatic developments regarding its global status.

The only ones, so it seems, who do not characterize their experiences in the new Russia in terms of change are teenagers - so I discovered to my surprise when interviewing 16-year-olds during my visit from September 1995 to February 1996. The conventional wisdom (gleaned from reports in the media, academic articles, and the accounts of immigrants and colleagues) was that Russia's shaky economy was on the brink of collapse and that a civil war could erupt at any moment, yet Russian teenagers spoke about the consistency and continuity in their lives. This was all the more puzzling given the fact that virtually all psychosocial theories about adolescence describe it as a volatile phase of life, full of choices, changes, and identity exploration (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984; Modell & Goodman, 1990; Harter, 1990; Erikson, 1963, 1968). I had expected Russian teenagers to think of themselves in these terms and to describe their lives accordingly. Instead, even when they spoke of their hopes and plans for the future, they sounded convinced that their paths were predetermined. While usually ending their narratives on an optimistic note, hoping "to live well, live at ease," few linked their individual lives to the societal convulsions around them or acknowledged the choices and dilemmas they would face in post-Soviet Russia. This perplexing finding is explored here.

BACKGROUND

Ever since the late 1980s, when Gorbachev began discussing his plans to restructure the Soviet Union, I became curious about the impact that sociopolitical change in Russia would have on young people and the role they would play. I was optimistic about perestroika and hoped, along with Russian liberals and most Western commentators, that it would instigate "the second socialist revolution" (Zaslavskaya, 1990), reforming the U.S.S.R. and reinspiring its people, especially the younger generations.

During the heyday of perestroika, it certainly seemed that calls to overcome the "psychology of social inertia" (Kon, 1989) and rally "the enthusiasm and energy of young people" (Zaslavskaya, 1990) were being heeded. Frisby (1989) observed the creation of informal youth associations. In 1989, Adelman (1992, p. xii) noted that "students actively were contemplating the changes going on around them, had become engaged in reading and seeking new information, and were reassessing their relationships with adults, trying to form opinions independently of them." By the end of 1990, students throughout Russia had responded to the new pluralistic atmosphere by refusing to wear their state-mandated Pioneer ties. …