In a weekly ТВЦ channel talk-show “100 вопросов к Взрослому” (“100 questions to an Adult”) in which children grill famous adults, the guest finally got to ask the young audience a question. “Who is your role model? Who do you think is the hero of our time?” asked Ksenia Sobchak. A boy raised his hand and volunteered the answer of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. A stunned Sobchak asked why. “He will not be forgotten by history,” the boy replied. Several other children raised their hands and offered what seemed to be an alternative: “I believe that we should not look upon anyone but ourselves.” “I should be my own role model.”
This public interaction between the representatives of two distinct generations—one socialized in the late Soviet era and another, in the chaotic 1990s—is telling. Though Sobchak was 25 years old, she did not anticipate such a hostile response from the children to the notion of a role model. She inadvertently found herself in the audience of Bazarovites. Ivan Turgenev’s character Evgenii Bazarov once said: “Всякий человек сам себя воспитать должен – ну хоть как я, например... А что касается до времени – отчего я от него зависеть буду? Пускай же лучше оно зависит от меня.” (Each individual must rear himself – well at least as I, for example… And in regard to the times – why should I be dependent on them? Better they depend on me.”
The desire not to be forgotten by history, as was voiced by the boy, strikingly anticipates Turgenev’s response to Bazarov in the conclusion of the novel:
Какое бы страстное, грешное, бунтующее сердце ни скрылось в могиле, цветы, растущие на ней, безмятежно глядят на нас своими невинными глазами: не об одном вечном спокойствии говорят нам они, о том великом спокойствии «равнодушной» природы; они говорят также о вечном примирении и о жизни бесконечной...
(What passionate, sinful, rebellious heart has disappeared in the grave, the flowers growing on it serenely look at us with their innocent eyes: not only about eternal calmness of the ‘indifferent’ nature do they speak; they also speak of the perpetual reconciliation and about the endless life…)
Comparing Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons with the conversation that took place between Sobchak and the members of the first post-Soviet generation demonstrates not only how history repeats itself. Generational conflict is indeed predictable, and very similar rebellious thoughts tend to occupy the young minds of very different times. Yet, today’s Russian youth does not so much reject its role models as much as faces a serious deficit of candidates to the post. The lack of individuals that could potentially embody the values and principles to which the young could strive does not speak as much of the shortage of people, as much as a shortage of real discourse over the values to be passed on to the next generation.
The collapse of the Soviet Union took with it the ideology that united all Soviet citizens. The Soviet ideology contained the values and principles that were passed on from one generation to the next through the process of socialization.
Today, anxiety over youth extremism has colored much of the public discourse over the role of the first post-Soviet generation in Russian society. The public policy of installing ‘patriotism’ into the young citizens reveals the misguided belief in it as a method for pacifying their rebellious minority and keeping the politically passive, but potentially volatile majority from engaging in extremist activity. ‘If you love your country, you will support what the adults in power are doing and stay away from the streets,’ is consequently the message sent to the youth. Yet the values embodied by those in power are ambiguous at best.
The time for public discourse in which the values of the new Russian citizen are identified and consolidated is running out, as the cohort whose early socialization took place in the 1990s is maturing into adulthood. Having these children become духless adults would be tragic for the Russian society because these individuals represent the first wave of freedom. It is they who will determine the flow of the subsequent waves.
Public discourse over the Constitution of the Russian Federation and not only its legal, but also its normative aspects could be a start. My recent study of 500 Russian university students found that only a fifth of the young Russians have read the existing constitution. Despite of this, roughly half of them consider it either partly or completely outdated, while less than one-third perceives it as capable of meeting the challenges of the present times.
The ‘new’ Russian children do not gather around the campfire to recite poetry about Lenin’s childhood. Nor do they secretly congregate to sing prohibited songs and discuss the forbidden ideas of human rights and democratic freedoms. Instead, they get together in tusovkas, identify with rapper angst, and find excessive alcohol consumption to be an indispensable topic of conversation. This is a big, and even unfair, generalization. Russia now is a nation with young individuals faced with many choices over what to do and to believe. But there is a serious lack of moral guidance and, consequently, unity in the Russian society. Neither universalizing patriotic nor Russian Orthodox religious education can substitute for instituting a ‘new’ Russian creed.
Those who are traditionally in charge of weaving the normative fabric of the Russian society – the intelligentsia – are too busy with their second and third jobs. Moreover, my recent study revealed that less than half of the university students consider themselves to be members of the intelligentsia. One-quarter of the students experiences either negative or ambiguous attitudes toward the intelligentsia. In other words, being a member of the intelligentsia is not very prestigious. The responsibility now rests on the third sector to raise alternatives to Zhirinovsky as a role model by initiating a serious public discourse about the new Russian creed.