The Post-Communist Generation

by James Petras

Z magazine, May 1998


The Soviet Union has transited from a repressive and authoritarian communist regime in which social welfare, full employment, and a secure old age predominated to a savage capitalism in which a small minority of Mafia business thugs, ax-communist bureaucrats, and new rich speculators have pillaged the economy leaving 60 percent of the population in poverty and the vast majority of pensioners penniless.

The dominant class and their acolytes in the mass media present the successful in the new society as role models to be imitated by the young: new multi-millionaire business executives surrounded by their bulky bodyguards signing business deals with Mafia bosses, the new owners of the privatized former public enterprises.

Most observers, apart from the public relations officers of the Western foreign relations department, would characterize Russia's transition to capitalism as catastrophic in terms of its economic performance and social consequences. To take only one example: life expectancy in Russia today is six years below what it was in the last years of the communist regime.

Cultural decline is no less striking than the socio-economic decay. Prostitution, gambling, and violent crime have skyrocketed-as have suicides, AIDS, and murder. Gambling casinos employ 400,000 workers, full-time and part-time prostitutes number in the millions, and the new rich employ a private army of close to a half a million security guards.

A rigorous study by one of Russia's most reputable scholars professor Bores Ruchkin, head of the Russian Institute of Youth's Research Center illuminates how the Russian transition to capitalism has impacted on the values and norms of the post-communist generation, those who have come of age during the transition. The survey questioned 3,839 people in three age groups; 17, 24, and 30.

Almost 50 percent of the sample believed it is acceptable to take what you want by force. No doubt President Yeltsin's bombing of the congress in 1991 to consolidate his power grab was an exemplary act, as are the ex-party elites grab of the lucrative oil and gas enterprises. Mafiaism has become a hegemonic ideology, seeping down from the top echelons of power to the new emerging generation. The newfound liberty praised by Western academics includes the freedom to mug your neighbor on your way up the social ladder.

The pervasive corruption that defines the nature of post-communist business and government dealing is also seen as normal by the new generation entering the market economy. The study found that over 50 percent of 17-year-olds saw nothing wrong with looking for a job where they stood a chance of being bribed. Among this group almost 20 percent stated they would vigorously pursue jobs that were susceptible to bribe taking. Given the level of corruption it is probably the case that most better paying jobs involve corruption. So the recognition of corruption by the new generation can be interpreted as part of reality. In terms of personal relations the Russian transition incorporates the worst features of Western commercial society. Over two-thirds-said they would marry for money and over one-fourth said they would agree to sex for pay.

The official line of post-communist society emphasizes the rhetoric free market and political democracy. On the practical level, the values that inform everyday life subordinate personal and intimate values to the crassness of the marketplace. Everything is for sale including adolescent sexploitation. Close to three-fifths said that money was the most important thing in life.

This generation has been described by Western pundits as the first to accept liberty as normal. The Russian professor who directed the study concluded: "Young people are better adapted to the conditions of a market economy. They don't want a return to the past."

The old arguments that all the evils of post-communist Russia are hangovers from the old Soviet period don't have a leg to stand on. This generation is of and by the post-communist period. The older group, age 30, may have become cynical as a result of the double discourse under the communist regime, but for the most part the norms of communist ideology at least put some constraints on the practice of pillage and corruption, while providing lifetime jobs and basic social services. The transition to capitalism has blown away these constraints and all the crude material cravings at the top of the hierarchy are now given full play. And imitated at least, in fantasy, at the bottom by the new generation.

The reality is, however, that only an infinite fraction of the new generation will become the commercial bankers, corporate executives, and Mafia bosses that most aspire to. The most they can realistically aspire to is becoming a security guard, a low-paid scientist, or one of the ten million small traders plying the streets and alleyways of the new Russian market economy.


James Petras is a writer and also teaches sociology at SUNY, Binghamton

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