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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cynics, Pragmatics Lead New Russia Into 2000

Anatoly Chubais, Alexander Lukashenko, Yegor Gaidar, Alexander Shokhin -- this is a strange list of names. What could the dictator president of Belarus, Lukashenko, and the liberal leader of Russia's Democratic Choice, Gaidar, possibly have in common? Only their age: Both were born in the '50s. And today they and others of the same age are laying claim to a prominent role not only in politics, but in business and culture. Their ideas are becoming more and more widespread, and it is precisely such people who will lead Russia into the 21st century.

Russian love to think in categories of generations. But if in the United States, for example, groups such as the lost generation or the jazz age generation involved a rather narrow circle of writers and artists, then in Russia, generations include thousands and millions of people. For instance, there is the generation of the October Revolution, the war generation and the shestidesyatniki, or '60s generation.

The shestidesyatniki -- who until quite recently were called the "children of the 20th [Communist] Party Congress," which began the period of de-Stalinization -- continue to be the subject of many arguments. These people combined a faith in socialism with a human face. They had a taste of freedom and did not want a return to the gulag. The few who demanded more radical changes sooner or later became dissidents. It is not surprising that it was the shestidesyatniki who became the ideologists for former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost. But it was also to be expected that, after the failed putsch of August 1991, many of the shestidesyatniki turned out to be not up to the pragmatic tasks new Russia now faced. Instead, people born in the '50s took the lead.

In a recent interview in the weekly Obshchaya Gazeta, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, 60, accused 40-year-olds of lacking patience and tending toward radicalism: Gaidar caused prices to "collapse"; the head of the presidential administration, Chubais, "by steel and blood" carried out privatization; and now Nemtsov has challenged the natural monopolies. At the same time, Luzhkov refuted the fairly common accusation against these 40-somethings that they are hypocritical. In his view, hypocrisy is an individual and not a generational trait. In my view, the mayor is mistaken.

Forty-year-olds are the first truly "unchastened" generation, which did not go through the mass struggles that were instigated by Lenin and Stalin. Unlike their parents, they came into this world breathing a different air -- the air of freedom, or at least relative freedom. The people coming to power today have lived rather happy lives. (I intentionally leave out dissidents who made different choices in life, and have not come to power.) At the end of the '70s, Chubais was the head of a popular circle of economists who contemplated possible reforms in the U.S.S.R, but whose activities did not bring on repression from the KGB.

At the beginning of perestroika, Gaidar was a member of the editorial board of Pravda. Other such people of this age group include Shokhin, now head of the pro-government State Duma faction, Our Home Is Russia.

Their relation to the communist system reminds me of the relation between the inhabitants of the small town in which I grew up and the town crazy who went by the nickname of Happy Gertrude. This old woman wandered the streets from morning until night, sometimes breaking into a dance or singing something. In general, she was harmless. But she sometimes took leave of her senses and would spit at passers-by. Therefore, people tried to stay as far away from her as possible, just in case. The communist system for me and people of my age was a Happy Gertrude.

The shestidesyatniki were bound by fear before the system and fraternal feelings from having fought in the trenches. At best, they felt themselves to be cogs in an imperial machine and melded completely into the plastic mass of the "Soviet people." The people were a continent.

Today's 40-year-olds are islands in the ocean. Every person for himself. When they hear the famous song of Bulat Okudzhava, "Let's take each other, friends, by the hand, so as not to fall into solitude," which brings tears to the eyes of shestidesyatniki, the 40-year-olds do not want or even know how to take each other by the hand. They relate to such "romanticism" with irony.

People who were born in the '50s remember well the dismay of their parents who, thanks to Nikita Khrushchev, were deprived of the main hero of the country: Stalin. This was a kind of revolution that was lived through with difficulty by the older generation, for whom Stalinism was not only misfortune and grief, but a religion and a way of life. For they did not know any other life. Their children grew up in an era of anecdotes and of overthrowing all kinds of authority, particularly political authority. Both Khrushchev and Brezhnev were ridiculed. What the 40-year-olds breathed was an atmosphere of total cynicism. In the '70s and '80s, only a clinical idiot could speak about building communism.

Therefore, Luzhkov simply did not choose his words well: It may well have been difficult for him to accuse the young reformers of hypocrisy (although how else can one characterize cohabiting with a system that is disdained?), but he should at least have charged them with cynicism.

The 40-year-olds are probably rightly taken to task for adopting the Western economic models too uncritically, not considering Russia's particular conditions and carrying out radical reforms too quickly. The critics, however, have on the whole never had any practical experience in carrying out reform. But what Gaidar and Chubais, along with President Boris Yeltsin, have managed to achieve is unprecedented in Russian history. Russia is no longer the totalitarian state it once was just five or six years ago. Moreover, there are more and more people in the country who are taking their own initiatives and not waiting for the kindness of the authorities. We are witnessing the birth of a normal civil society along liberal lines, with specific Russian traits.

Last year, the leftist press came down on Chubais, who had declared a huge income by Russian standards and had subsequently paid a large sum in taxes. The communist press in particular demanded that "everything be taken away from these bourgeois." To put it mildly, I am not a rich person. But I ask myself, would I want to take anything away from anyone? No, I would not. I would like, however, to earn no less than Chubais. I would like to earn money, not breaking any laws, and spit on the tradition of poverty and the leveling Soviet psychology. In this sense, I am a typical 40-year-old, who has learned to say "I" and tries not to abuse the pronoun "we."

Yury Buida is a staff writer for Znamya and Novoye Vremya. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.