Russia's new pragmatists


By Boris Kagarlitsky

Any history of the ideologues of "Belovezhskaya* Russia" would have to be like an account of the 40 years Moses is supposed to have spent wandering in the desert. From the whole of the Old Testament, it seems, these people could remember only this passage.

Everything that is disgraceful about the new epoch is ascribed as a matter of course to the "accursed past", which is now "communist" and "Soviet", while all the unrealisable hopes and illusory achievements of the last few years are assigned to the department of the "shining future". And once the talk has turned to the shining future, this future must include a "new man" and "new woman", uncorrupted by the old ways.

Poor Moses! The biblical legend has become necessary only in order to repackage and resell to the public an old schema from the textbooks of "historical materialism".

Meanwhile, at the same time as the ideologues are promising to lead the new generation of "non-Soviet" Russian citizens into the hot-houses of capitalism, this generation is speaking for itself more and more insistently.

These people are in fact the "children of reform". Many of them were never in the Komsomol [Communist Party's youth section], and some were never even Pioneers. Perestroika began when the youngest of these people were 12 or 13 years old, and when the oldest were finishing school. The White House [Russian parliament] was bombarded when they had just reached the age of majority or had just embarked on their careers. In December 1993 they did not vote for the first time in their lives.

For these people, Stalin is as remote a historical figure as Alexander the Great or Ivan the Terrible. Brezhnev is a childhood memory, a folk-tale character like Ilya Muromets or Little Red Riding Hood. Liberalism is a tiresome official doctrine preached by cheerless bureaucrats and official propagandists. Marxism is a half-forbidden Western theory helping to explain why everything is so foul.

These people are young professionals with an excellent grasp of what they want. Competent, qualified, dynamic and uninhibited, they are thoroughly adapted to market conditions, never having seen any others. They have a "Western" style of behaviour, a good command of foreign languages.

The liberal ideologues might be expected to rejoice: here is the new generation of which they dreamt. Unfortunately, this generation has not accepted the values of the "new Russians", looking on these values with a mixture of contempt, revulsion and disbelief. Nor does this generation take the state institutions of "Belovezhskaya Russia" seriously. Meanwhile, talk of "free entrepreneurship" evokes cynical jokes from them at best.

The new generation are used to shops in which the shelves are full, piled with trashy goods at unaffordable prices. You can't fool people like this with stories of a "consumer heaven". Unlike their parents, who dreamt of lugging a few more imported goods into their homes, the young pragmatists are more inclined to think about professional self-affirmation.

The previous generation let itself be fooled by tales of Western prosperity. This prosperity was supposed to appear promptly as soon as the country introduced private property, securities exchanges and real estate speculation. Now millions of people look in bewilderment at the windows of expensive shops, while counting their own miserable pittances.

But if older people were duped, then their children and their younger brothers and sisters have learned a great deal. The new pragmatists know how to analyse events, and have already worked out that once we have become the periphery of the West, we will never break out of the vicious circle of backwardness and dependency. Meanwhile, European standards of comfort are not the highest value.

They are sufficiently realistic to have grasped that nothing good will be created on the basis of today's barbarian capitalism, and that the stories to the effect that we are building a "normal society" are opium for idiots.

The members of the generation of new pragmatists are profoundly hostile to the social order that is coming into being in Russia. They know that the triumphant "Russian market" is not leaving them with any hope of fully realising their knowledge and abilities. It is precisely because these people are so knowledgeable and able that they are unable to reconcile themselves to this situation.

These people have no wish to sit behind street stalls, to pilfer state property, to take bribes or "to fish in muddy waters". They want to work well on a Western level, to do what they like doing and to get results. They would like this work to bring them a respectable income and to give them prospects for growth. They want to be able to live in their own homes, without having to range the globe in search of work. In this sense they are patriotic, but the jingoism of the Slavophile opposition moves them only to bitter smiles.

These people are young journalists who have never worked in the party press, but who know from their own experience the value of a "freedom" that is limited by what the sponsors will tolerate. They are top-grade computer specialists who do not have to be told that policies which are destroying the country's scientific potential are also robbing them of a future. They are lawyers who are not content with working under conditions of official arbitrariness.

These young professionals need state programs of scientific and technological development; they understand that no private initiative is going to create for them the conditions in which they can succeed. They need free health care and education — not because they lack money, but for the reason that unlike the "new Russians", they are good at counting it.

Can it be said that people with a sense of their own worth have finally appeared in Russia? There are, at any rate, people who are conscious of their interests, and who will not allow themselves to be duped with impunity. At present there are very few such people, but their numbers are growing with every passing day. For the moment they are not very radical, but they are shifting steadily to the left.

The propagandists set out to frighten the population with talk of a "return to totalitarianism". Young professionals understand that there will not be a return to the 1970s, even though there is a good deal in the history of that period that present-day Russia badly needs to restore.

The new order in Russia is an abomination, and it is necessary to struggle against it. In understanding this, today's young Russian professionals are strikingly similar to their colleagues and contemporaries in New York, Mexico City, Prague and Delhi. They have common interests and a common dislike for political intriguers, bureaucrats and "bourgeois".

For Russia, people of this type are something quite new, but their counterparts have existed for a considerable time in Latin America. Under Western influence, and as a result of capitalist restoration in society, a new generation of Latin American professionals, as early as the 1950s, issued a challenge to the West and to the prevailing social order. It was not downtrodden proletarians who tried to storm the Moncada Barracks in Cuba. These were young representatives of the middle class, convinced that without revolution there would not be modernisation.

The generation of new professionals in Russia in the 1990s is pragmatically minded. These people are not idealists, and as a result they do not have their own ideology and cannot work it out for themselves. Some of these people even describe themselves as a "lost generation". They are unwilling to identify themselves with any of the forces active in society. But at the same time, they are moving to the left. Their problem, and that of Russian society as a whole, is that there is no mass political movement in the country able to pose a real alternative. Or at least, not yet.

This is not yet a generation of revolutionaries, but they are already potential cadres for future radical movements. The young pragmatists know that they will never become members of a prosperous bourgeoisie. But they could yet become commissars, since it is in conditions of radical change that their energies, talents and knowledge will be required. If events unfold along these lines, it will be the young generation of professionals who inherit this historic role.

*Belovezhskaya Pushcha was the location where Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan met at the end of 1991 and cobbled together the agreement that dissolved the USSR.

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