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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Freedom of Choice Tyrannizes My Generation

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"You don't have any meat, right?" asks a man on entering a grocery store. "What we don't have is cheese," the shop assistant replies. "It's the other department that doesn't have any meat." This is the punch line of an old Soviet joke.

I very much doubt that my 12-year-old sister would understand this once-popular anecdote. And why should she, after all? Not long ago, when I sent her to a food store to get some cereal for breakfast, she returned half an hour late because the poor girl could not decide which of the 30 or so brands she really wanted.

When I was a little bit younger than my sister is today, I also did grocery shopping on occasions. However, my experience was quite different. I remember coming home from school one afternoon and seeing a huge line in front of a food store, which was very eloquently and originally named Moloko, or Milk. I was a girl of sound mind and understanding. I right away figured out that if there was a crowd of people inside and outside the store, then there was something to "get" there. Not to buy, not to purchase, but to "get" -- a verb that was widely used in Soviet times.

It transpired that milk was just about the scarcest product available in the Milk shop. So I stood in a long milk line, with 50 or so people ahead of me, another 50 odd people behind me, and was very proud of myself, imagining how amazed my family would be if I returned home with some milk. I didn't care which brand it was. In fact, the idea that milk could come in several brands was completely alien to me. The stark reality was a simple choice between milk or no milk.

I must admit that this story doesn't end as gloriously as it begins. I was only 10 years old, the line seemed to go on forever, the people were frustrated and rude in their quest to get hold of some milk, the shop was dirty and stuffy, and the warm weather outside was inviting me to go home and play. And so I did.

Milk or no milk? Oh well. Forget it, no milk. Some day I will recount this story to my sister, but I suspect she will just dismiss it as another weird old Soviet story.

Of course, now I enjoy the new way of shopping. Just stand in front of a shop window and take your pick. (Once you've made your selection, it only comes down to money.) Every now and then, however, I run into a store that is faintly redolent of the old times due to the odor emanating from vegetables that are somewhat past their sell-by date, to the rude manner of the shop assistant, or due to the poverty of the selection of goods.

At such moments my mind teems with emotions, I become very proud of the changes our country has achieved and happy about all the new opportunities we now possess. We don't need to run around constantly in pursuit of staple products and everyday commodities. We no longer need to grab and hold on to the first pair of shoes that catches our eyes. We can stop. And pause. And make our choice.

By contrast, whenever my parents tell me about their youth, they always stress that their generation was completely deprived of the right and the opportunity to choose. Whether it was going to a grocery store and being happy to find that there was at least one kind of cheese, or showing up at a polling station to vote, although the outcome was known well in advance, making choices was simply not a part of their lives.

Indeed, today when the shops are all filled with an exuberant variety of goods and services, when all our borders are open and travel agencies are to be found on every corner, I can hardly remember what things were like before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as it turns out, these new opportunities and choices that we have gained are not always as enjoyable and easy as picking out your favorite cereal.

When our parents were young, whatever profession they decided to pursue in life, whatever career they dreamed of, their choice was limited to a maximum of two or three good universities and then a couple of places to work after graduation, not to mention the joy of acquiring a small apartment of their own and living there until the end of their days.

They were doomed, it first seemed to me. They were stuck in the places where they lived, in the schools they attended and in the institutes where they worked. But what had always escaped me was that to some degree they were actually fortunate to be "stuck" with their friends and relatives in their natural habitat. They were condemned, so to speak, not to face the choice of leaving everybody and everything they loved and cherished so much in pursuit of something unknown, something seemingly greater. And for that reason their fate was not to experience the fear of having made the wrong decision or of having chosen the wrong life path.

Today, in contrast to our parents, we have a whole sea of opportunities before us. For one thing, we can apply to a great many universities at home and abroad for both undergraduate and graduate programs. Moreover, practically every student magazine advertises various work-and-study-abroad programs, not to mention summer youth camps.

"What a great achievement it is to have all these horizons and opportunities open before us," I tell myself. Sure, it's quite a leap that our country has made it from no cheese in grocery stores and closed borders to this. However, what I also have come to realize is that with the freedom of choice that we have acquired, there has come a tremendous burden and responsibility of actually making choices.

With all the universities, firms and organizations scattered around the world that are now open for us to conquer, our decisions regarding what to do and where to go tomorrow become much harder and more complicated because each decision can drastically change our lives, if not turn them upside down.

Soon the time will come for me to take some life-determining decisions. I must admit that while realizing how little choice my parents had, I still envy them to a certain extent. When they stood at the crossroads of their life, the decisions they had to make were so much easier. Whereas now, when the whole world has opened up for us and there is a myriad of directions we can go in, choices become frustrating and painful.

Now that our country has finally broadened its horizons, we should definitely take advantage of what life has to offer. However, as ironic as it may seem, the freedoms that our parents could not have imagined even in their wildest dreams sometimes seem to be stumbling blocks. And this is something that my generation still has to come to terms with.

Maria Danilova is a fourth-year student at Moscow State University.