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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: New Times Bring Less Respect for Russia's Old




From childhood it was drummed into us that old people should be respected. This was expressed, in particular, when you took public transportation where seats had to be given up to older people. Such courtesy was very useful given that the buses and trolleys were always packed full, and standing was intolerable. You would often ride the trolley home from school and take a seat with your heavy bookcase. And just as you sat down, an old man would be standing, shaking his finger and looking at you reproachfully. You had to get up. But dirty looks were not all you would get. "Have you settled in? Are you tired? Overworked? Well, when I was your age ..." we would be told. The antipathy was mutual. The old did not like the young and the young felt the same about the old. "Old fool (goat, sod)" or "old hag (witch, harridan)." The young thought in these -- and worse -- terms, and sometimes even called old people by them.


In the '70s not only was there the usual generational conflict between old and young but a genuine abyss. There were many so-called Stalinist pensioners at the time -- people who had experienced the war and had either been imprisoned or were among those who sent others to prison. (Sometimes they were both.) Many had led very hard lives. As for the young, they had not fought in a war or lived under Stalin. They benefitted from the sacrifices that had been made by the older generation. In the '70s the government had begun to provide compensation to the elderly, but often in laughable forms. During Stalinist times, people were not paid their wages. Instead, they were given government bonds that the authorities promised would be redeemed in the distant bright future. Under General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, when these bonds were all but forgotten, the state began to pay off its debt. But the wages that had been deducted from the older generation, as a rule, went to others given that many did not survive to cash in on the bonds.


At the end of the '60s and start of the '70s people began to live better. But the young did not appreciate this. They felt frustrated. It seemed to them that the system was unfair to them. The young compared their lives not to the destructive past but to the contemporary West. This made the older generation furious.


There were old men in power. The average age of a Politburo member was 70. Their claim to power was rooted in the past. In the official announcements on the nomination of high officials, special emphasis was put on a rich life experience. The key ideological word was stability, which could bring no joy to the young. After 1964 the party leaders were convinced that their positions were for life.When Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed, everyone gave out a sigh of relief. For the first time in many years, a "young man" assumed the position of general secretary. Gorbachev was 54 years old.


In one way or another, we were all under the sway of old people.


Any specialist under 40 was considered "young." With rare exceptions, positions of leadership were occupied by elderly people. The young resented the old for taking up jobs and not allowing younger colleagues to advance. Many older people continued to work even after retirement age.


Of course, this way of thinking was based on the existing values of Russian society, by which old age was associated with wisdom. One popular singer of the so-called period of stagnation sang a song that went: "My years are my wealth."


On one hand, old people scolded the young for having all their needs provided for. On the other hand, they themselves raised their children this way. When young people got married, the parents (and grandparents) not only put on the wedding and gave presents but, depending on their means, bought the newlyweds golden rings, dishes, sometimes furniture, refrigerators and so on. The young "did not have anything." They "needed to be helped." There was no question of financial independence. Parents "helped" their adult children out with money for a very long time. There was even an anecdote that went: "What is a scoundrel? Answer: Someone who does not support their children until retirement age."


Society was based on the values of the older generation. We were constantly taught that the old were more important than the young. Moreover, very strict order was maintained in the way people behaved and looked. One young bride criticized her mother-in-law for going to the pool rather than taking care of her grandchild. Young people who looked old-fashioned aroused sympathy or ridicule. There was nothing more insulting for a woman than to be called an "old maid." (She could be around 26 years old, but according to Russian tradition, it was considered time for her to get married.)


In America, it's the other way around. There is a cult of youth. Old people try to preserve the way of life and external appearance of the young. Americans spend an incredible amount of time working out in order to "stay fit." There isn't even an adequate equivalent in Russian to express such an idea.


In Soviet times people thought that the old were more respected in the West than here. This is true, but people in the West are in general more polite toward everyone. Therefore, when I first visited Spain, I expected to come across incredible respect for elders. To my surprise, this was not the case. For example, no one ceded his place to elderly people on public transportation. I felt uncomfortable sitting in the bus when an elderly woman was standing nearby. When I gave up my seat, the woman was terribly surprised and very grateful.


In Russia it was always forbidden to play loud music because it prevented older people from resting. Such things were not even considered there.


It is understandable that everything associated with youth is valued in Western society. The young are among the most active consumers. Companies count on them.


Despite all the everyday conveniences that elderly Western people enjoy, it seems to me that age does not evoke any particular respect there. It sometimes appears that the old are simply ignored.


After 1991 everything changed in Russia. Contemporary mass culture is opposed to the culture of the Brezhnev period. When people want to discredit the communists, they say that it is a party of old people. Reformers, on the contrary, are "young." And such reformers are always emphasizing that they are creating a society that is meant for a new generation. In this sense, Russia is becoming like the West.


The generation that was young at the start of the '80s gladly trampled on the values of the old and destroyed the traditional way of life. It will be interesting to see what will happen with us when we grow old.


Irina Glushchenko is a theater critic for Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Dom Atkyora. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.